Of all the workers I have known at the factory, Wally was the most optimistic. He believed in the American dream, or at least his own ability to make it come true. Unlike many white men who broke down in tears at the idea of shutting down the factory and sending their machines to Mexico, Wally focused on his goal of opening a barbecue business. Owning your own business meant you could never be fired or relocated – and you never had to rely on someone who might be racist to earn your daily bread. Better yet, you could employ others, offering them decent work.
“I’m going to get there or I won’t,” he told a friend on his first attempt at selling barbecue to the public. “And guess what? I come from a long line of designers.
I followed Wally for about a year, until his death. He suffered from chest pain but refused to go to the hospital because he lost his health insurance. This heartbreaking experience taught me how deadly the loss of a job can be in a country where health care is tied to employment. Long-serving men who are made redundant experience death rates 50 to 100 percent higher than their colleagues. Out of around 300 workers who were laid off from the Rexnord plant, I counted three who died within a year of stress or alcohol related illnesses.
This, too, was a lesson underscored by the pandemic. In addition to those who died from Covid, some 90,000 people in America perished from opioid overdoses in 2020, a 30% increase from the previous year. It is not known whether this is because treatment was stopped or because people suddenly had nothing to do all day. But we do know that, even before Covid, studies showed an undeniable link between unemployment shocks and opioid-related deaths and hospitalizations.
“Unemployment is more a measure of jobs than jobs,” Alex Hollingsworth, associate professor at the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, told me. “It measures the health of the community.
Too often, those who claim to defend the working class are culturally, geographically and economically disconnected from their daily realities. Nothing makes this clearer than political language based on social safety nets and rights, instead of jobs.
After the Rexnord plant closed, John had to report to an unemployment office on a regular basis to jump through the hoops to collect a check that totaled $ 335 per week.
He was once asked if he was willing to take a “survival job” just to put food on the table. This question annoyed him.
“Of course I would take a survival job,” John said. “What other choice do I have? Go to social assistance? He bristled at the thought. Unemployment was one thing. He had contributed to this system all this life. Well-being was another story. No matter how badly he fell, going on welfare was a line he vowed never to cross. Many of the steelworkers I have followed felt the same. They all knew people who played with the system. They took pride in earning a salary, which set them apart from a lazy parent or drug addict acquaintance who did not work.
Even proposals like the free college, which Democrats designed to help families like his, have rubbed John the wrong way.
There is no such thing as free in John’s book.
“Release this, release that,” complained John one day in his union hall. “Who’s going to pay for this?” He asked rhetorically. “The worker is who.”
John was helping his daughter pay for room and board at a public school, and he feared it would make no sense to take out tens of thousands of dollars in loans just to live and eat, when she might do it for the sake of it. much cheaper at home. He believed in higher education, reasonably and to a point. He had obtained his associate’s degree in pipe design from community college while living at home with his parents. But he had to leave school an hour earlier each day to go to work, setting down the tarmac at an airport. After all of that, he was able to get a job that made about $ 30,000. Then his uncle pulled the lucky straw at a factory that made diesel engines, winning a job application he passed on to John. Suddenly John was making $ 70,000 a year in a job that didn’t require a degree. For many workers like John, “free college” is not the copper ring they are looking for. The ever-increasing number of jobs requiring college degrees appears to be a way to squeeze more money from working class people so that professors and colleges can stay in business.