How many people in Washington will understand this book? Edward McClelland, born in 1967, grew up in blue-collar Lansing, Mich., when what is now called the Rust Belt was still as bright as the chrome on an Oldsmobile 88. The states surrounding the Great Lakes — Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, western New York — were once known as “the Arsenal of Democracy,” but today many sections of their major cities look like bombed-out war zones. In “Nothin’ but Blue Skies,” McClelland chronicles the destruction of America’s industrial heartland, largely by the greed, heartlessness and stupidity of those who should have been its caretakers — CEOs, bankers, politicians and many, many people in government and the judicial system.
How did this happen? McClelland makes some of his most important points in a blood-boiling chapter recounting a three-year strike in the 1990s at A.E. Staley Co., supplier of sweetener for Pepsi and other products. What the workers in Decatur, Ill., went through, writes McClelland, “was only a local iteration for what had been happening to workers all over America since President Reagan had fired the air traffic controllers. In just those dozen years, union membership had declined from twenty million to sixteen million. When Watts” — Dave Watts, president of Local 837 of the Allied Industrial Workers — “had hired in at Staley, 30 percent of American workers had belonged to a union. Now it was 15 percent. The Staley works had lost wages, health benefits, safety regulations, even the eight-hour day, the labor movement’s natal cause.”
Why? In part, because of our country’s changing political agenda. As one striking worker grumbled, “Clinton’s got plenty of time for gays in the military, but he doesn’t have any time for us.” McClelland recalls the remark’s historical truth:
“For the past twenty-five years, American politics had been dominated by issues such as busing, affirmative action, women’s rights, guns, abortion, prayer in school, and gay rights. The Democratic Party, which since FDR had been the champion of the working stiff, was now dominated by overeducated liberals — like the Clintons — more concerned with protecting the interests of blacks, homosexuals, career women, and pregnant teenagers than the interests of labor. It’s the reason the white working class defected to the Republican Party — if the Democrats weren’t going to stand up for their right to have a job, at least the Republicans would stand up for their right to carry a gun. But this period during which we stopped talking about economic issues and started talking about social issues is coterminous with America’s Great Divergence in financial equality. The Republicans encouraged it, and the Democrats did nothing in response but shift their donor base from unions to socially liberal Wall Street bankers.”
“Nothin’ but Blue Skies” is structured as a series of reports from the field, detailing how Detroit fell into urban decay, drugs and bankruptcy; how Cleveland became “the Mistake on the Lake”; how Buffalo has struggled since the St. Lawrence Seaway took away much of its water traffic; and how Chicago’s old-boy network both corrupted and partly saved the Second City. Along the way, McClelland tracks the early careers of documentary filmmaker Michael Moore and Cleveland politician Dennis Kucinich; hangs out with bar owners, union leaders, drug dealers and black rappers (“White folks focus on dogs and yoga”); and reminds us that Willis Carrier’s invention of air-conditioning was the prerequisite for the boom in Southern industry at the expense of the North. Even the iconic Carrier plant in Syracuse, N.Y., eventually shifted most of its operations to North Carolina and Georgia.
McClelland is a terrific reporter, smoothly blending facts from the historical record with the bitter, often profane, conversation of the displaced and desperate men and women he meets and his own reflections. These last are often as witty as they are shrewd: “Drive-ins and classic-car shows are to the Midwest what Civil War reenactments are to the South: remembrances of the region’s last glorious era.” “Steel executives always announced mill closings the week after Christmas, when the holiday moratorium on acting like an SOB was over.” “Only a genius could write an entertaining book about assembly-line labor. But not even a genius could make an entertaining movie about it.”
Again and again, McClelland demonstrates how outsourcing and the closing of mills and plants have ruined thousands of lives; how predatory lenders wrecked old established neighborhoods, as well as our economy, even as our government looked the other way; and how American-as-apple-pie companies were sold off to overseas investors who sucked them dry and left the husk to become an abandoned junkyard. Above all, McClelland reminds us, through examples, of that greatest labor union truth: “The boss ain’t your friend.”
As “Nothin’ But Blue Skies” shows, the United States has become a nation of shopkeepers rather than of makers and manufacturers. And yet our greatest prosperity, as well as our most equitable prosperity, occurred when the working class was also the middle class. This has become less and less true. About his own home town, Chicago, McClelland ruefully quotes fellow journalist Richard C. Longworth: “Once a broadly middle-class city, where factory workers owned their homes and shared in the dream, Chicago today is a class-ridden place, with lots of people at the top and lots of people at the bottom and not that much in between.”
As activist reporting, “Nothin’ but Blue Skies” often induces anger and sometimes a feeling of shame, but its overall tone seldom veers far from the elegiac. When General Motors, U.S. Steel and so many other manufacturing companies began to close their plants, a lot of hope went out of working-class America. Without good jobs that allow them to rise in the world, people soon turn to drink, drugs and video fantasies to escape from it. Reality becomes just a run-down strip mall. At one point, McClelland imagines such a mall, gathering together in one place all the usual ghetto businesses:
“It would include a cell phone store, a discount dollar store, a rent-to-own center, a Laundromat, a liquor store specializing in White Owl cigars and Night Train wine, a Chinese takeout with three wobbly tables and a hand lettered ‘NO MSG’ sign in the window, a chicken-and-fish grill where the food is served on a rotisserie that rotates through a bulletproof window, an instant-tax-refund center where a man dressed as the Statue of Liberty hands out flyers every winter, and a currency exchange charging a 3 percent fee to cash checks for people trying to avoid having their bank accounts garnished for child support and/or back taxes and/or legal fees. The mall could also support a sneaker boutique selling counterfeit Nikes (look for the backward swoosh) and three-for-five packages of cotton socks, as well as a day labor center that takes a 33 percent fee out of your wages but doesn’t ask, ‘Have you ever been convicted of a felony?’ on the application. A pawnshop is also a possibility.”
McClelland dubs this dispiriting vision PoorMart. But for too many people, it is simply today’s United States.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
NOTHIN’ BUT BLUE SKIES
The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of American’s Industrial Heartland
By Edward McClelland
Bloomsbury. 343 pp. $27