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Coming Apart in the Hoosier State

Photo by Krzysztof Kowalik on Unsplash

American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears, by Farah Stockman (Random House, 432 pp., $28)

Farah Stockman’s new book, American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears, documents the closure and relocation of an Indianapolis Rexnord bearing plant to Mexico and Texas. Stockman, a New York Times reporter, was assigned to cover the Rexnord plant after then-candidate Trump tweeted about its pending closure and the scheduled relocation of a nearby Carrier plant to Mexico in 2016.

The story of the Rexnord plant is an all-too-familiar one. Link-Belt, the original firm that built the bearing plant, was a byword for quality. The plant’s unionized workers took tremendous pride in the quality of their bearings—even after years of underinvestment meant that they worked with outdated production equipment. The plant was eventually acquired by Rexnord, whose management adopted a strategy of quality reduction, followed by relocation to Mexico and Texas. Stockman describes how machines were packed up and shipped to Mexico and the plant’s workers suffered the indignity of training their replacements from south of the border.

The whole affair rightfully drew Trump’s ire and national attention to Indianapolis. But it merely forms the backdrop to Stockman’s human-centered story about the social costs of offshoring and deindustrialization.

American Made follows the lives of three laid-off Rexnord employees: Shannon Mulcahy, a white single mother caring for a schizophrenic son and a severely disabled granddaughter; Wally Hall, a Black man who had escaped a drug-dealing past and dreamed of opening his own barbecue joint; and John Feltner, a self-described “hillbilly” still rebuilding from a previous layoff that devastated his life and cost him his home. Their lives each reflect elements of the typical Hoosier today as well as Indianapolis’s thousands of economically marginal residents with little prospect for advancement to a secure middle-class life. (I will refer to them here by their first names as Stockman does.)

Shannon, Wally, and John had all suffered hard times long before the Rexnord closure. Shannon, a high school dropout from the working-class neighborhood of Mars Hill, had, according to Stockman, “overcome more sexual abuse, domestic violence, and gender-based workplace discrimination than anybody else I personally knew.” She appears to have gotten pregnant with her first child at an extremely early age. The granddaughter for whom she is the primary caregiver is severely and permanently disabled.

Wally took a wrong turn early in life and ended up as a drug dealer, growing and selling his own marijuana. He even did a nine-month stint in jail. Getting stuck with a huge bill for an appendectomy convinced him to look for real employment. He managed to get a job at Carrier, but lost it during his probationary period when a drug-sniffing dog found a joint in his car. He then got on at Rexnord and turned into a model churchgoing citizen with a heart of gold and became a charismatic presence at the plant. Coming from a family of entrepreneurs, with his grandfather, father, and uncle all owning businesses, he still had the desire to someday open his own barbecue joint.

John was from hardscrabble Appalachian coal mining stock. He had previously held a well-paying union job at Navistar before that plant closed and cost him and his family everything. He had a fierce sense of justice and a militant desire to fight for the working man that made him a union activist. Getting hired at Rexnord helped him rebuild his family’s life, but he was under no illusions about the trajectory the company was on.

As the lives of Shannon, Wally, and John attest, life was not perfect in Indianapolis before Rexnord closed. A growing regional population, downtown revitalization, and emerging tech startup cluster disguised the extent to which much of the economy remained fundamentally working class and distressed. The base of large, established manufacturers that had provided a solid middle-class life had been disappearing for decades. By 2016, decent-paying, union jobs like those at Rexnord—$25 an hour with full benefits and a pension—had disappeared from Indianapolis plant by plant, never to return: Western Electric, RCA, GM, Ford, Chrysler, Navistar, and others. The new normal for Indianapolis was lower-paying, less secure jobs in sectors like warehousing and tourism.

A job at Link-Belt, as the locals still call it, was a “chance of a lifetime” for someone trapped in such circumstances. Stockman notes that “everyone knew how good Link-Belt was to their employees.” The company even offered an alcohol treatment program and wouldn’t fire people without going through a multi-step process. But a job at the plant was not just a rare economic opportunity. For Shannon, Wally, and John it represented something more: the chance for redemption.

American Made excels at capturing glimpses of the instability and chaos of working-class America today—from dropping out of school and entering precarious employment, to the parade of partners and kids shuffled between homes, to chronic health issues and premature death. Shannon has one boyfriend who is physically abusive while another has an affair with a woman down the street. A stranger steals her beagle and trades it for drugs. Wally has a parade of girlfriends, never able to find a durable relationship. Robbed of economic security and social stability, these Americans sense a need to rely on, and sometimes grift from, peers and family just to get by. The sorts of actions that would represent a major breach of trust in middle-class America—like paying someone less than promised for a job, as someone did to Wally at a barbecue catering event—are simply an accepted part of life in this world.

The plant closure only compounds the instability of workers’ lives. It costs them more than their jobs and livelihoods. They suffer the indignity of having to train their replacements from Mexico. They struggle with health complications from stress and disruption. They struggle to recover the modest security that Rexnord afforded them.

United Steelworkers president Chuck Jones predicted that at least one worker would die as a result of the closure. But three did within just two years—including Wally. He first saw the closure as an opportunity to finally start his barbecue business, but it never fully took off before he passed away of a heart attack. Shannon benefited from the charity of wealthy strangers, who paid off her mortgage after reading Stockman’s articles about her for the New York Times. A year and a half after the plant closed, she found a job at another factory sandblasting parts for $19 an hour. That’s good pay for today’s low-end Indianapolis economy—though significantly less than Rexnord. Only John was able to regain his financial footing. He found a job paying $23 an hour but was fired after complaining about a transfer to a third shift. After a humiliating gauntlet at the state’s unemployment office, John eventually found a job as a maintenance man at a nearby hospital.

Stockman herself struggles to make sense of it all. Despite her background as a reporter in Africa, contact with the hard realities of contemporary American working-class life were something of a culture shock for her. She’s haunted by the lives of her subjects. She writes, for example, “Not a day has gone by since Wally’s death that I have not thought of him.” She wants to share the benefits of her world, like offering to take her subjects to the upscale restaurant Bluebeard that she’s eager to try, but she ultimately recognizes that it’s futile. They, more than she, realize that the world of gentrified America is a foreign country to them.

Stockman’s experience is emblematic of our yawning class divide. Scholars like Charles Murray and Robert Putnam have shown how America is “coming apart,” diverging into two societies: one for the top 20% who are flourishing, the other for the bottom 80% for whom stability is often elusive. The painful truth is that the experiences of Shannon, Wally, and John are not exceptional—they are the norm for a very large segment of our country. But because our two societies are increasingly segregated from each other, few of those at the top have direct personal experience of the reality experienced by those at the bottom.

To her credit, Stockman recognizes some of the failures of today’s elite policy consensus. She highlights the costs of free trade and immigration for blue-collar workers and acknowledges that her own class has benefited from these same policies—how, for instance, she benefits from her Mexican “au pair” on a “cultural exchange” program. She hints that education, the purported solution to help blue-collar workers advance, is a losing strategy. John gets an associate’s degree, for example, but sees no financial benefits from it. His daughter racks up $10,000 in student loan debt without graduating. Stockman demonstrates how upscale feminist activism has little relevance to working-class women, but she is also careful never to call for fundamental changes to the system.

American Made also highlights a key weakness in America’s conservative establishment. Progressives like Stockman have an interest in ethnographic reporting and institutional support to do it. But conservatives do virtually no ethnographic writing or field research or much primary research of any kind—despite the hundreds of millions of dollars spent each year on established think tanks and journalism. J. D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy is the exception that proves the rule. Movement conservatism is simply not interested enough in the lives of their own voters or the places they live and work to do a serious academic or journalistic investigation of working-class America in the style of Stockman. This is a grave weakness that will forever hobble right-of-center policymaking.

Consider how American Made might have benefited from a conservative perspective. Stockman dwells at length on aspects of race and gender but spends little more than a page on the importance of family structure. In fact, she attributes John’s ability to rebound from setbacks to white male privilege. But he is one of the rare characters in the book with an intact family. Job loss increases the risk of divorce for men, but when John’s layoff from Navistar bankrupts the family and costs them their house, his wife Nina stays with him. She did the same after Rexnord’s closure. Her decision to support him may have been decisive in keeping the family from the downward spiral all too many others fall into. With no ex-spouses or step-families to juggle, Nina and John dedicated their efforts and attention to their own situation, and, along with their children, were able to pitch in to pull through together. The stability of his marriage and family may better explain John’s resilience than his race or gender.

The challenges for the working class created by neoliberal economics are substantial, but the chaotic family instability resulting from the divorce and sexual revolutions have been a true disaster for the working class. Conservatives must take up the difficult task of analyzing and reporting the dissolution of both the factory and the family if we ever aspire to change the tragic dynamics documented so well by Stockman in American Made.

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Aaron Renn is a writer and consultant in Indianapolis.

@aaron_renn

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