Two New Books Shine the Spotlight on America’s Factory Workers

By Matt Heller and Stockton Grunewald
Oct 20 2021 |

New tomes from Pulitzer Prize winner Farah Stockman and Senate candidate Tom Nelson highlight the importance of good manufacturing jobs in working class communities.

An interesting thing happened on Tuesday evening: There were two digital events on new books that are focused on American manufacturing. We thought both of these talks were worth a watch — and certainly, both books are worth a read.

The first book, American Made, follows three workers in Indianapolis as they navigate life after their factory closes and their jobs are sent to Mexico. The second, One Day Stronger, examines how union workers in Wisconsin came together to save a historic paper mill from being sold to an industrial scrapper. More on each below, including insights from authors Farah Stockman and Tom Nelson.

American Made Tells a Story About Those Who Lost Out Due to Globalization

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Farah Stockman is on her book tour for American Made, a story about workers at a manufacturing plant in Indianapolis. It’s a story that touches on the lives of some of the plant’s workers, and Stockman recently sat down for a conversation with author Connie Schultz to expand on the stories she wrote about.

Random House

Stockman, wearing an American-made shirt, is admittedly a strange person to be writing about the perils of globalization. “Every job in my life has benefited from globalization,” Stockman reflected, “and this was my first encounter with people who had lost from it, and we need to address those losses if we are to move forward as a country.”

American Made is set in Indiana in 2016, and follows the announcement by Rexnord, the operator of a steel plant, that the manufacturer would be shutting its doors and moving to Mexico. It’s a story familiar to so many towns in the Midwest especially, where industrial centers have declined as manufacturers — once the centers of community and local economic engines — moved off in search of cheaper labor and lower regulatory standards.

It’s a personal story, and it follows three workers at the plant who all overcame so much just to get their manufacturing jobs, and who were left to pick up the pieces when they disappeared.

There’s Wally, a Black man who got the job after his appendix failed and he needed health insurance. Stockman described him as one of the kindest and most optimistic men she had ever met, and he worked his way up to become the Chairman of Efficiency at the plant. There is also Sharon, a working mom who came to the plant after leaving an abusive relationship, working her way up from a janitor to being the first woman to serve as a heat-treat operator. Finally, there is John, a newcomer who moved back to Indianapolis and began working as a machinist at Rexnord.

All three are in their 40s — a transitional age when they can all remember the better days of manufacturing work behind them, but are still young enough to worry about what they will be doing in the future. Stockman’s book peers into their lives, touching on how they came to their jobs and where they’re going after.

Importantly, American Made highlights the dignity of manufacturing work, and how important those jobs are not just to the communities that depended on them for economic reasons, but also to the workers who took immense pride in their work.

“Some of these jobs are passed down like family heirlooms,” Stockman explained on her tour, focusing on what good-paying manufacturing work means to the people who do it, and how devastating it is when it disappears.

American Made is an American story. It’s about the decline and indignity that so many workers have suffered as the manufacturing sector has been crushed by cheap foreign competition. The crushed dreams, the frustration, the uncertainty of what to do next after finally making something for oneself. Unfortunately, based on trends where a net of 5 million manufacturing jobs have been lost since 1997, the stories in American Made are set to play out over and over again throughout the country. 

Unless, that is, our political leaders truly work to reprioritize manufacturing and work to ensure that we reshore our industries and bring new manufacturing jobs back to America.

–Matt Heller

One Day Stronger Showcases How Workers Won in Wisconsin

In the Fox River Valley of northern Wisconsin, workers of the historic Appleton Coated paper mill faced a choice. After nearly 130 years, through generations of service, the manufacturer was likely to fall victim to foreclosure. And if history served as a guide, that would be the path ahead.

Rivertowns Books

“When I took over [the mill] in 2013,” Doug Osterberg, then president and CEO of Appleton Coated, remembered, “we were really struggling. Some mills had already closed. We all kind of new we had to do something different… we tried and tried to make various specialty products, on the edge of profitability, at best.”

Ostenberg, now retired, highlighted the difficulties his plant faced in the mid-2010s, culminating in 2017.

“We had a couple of unusual clauses in our deal with PNC Bank that basically, because of the cyclicality of the business, put us in a position where they could… force us to declare bankruptcy,” he said. “If you slip just a few percent, things go south really fast.”

The fate of Appleton lay either in Combined Lock’s backyard or a California scrap yard. Some, United Steelworkers (USW) Local 2144 member Kevin Eldereth remembered, braced for the latter.

“One of the things we struggled with, before we had the idea of objecting to the sale, was the culture, and a lot of people were resigned to this fate… and so on top of that plus the fact that there were all these setbacks after Act 10… unions had this huge black eye they were taking left and right… we really had to buck people up, we can do this — let’s get going,” Eldereth said.

With their backs to the wall, the plant workers, USW Local 2144, Osterberg, and county executive Tom Nelson, had one, unique option: Wisconsin solvency law. If they stood together, maybe, just maybe they could prove that losing the $300 million in economic activity would be detrimental to their community.

“The sale came before Outagamie County… and usually it’s kind of pro forma. I objected to the sale, but it was the Steelworkers’ arguments that drove the train,” Nelson said.

And they did. The plant stayed.

Four years later, Nelson wrote a book on the fight. One Day Stronger: How One Union Local Saved a Mill and Changed an Industry–and What It Means for American Manufacturing. At a virtual event hosted by the New America on Tuesday, Nelson, Ostenberg and Eldereth described how Appleton got there, and where American manufacturing could go – if leaders and policymakers pay attention. 

Nelson, now a candidate for the U.S. Senate, hopes the book shines a light on an otherwise dreary national discussion.

“Here was an example of how we turned around that narrative,” he said. “Now more than ever, we need a strong manufacturing base… we don’t have control of our supply chains anymore.”

The discussion, moderated by former Princeton dean Anne-Marie Slaughter, soon divulged from the story of Appleton to America as a whole.

“We need to make public investments,” Nelson continued, “We don’t have the type of research and development into this industry… another aspect of public policy, we’re one of the only countries that does not have a national industrial strategy… We did not do that… we’ve been taking it on the chin since.”

–Stockton Grunewald