“Shannon’s Mustang had always been unreliable, like almost everything else in her life,” writes Farah Stockman as she narrates the path that led Shannon Mulcahy in 1998 to her factory job at a bearing plant in Indianapolis. In “American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears,” Shannon is one of the three plant employees Stockman follows from their earliest days at the Link-Belt factory, later known as Rexnord: the other two are Raleigh “Wally” Hall, Jr., a Black man who came to Rexnord after working on the wrong side of the law as a drug dealer in his youth; and John Feltner, a white man with a strong faith in the union (he eventually serves as the plant’s union VP).
(Bearings, Stockman helpfully explains, “are gadgets designed to reduce friction,” today’s steel products the modern equivalent of what our ancestors were doing when they put logs under heavy stones to move them more easily from place to place. There have been bearings since ancient times, and they’re still vital components in everything from bicycles to fighter jets. Making them involves hot steel, hard work, and long hours.)
Each of the three workers represents a different demographic among factory workers, allowing Stockman to weave histories of civil rights, women’s rights, and the labor movement into and around their individual stories. Yet they all share certain characteristics that signify something of their working-class identity, and represent their differences from someone like Stockman. Unlike Stockman, who became a mother at 42, all are already grandparents in their 40s. They all use tobacco products. They all live close to where they were raised. None has a four-year college degree. For Stockman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary when she was at the Globe and now works for the New York Times, understanding the class divide is foundational to the project, and she breaks it down expertly for readers. As she puts it, “I can walk to four different Whole Foods from my house, but I’d have to drive an hour to get to a Cracker Barrel.” Stockman, who is Black, grew up aware of race and gender politics, but adds that “awareness of my own class privilege somehow eluded me.” When she tries to understand Shannon — a survivor of domestic violence, a fierce mother and grandmother, a worker who defies sexism to blaze trails into the toughest part of the factory — as a fellow feminist, Stockman is surprised to learn she’s not a follower of the #MeToo movement, nor a fan of Hillary Clinton. “I came to see her as a blue-collar feminist in the tradition of Dolly Parton,” Stockman writes.
Shannon, Wally, and John’s stories come to a head in late 2016, when the plant was slated for closure as its parent company decides to move the jobs to Mexico. The factory hit the news when then-President-Elect Donald Trump tweeted “Rexnord of Indianapolis is moving to Mexico and rather viciously firing all of its 300 workers. This is happening all over our country. No more!” As Stockman reports, even Shannon, not necessarily a Trump supporter, tweeted back “Thank you President Trump!” Assigned in 2017 to cover the closure of the Rexnord plant, Stockman writes that the story seemed to her “sad but hardly shocking. … I didn’t see it as a sign of a system gone awry. I didn’t feel that it was anyone’s fault.” That changes as she spends time in Indianapolis.
Talking with Shannon, Wally, John, and their colleagues, and reading about NAFTA and other free trade agreements leave Stockman questioning some of her assumptions. “Seeing the world through the steelworkers’ eyes produced a strange feeling of vertigo,” she writes, causing her to question the realities of trade in an unequal world and nation. “The more closely I looked at NAFTA, the more I realized that the ones who suffered the great job losses were blue-collar workers, while the ones who reaped the greatest economic gains were people with college degrees.”
Trump’s tweet does not save Rexnord. Soon enough, the workers are asked to train Mexican replacement workers. For many of the white workers, doing so is tantamount to crossing a picket line: a devastating betrayal of union solidarity. Black workers, noting that they were historically kept out of the union and its high-paying jobs, see their white colleagues’ refusal as racist, and step up to do the training. Another sign of the class divide between the author and her sources: as they adjust to Spanish-speaking workers taking jobs some of them see as their birthright, Stockman’s small daughter “was on the waiting list of an expensive Spanish immersion daycare center.”
This willingness to self-interrogate is one of the book’s many strengths, as is Stockman’s ability to really capture the humanity of her sources, to understand lives different from her own. Above all, the book argues, it’s the humanity of workers that suffers when jobs go away. As the economy continues to reward those at the top and punish those below, she writes, people’s entire communities suffer, from household to household; “the less stable the job prospects, the more fragile the family.”
“American Made” is bookended by the 2016 and 2020 elections. John voted, again, for Trump, Wally for Biden. Shannon, the book’s most vivid character, not only voted for Biden but began marching and protesting against Trump, raising her voice to demand attention for her fellow factory workers. “There’s some people that’s losing their jobs up there,” she tells Stockman about an upcoming trip to South Bend. “We’re going to see what we can do.”
American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears
Random House, 432 pages, $28