In March 1980, when the industrial firm Wisconsin Steel abruptly closed its main mill in southeast Chicago, longtime employee Charles Walley was among 3,400 people who lost their jobs. The plant closure — which led to protests, controversy and lawsuits — had an enormous impact on Walley, a third-generation steelworker. He found intermittent employment as a tollbooth attendant, a janitor and a security guard, among other things, but never landed a better job, and remained bitter and depressed about his situation until his death in 2005.
“Yeah, we thought we were middle class there for a while,” one of his daughters once overheard him musing aloud. “We were almost middle class.”
The daughter who heard that comment, Christine Walley, is now an associate professor of anthropology at MIT and author of a new book, “Exit Zero,” about the impact of deindustrialization on the lives of blue-collar workers in Chicago. In the book, published this month by the University of Chicago Press, Walley explores the lasting economic and psychological toll of such plant closings on her father and other working-class people like him.
In the book, Walley also builds an argument that rapid deindustrialization in the United States was not simply the result of seemingly inevitable shifts in the global economy, but a consequence of corporate-friendly policies, and a new emphasis on raising short-term share prices, that pitted the interests of management against the long-term interests of companies and their workers.
“If you really want to understand why there is this expanding class inequality in the United States, one of the places you have to look is the long-term impact of deindustrialization,” Walley says. “We have to think historically about how we got into this position and how we can come out of it.”
While the steel industry is a notable sector in which American industry has downsized, the same issue has been borne out in many areas of manufacturing and many parts of the country. As Walley notes, in 1960, one-third of all American laborers not working on farms had jobs in manufacturing, while in 2010, only one-eighth worked in the sector.
“The stories from Chicago are so similar in so many other communities that have experienced deindustrialization, I think it does have resonance with a lot of other places in the U.S.,” Walley says.
The paycheck and self-respect
Most anthropologists do their research by immersing themselves in other cultures. But in Walley’s case, she was immersed in the working-class neighborhoods of industrial southeast Chicago from birth. It was an area, Walley writes in “Exit Zero,” where “neat lawns and never going on public assistance were quintessential points of pride.”
“If you really want to understand why there is this expanding class inequality in the United States, one of the places you have to look is the long-term impact of deindustrialization."
Associate Professor of Anthropology
But when several mills closed in the early 1980s, the tens of thousands of newly unemployed steelworkers in Chicago and the surrounding area had massive problems keeping themselves, and their families, afloat. Within a decade of the Wisconsin Steel closure, 800 of its 3,400 former workers had died, many after struggles with alcoholism or other problems tied to their unemployment and lack of other options. Many steelworkers felt that because of their membership in unions, they were discriminated against when looking for other work; in many households, wives had to go back to work to keep families going, a further humiliation to the steelworkers.
“It was my father’s paycheck from the mills that was his source of manhood and self-respect,” Walley writes.
Walley also asserts that we should reconsider the “dominant narrative” of the decline of the American steel industry, which many observers characterized as having grown inefficient. Actually, Walley asserts, empirical research has shown that American steel mills were still more profitable in the 1970s, just before the shutdowns commenced, than their state-subsidized Japanese competitors. The problem, she writes, was that “they weren’t profitable enough, in comparison to … high finance.”
In this way, Walley says, the Wisconsin Steel case is an early example of contemporary corporate practices, linked to the financialization of the economy, which occur at the expense of workers and their communities. Controversially, the firm had been sold in the late 1970s in what was effectively a leveraged buyout; the legal maneuvering around the firm’s closure allowed the holding company to force the government to pick up the tab for its unfunded pension guarantees. More generally, this kind of buyout, followed by asset-stripping and closure, Walley notes, allows enterprises to steer cash to more lucrative investments in financial markets, instead of being bound to bricks-and-mortar businesses.
Cancer and class
“Exit Zero” takes an unexpected twist when Walley recounts how, at age 27, she was diagnosed with an unusual form of cancer. While her treatment was successful, she suspects, but cannot prove, that her illness was related to environmental conditions in southeast Chicago, where many potential carcinogens were released.
More generally, Walley states, exposure to environmental hazards is yet another way that class stratification manifests itself in America. As she writes, “just as throughout our lives we drag our class experiences and the related aspects of who we are with us, our bodies also carry this legacy of chemical exposures as we move into the future.”
Walley’s book is part of a larger project on industrial southeast Chicago — accompanied by a documentary film to be completed this year, also called “Exit Zero,” that Walley has produced in collaboration with her husband, documentary filmmaker Chris Boebel. She is also helping to develop a related website, in conjunction with the Southeast Chicago Historical Museum, intended to feature archival materials and oral accounts from others who experienced the same economic changes. A daylong event featuring the book and film will be held at Chicago’s Field Museum in April.
“Exit Zero” has been praised by other scholars of labor; David Bensman, a professor at Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations, has called the book an “illuminating” analysis that makes clear that “the working-class world is poorly understood both in popular culture and in mainstream academic literature.”
As Walley acknowledges, her family’s story is just one historical thread within the large, complicated fabric of American industry. But precisely by making her account a personal one, she says, she aims to show to a general audience the human effects of economic changes that public figures often describe in abstract, impersonal terms.
“This is a book of stories … but those stories are the terrain for further analysis,” Walley says. “I wanted it to be accessible to many kinds of readers, including those who don’t normally read academic work, as a way of having a discussion about these issues.”