What Killed the Blue-Collar Struggle for Social Justice

In 1998, Shannon Mulcahy’s boyfriend beat her up so badly that prosectors in Indiana decided to press charges. She hid in a closet rather than obey the subpoena to testify in court. How could she help convict the man who put a roof over her head? Over her son’s head? Eventually, she left him. Shannon, a white woman in her 20s, got the money and the confidence to strike out on her own from a job at a factory. She worked at a bearing plant in Indianapolis for 17 years, rising to become the first woman to operate the furnaces, one of the most dangerous and highly paid jobs on the factory floor.

I first met Shannon in 2017, shortly after her bosses announced that Rexnord, the bearing factory where she worked, was shutting down and moving to Mexico and Texas. I followed her for seven months as the plant closed down around her, watching her agonize about whether she should train her Mexican replacement or stand with her union and refuse. I also followed two of her co-workers: Wally, a Black bearing assembler who dreamed of opening his own barbecue business, and John, a white union representative who aspired to buy a house to replace the one he’d lost in a bankruptcy.

One of the biggest takeaways from the experience was that some of the most consequential battles in the fight for social justice took place on factory floors, not college campuses. For many Americans without a college degree, who make up two-thirds of adults in the country, the labor movement, the civil rights movement and the women’s liberation movement largely boiled down to one thing: access to good-paying factory jobs.

Shannon had experienced more abuse and workplace sexual harassment than anyone I knew. Yet, she hadn’t been drawn to #MeToo or the presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton. To Shannon, women’s liberation meant having a right to the same jobs men had in the factory. She signed her name on the bid sheet to become a heat-treat operator, even though no woman had ever lasted in that department before. Heat-treat operators were an elite group, like samurai warriors and Navy SEALs. They worked with explosive gases. The men who were supposed to train Shannon tried to get her fired instead. “Heat treat is not for a woman,” one said.

She persisted. Heat-treat operators earned $25 an hour, more money than she’d ever earned in her life. She wasn’t going to let men drive her away. She wasn’t above using her sexuality to her advantage. She flirted with the union president and wore revealing shirts into the heat-treat department. “Am I showing too much cleavage?” she’d ask. She paid particular attention to Stan Settles, a much older man who knew how to run every furnace. If his shirt came untucked while he was bending over, exposing the top of his butt, Shannon would issue a solemn warning: “Crack kills, Stan.”

In the end, Stan took her under his wing and taught her everything about the furnaces that there was to know. By the time I met Shannon, she was the veteran in charge of training new heat-treat operators. She took pride in the fact that she didn’t depend on a man — even, and perhaps especially, Uncle Sam.

Shannon’s feminism felt radically different from the women’s liberation movement that I grew up with. The movement I knew about was inspired by Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” the groundbreaking second-wave feminist tract that spoke of the emptiness and boredom of well-off housewives. That movement focused heavily on breaking glass ceilings in the white-collar world: the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court (Sandra Day O’Connor, 1981); the first female secretary of state (Madeleine Albright, 1997).

But low-income women, especially Black women, have always worked, not out of boredom but out of necessity. Their struggles, which the labor historian Dorothy Sue Cobble has called “the other women’s movement,” garnered far less media coverage. Who knows the name of the first female coal miner? How many know the full name of “Mother Jones,” the fearless labor organizer once labeled “the most dangerous woman in America” because legions of mine workers laid down their picks at her command? (It was Mary Harris Jones.)

It was not until 1964 that the law enshrined workplace protections against discrimination on the basis of sex as well as race. Women were added to the Civil Rights Act at the last minute, a poison pill meant to ruin its chances. But the bill passed, changing the course of history. The percentage of working women rose to 61 percent in 2000 from 43 percent in 1970. From 1976 to 1998, the number of female victims of intimate partner homicides fell by an average 1 percent per year. (The number of male victims of intimate partner homicide fell even more steeply.)

But the Civil Rights Act did not benefit all women equally. By far, those who reaped the greatest rewards were college-educated white women who joined the professional world, who grew rich on economic shifts that swept their blue-collar sisters’ jobs away. Today, well-educated women — who tend to be married to well-educated men — sit atop the country’s financial pyramid.

The struggles of blue-collar women against a system of occupational segregation — called “Jane Crow” in Nancy MacLean’s book “Freedom Is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace” — continued against the headwinds of economic challenges. For instance, in 1969, a female steelworker named Alice Peurala in Chicago had to sue to get a job assigned to a man with less seniority. She won and went on to become president of the Steelworkers local. But in the years that followed, the steel industry collapsed. Eventually, her plant shut down for good.

In 2016, about three million American women worked in manufacturing, a far greater number than worked as lawyers or financiers. Yet the urgent needs of blue-collar women for quality child care, paid medical leave and more flexible work schedules rarely made it into the national conversation, perhaps because the professional women who set the agenda already enjoyed those benefits.

So much of the debate about sexism and women’s rights focuses on how to negotiate salaries like a man and get more women onto corporate boards. Meanwhile, blue-collar women are still struggling to find jobs that pay $25 an hour. And the United States remains one of the only countries with no federal law mandating paid maternity leave.

To Wally, the Black man I followed, the major success of the civil rights movement was that Black people got a chance at better jobs on the factory floor. Black people had been barred from operating machines, from tractors to typewriters, well into the 20th century, according to “American Work: Four Centuries of Black and White Labor,” by Jacqueline Jones.

Wally’s uncle Hulan managed to get hired at the bearing plant in the early 1960s, with the help of the N.A.A.C.P. But like every other Black man there, he’d been assigned a janitor’s job. Hulan complained to the union steward. “There are only so many jobs in this building,” the steward replied. “If you take one, that means that our sons or son-in-law or our nephew can’t have it.” The day after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, Hulan asked his boss for a chance to operate a machine. The boss, who was known as tough but fair, sent him to the grinding department. But the white man assigned to train him refused to even speak to him. Hulan had to learn by watching from afar.

Eventually, Hulan figured out how to do the job. Over the years, he won over his white co-workers and was promoted to foreman, the first (and last) Black man to serve in that role at the plant.

For Uncle Hulan’s generation, the blue-collar battles for social justice were largely successful. Factory floors today tend to be far more racially integrated than the corporate boards that run them. But in many ways, the progress was short lived. As soon as Black workers began to get good jobs in the factories, factories began moving away.

By the time Wally’s generation came of age, several of the largest factories in Indianapolis had closed down. Many of the boys in Wally’s neighborhood found work on the corner, selling dope. More than 10 percent of the Black boys in Wally’s neighborhood ended up in prison as adults. Wally served time in prison, too. “I was locked up,” he told his co-workers. “I’m blessed to have this job.”

In many ways, the decline in American manufacturing hit Black people the hardest. According to a 2018 study of the impact of manufacturing employment on Black and white Americans from 1960 through 2010, the decline in manufacturing contributed to a 12 percent overall increase in the racial wage gap for men.

When you follow a dying factory up close, its easy to see how globalization left a growing group of people competing for a shrinking pool of good factory jobs. Affirmative action becomes more fraught as good jobs get scarce and disappear.

Even for John, the white man I followed, factories were sites of important social protest. If a boss disciplined a worker for refusing to wear safety glasses, John thought that all the other workers should take off their safety glasses and hurl them on the floor, forcing the manager to bring back the disciplined worker or shut down the whole assembly line.

John was a die-hard union man who came from a long line of union men. His grandfather and great-grandfather had been coal miners. His father-in-law had been an autoworker. To John, factories were places where the working class fought pitched battles with the company for higher pay and shorter working hours. He traced his identity to the miners and steelworkers who had been beaten, arrested and even killed for demanding an eight-hour workday and a day off every week. That’s why nothing stuck in John’s craw like the phrase “white privilege.” The words implied that his people had been handed a middle-class life simply because they were white. In John’s mind, his people had not been given dignity, leisure time, safer working conditions or decent wages just because they were white; they had fought for those things — and some of them had died in the fight.

After the bosses announced that the factory would close, he walked around the plant urging his fellow workers to refuse to train their Mexican replacements, in a last-ditch effort to keep the factory in Indianapolis. As the shutdown at Rexnord continued, John preached about the need for worker solidarity.

“If you want it, fight for it,” he told his union brothers and sisters of their doomed plant. “I’ll fight with you.”

I began to understand why white workers tended to view the closure of the factory — and the election of Donald Trump — differently from their Black co-workers. Over the course of a decade, John had seen his wages sink from $28 an hour to $25 an hour to $23 an hour. After the plant closed, he struggled to secure a job that paid $17 an hour. His declining earning power hadn’t been tempered by social progress, like the election of a Black president. To the contrary, his social standing had waned. Rich white C.E.O.s sent blue-collar jobs to Mexico. But when blue-collar workers complained about it, college-educated people dismissed them as xenophobes and racists.

Working-class white men at the bearing plant may not have wanted to share their jobs with Black people and women. But they had done it. And now that Black people and women worked alongside them on the factory floor, everyone’s jobs were moving to Mexico. It was more than many white workers could take. One white man at the plant quit and walked away from more than $10,000 in severance pay simply because he couldn’t stand watching a Mexican person learn his job. “It’s depressing to see that you ain’t got a future,” he told me. One of John’s best friends volunteered to train. “I don’t hate you, but I hate what you’re doing,” John told him. They never spoke again.

The union reps, nearly all of whom were white, saw training their replacements as a moral sin, akin to crossing a picket line. But many of the Black workers and women did not agree. It had not been so long ago, after all, that the white men had refused to train them. Black workers had not forgotten how the union had treated their fathers and uncles. Many considered the refusal to train the Mexicans racist. The most unapologetic trainers were Black.

The announcement that the factory would close, the election of Donald Trump and the arrival of Mexican replacements at the plant took place within the span of three months, in 2016, unleashing a toxic mix of hope, rage and despair. In the years that have passed since, the workers scattered like brittle seeds, trying to start their lives over again.

Economists predicted that they’d get new jobs — even better jobs than they’d had before. Some did. But most of the workers I kept track of ended up earning about $10 an hour less than they had been making before. One started a bedbug extermination company. Another joined the Army. Another sold everything he owned and bought a one-way ticket to the Philippines, determined to make globalization work in his favor, for once. Wally made progress with his barbecue business, until an unforeseeable tragedy struck. John agonized over whether to become a steelworker again or take a job in a hospital that had no union. Shannon stayed jobless a long time, which made her miserable. The old factory continued to appear in her dreams for years.

Of course, for every story like Shannon’s, there’s a story about a woman in India or China or Mexico who has a job now — and more financial independence — because of a new factory. Globalization and social justice have many sides.

But those foreign workers don’t vote in American elections. The fate of our democracy does not depend on them the way it hinges on voters like Shannon, Wally and John. The American experiment is unraveling. The only way to knit it back together is for decision makers in this country, nearly all of whom have college degrees, to reconnect with the working class, who make up a majority of voters.

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