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No, the Left Shouldn’t Welcome Deindustrialisation

Gabriel Winant’s 'The Next Shift' expertly details the growth of America’s health system — but in its hostility towards reindustrialisation, it offers dead-end positions for anyone fighting for working-class prosperity or a socialist society.

The grounds of a shuttered factory connected to the brass industry stand in what was once a vibrant manufacturing city in Waterbury, Connecticut. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

In 2020, Bernie Sanders gained millions of votes and mobilised thousands of supporters for his vision of a social-democratic America. The centrepiece of his campaign was the Green New Deal; a harkening back to the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the ‘GND’ connected the environmental concerns of young, liberal voters with a promise of huge infrastructural investment and the creation of millions of jobs in green manufacturing, energy production and sustainable industries.

The pledge for a Green New Deal made a great deal of political sense. A significant factor in Donald Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016 was his promise to ‘Make America Great Again’, involving a series of protectionist policies designed to rejuvenate American industry. Similarly, in 2020, the successful Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, beat Trump after vowing to rebuild America’s ailing manufacturing base across the ‘rust belt’. Such promises resonated deeply with residents of America’s former industrial heartlands, many of whom now languish in a state of desolation and abandonment.

Strange then, perhaps, that in March 2021 — just five months after Biden’s electoral victory over Trump — Gabriel Winant should publish The Next Shift. The book offers an argument for the rejection of nostalgia for the golden age of blue-collar America, a significant critique of the trade unionism which defined that era, and a plea to depart from leftist demands for the redevelopment of heavy industry and the industrial organisation that accompanied it.

Winners and Losers

The book is presented primarily as an anthropological study of the communities which made up the Pittsburgh steel industry, in addition to a history of the local healthcare system that emerged and was shaped significantly by the culture and strong organisation of the United Steelworkers (USWA). As a history of the development of Pittsburgh’s particular health economy, the book is undoubtedly a triumph — an incredible aid in understanding the unique character not just of Pittsburgh’s healthcare system but that of America as a whole. Its greatest achievement is in recording the huge role collective bargaining played in creating America’s post-war health system, particularly the role of insurance and private hospitals catering to working-class families.

On this question, Winant skillfully documents the role of successful wage claims by unions in creating surplus income among steelworkers — wages that were able to be invested collectively into the development of a series of community hospitals serving that same community. In addition to the development of Medicaid, a privatised healthcare system traditionally available only to the exceptionally wealthy was able to expand rapidly to cater for a mass market of ‘consumers’.

Winant argues that the healthcare market (based both on affluent blue-collar demand and federal assistance programs) drove inflation, progressing a wage-price spiral between unions and healthcare costs which sits behind the high price of American healthcare today. An unintended consequence of these ‘quirks’ was to create networks of winners and losers, with Winant drawing particular attention to the racial divides in healthcare which emerged and have sustained as a result. Winant delineates the process by which Black American workers who became the primary employees within the rapidly expanding healthcare sector were often so poorly paid they were unable to access the same services they were providing to unionised workers.

Yet from this deeply persuasive account of Pittsburgh’s healthcare system, Winant presents the troubling implication that America’s unions themselves were somehow participating in, aggravating, and even playing a leading role in embedding the foundations of America’s longstanding systemic discrimination of black people through successful organisation in key industries such as steel — creating a ‘privileged’ stratum of unionised workers.

A Neoliberal Framework

The thrust of Winant’s work uncritically adopts a neoliberal framework for understanding the macro-economic decline of America’s steel, industry and manufacturing sectors. By this account, the long-term decline of American steel — and other industries — was an inevitability necessitated by the ‘trilemma’ facing governments of advanced economies, of which only two of three separate options could be taken: low unemployment, rising wages and ‘fiscal restraint’.

Fundamentally, Winant’s work supports the conclusion that New Deal-era industrial organising around private industry was socially divisive; that the peak of union strength in the 1960s and 1970s was always going to be a temporary phenomenon given industry’s inevitable collapse, and that in fighting against Reaganite deindustrialisation, unions became conservative guardians of a dying order — ‘an inertial force’.

It is here that Winant’s book loses coherence. Adopting a stream of questionable, unevidenced and sometimes bizarre extrapolations from its studies of everyday working-class life, he draws conclusions which are often questionable or dubious in the extreme. His detached anthropological style consistently produces strained and apparently irrelevant detail, creating the impression he is describing members of an alien species. In one meandering paragraph related to the discussion of shiftwork, Winant finds himself going into great and tedious detail about the entirely ordinary eating habits of a night-shift employee:

“Dan worked 12-8 — sleeping till 4,” recorded his wife Beth, in her diary. They ate at strange times. “A man needing to be at the mill by 4 would eat a big dinner at 2 or 3 in the afternoon… Husbands getting home at midnight sat down to another home-cooked meal, or at least warmed leftovers.”

In describing another mundane incident with excessive flourish, Winant describes the psychological suffering experienced by one employee after being sent home to collect his employee ID, which he had forgotten that morning:

Steel workers passed through the membrane every day. On one side, they were living labor, people with unquantified needs, duties and cares. On the other side, they were bearers of commodified labor power. Wickerham remembered arriving at the entrance to Homestead at the beginning of his shift, only to realise he had forgotten his badge, bearing his “check number” – a workplace identification number. The guard still denied him entrance, causing him to be late – a moment when Wickerham recognised the psychic violence of the daily passage through the membrane, into the mill.

On occasion, Winant’s observations stray from the irrelevant into far more questionable areas. Following one case study, the example of a working-class girl from a steel family who earned a PhD and married outside her community, Winant documents her desire not ‘to marry someone [like] the kinds of people that I saw others marry’, concluding that:

While there is no reason to accept the implication that middle-class marriages were more loving, the subjective experience of familial rupture and self-creation through companionship and new family formation stands out in opposition to the experience of those around whom Dr. M grew up — their experience was of reproducing the past, with the family as a form of continuity.

Where ‘the implication that middle-class marriages were more loving’ generated from is as mysterious as the overwrought conclusion to the sentence. It is certainly not referenced by the quoted individual nor apparent in the chapter’s contextual testimony detailing the coarse home lives of many steelworkers’ wives and daughters. The fact it is mentioned feels like a Freudian slip, belying a deep judgment on Winant’s behalf against the uncouth lives led by steelworker communities which the book documents at length.

Throughout the book, Winant convincingly portrays the role of internal union dynamics in reinforcing racial power structures and disadvantaging black workers and union members. Yet in his anthropological case studies, he regularly deploys with scant justification extremely strained characterisation of his subjects, particularly in the case of steel-family women, pathologising minor aspects of their behaviour as reflecting internalised ‘whiteness’ or patriarchal attitudes. In one account, Winant suggests that by insisting her household remained clean, one subject’s mother was reinforcing a system of ‘whiteness’:

Behind these, we might find the memories of her mother scrubbing her hair to get out its smell of oil, and her expectation that her steel-worker husband clean his nails and shower before entering the house. This was the anxious performance of whiteness.

In another, the motivations behind white women joining the low-paid ranks of the new healthcare workforce during the collapse of US steel in the early 80s are snottily dismissed as reflecting their patriarchal suppression and religiosity, in contrast to the neutral economic concerns of their black colleagues:

White women, on the other hand, generally wound up in health care work through a process more inflected with religious and gendered ideology.

In an academic work, these divisive and personal claims should — if they are to be made — be supported by a significant amount of contextual evidence. No such context is provided for these or many other conclusions in the book, leaving an unpleasant aftertaste.

Machismo Unionism

Perhaps most concerning is Winant’s use of testimony to construct a critique of strikes being borne of machismo, embedded in steelworkers’ cruel indifference towards the impact their actions had on their families and the wider community. Referring to the hugely successful 1959 strike over attempts to scrap Section 2-B (which protected local workgroup sizes), Winant prefaces his point with a sympathetic account of the industry’s struggling productivity lag in the build-up to the strike, saying that ‘It became clear that management had not found a way to increase productivity growth within all these constraints [Section 2-B].’ In fact, all major steel companies were at this time reporting incredibly high profits — a situation which had grounded the unions’ stake for a pay rise, and a fact which Winant ignores entirely.

Winant then follows with a lengthy character assassination of the union’s president David McDonald, ‘who had never worked in a mill and seemed to prefer limousines to picket lines’, suggesting that MacDonald cynically seized on the attacks against Section 2-B to protect himself from internal democratic challenge from the Dues Protest Committee (DPC) within the union. ‘In this sense,’ argues Winant, ‘the attack on Section 2-B was a godsend for the union leadership.’ (MacDonald had, in fact, begun his working life in a steel mill, following his shop steward father, although he worked in a clerical role). Winant follows with an excoriating series of testimonies portraying the hardship undertaken by striking workers and their families, proposing that the strike was primarily driven by machismo at the expense of steelworker’s wives and children, summarised in the steelworkers’ mantra ‘I don’t eat shit for nobody’. ‘But’, Winant notes ominously, referring to the wives and families of the strikers, ‘others had to eat theirs’.

After four months, the strike ended in the protection of Section 2-B and an astonishing 40 percent pay rise following an intervention from the Nixon government. It was the largest strike in US history and a total victory for trade unionists, involving 500,000 workers and confirming the massive strength of steelworkers. Yet Winant’s conclusions in the chapter project a dismal psychoanalytical take on the event. ‘The strike condensed a particular, ambivalent structure of feeling about work for men’, he concludes:

This moment, it seems, was the apex of proletarian manhood for a generation of steelworkers; their ability to fight for their living was tested, and they won. The victory in the 1959 strike is the eponymous centerpiece of Metzgar’s memoir of his father. In such memories, it is easy to miss how many workers hated the jobs they defended…

Winant then argues that such successful wage claims were effectively damaging the rest of society through the creation of inflation, that the strike ‘threw into dramatic relief the bifurcation of postwar citizenship between collective bargaining’s insiders and outsiders’. The conflict, in his eyes, ‘posed the question of whether a large and economically central but still limited group, in the name of their own dignity on the job,’ could ‘inflict on society as a whole’ the inflation that politicians wanted to contain. ‘The answer,’ Winant says, ‘was yes.’ Since they won through government intervention in the dispute, the strike was apparently insufficiently radical in Winant’s eyes: ‘this strike’, he writes, ‘was not an illegal insurgency… [triumph] came about through the machinery of state, not against it.’

Drawing the chapter to a close, Winant finishes with a criticism of the ‘fetishization of industrial work’, which he believes has ‘built up over the decades’, once again repeating the spurious psychoanalytical claim that steelworkers defending their jobs and communities, in fact, hated their work and subconsciously longed to be free from it. As such, Winant would have us believe that success for steelworkers in demanding decent jobs and livelihoods came at the direct expense of the wider working class, as well as the psychological wellbeing of steelworkers themselves.

Winant’s position on this matter is further confirmed later with an account of Ed Sadlowski’s 1977 campaign for the international presidency of the USWA. Sadlowski had come to prominence following his success in union elections in 1974 as a pro-democracy, anti-corruption candidate, partnered with an eclectic range of alliances from Communists to avowed right-wingers. During the 1977 election, which Sadlowski lost, Winant enthusiastically points to controversial statements he made during his campaign calling for mass redundancies and deindustrialisation of steel:

“We’ve reduced labor forces (in basic steel) from 520,000, fifteen years ago, to 400,000. Let’s reduce them to 100,000.” This left-wing challenger put a proletarian spin on the post-industrial discourse of the time: “There are workers right now who are full of poems and doctors who are operating cranes.” A doctor, he suggested, “is more useful than a man with the capacity to be a doctor spending his life on a crane.”’

Again, accepting the prevailing neoliberal framing of American deindustrialisation as an unavoidable certainty, Winant elaborates on Sadlowski’s position, writing that:

Correctly perceiving that labor was being reallocated between sectors by powerful forces — if not quite grasping the dimensions of this process in terms of education, race and gender — Sadlowski still saw far. Nobody, he acknowledged, loved working in a steel mill. Perhaps structural economic change could bring greater human freedom — the true purpose of the labor movement. Advancing a critique of labor’s productivism, Sadlowski proposed that the “ultimate goal of organized labor is for no man to have to go down into the bowels of the earth and dig coal.” Those displaced from steel work could “…find employment somewhere else”.

Considering that amongst the purported focuses of this work is understanding the devastation which followed the collapse of Pittsburgh’s steel industry, this last point seems particularly reckless. Indeed, a British reader may be reminded by Sadlowski’s remarks of Tory politician Norman Tebbit, who said that unemployed workers in the 1980s should simply ‘get on their bikes’ to find work. Yet time and time again, Winant encourages us to embrace that same process of deindustrialisation, liberating Western workforces from unpleasant manual labour and engaging an inevitable path to progress.

Western deindustrialisation was not a necessary or inevitable process. It was a calculated act of economic vandalism committed on — and by — profitable industries that were being forced by the might of organised workers to share far more wealth than they would have intended. Not every advanced economy shared this path. Germany engaged in protective policies and consistent investment to manage a transition into high-tech industry and manufacturing, avoiding the destruction of its manufacturing and industrial base. Countries like Korea, Taiwan and China have also shown a clear alternative path where achieving widespread prosperity through increased wages does not mean deindustrialisation. Indeed, research conducted at UCL suggests that deindustrialisation acts as a barrier to consistent productivity growth in later stages of economic development, concluding that protecting and developing domestic industry is ‘crucial for sustained high rates of productivity growth’.

Deindustrialisation Was a Choice

One of the greatest historic victories for organised labour had been breaking the logic of classical liberal economics by the choice — made simultaneously by most Western economies — to use the state to force wealth redistribution and counter-cyclical investment. It was a decision to drive forward a model of growth which put the livelihoods and welfare of the population ahead of the abstract freedoms of capital and formed the bedrock of the post-war consensus on domestic economic policy for decades. When the American ruling class moved away from this model in the 1980s, they broke with an economic consensus which had overseen the greatest and most consistent advancement of wealth amongst the general public in all human history, returning to a neo-Victorian paradigm in which living standards for workers were — at best — a secondary consideration to the free movement of capital. This is apparently a paradigm The Next Shift endorses, presenting union wage claims in steel as responsible for general inflation and acting as a vainglorious attempt to preserve a doomed way of life at the wider social expense.

This leads us back to Winant’s emphasis on the growth of the American health sector and its role as a focal point for struggle and organisation One of the most successful aspects of The Next Shift is its account of the role of unions in forming the structure of America’s mass health market, including the polarisation of a labour market where unionised workers created demand for a hyper-exploited subset of largely female, overwhelmingly black workers excluded from the services they provided.

Yet a gaping hole in Winant’s analysis appears when one considers the lack of explanation provided for the appearance of mass healthcare provision amongst advanced economies globally in the same period. Medicare, one of the central drivers behind American healthcare consumption and demand, was created in 1965. In Britain, universal healthcare was established in 1948, and in France and Belgium in 1945 — to name a few.

None of these systems had been influenced by the same trends of community hospitals supported by union-backed medical insurance as had been the case in the USA. Yet all appeared with varying levels of state subsidy or funding and degrees of governmental oversight and coordination. The development of mass healthcare provision was not the unique consequence of Pittsburgh steelworkers’ unions, but part of an international trend of concessions to organised labour in the face of a geopolitical and ideological rival in the Soviet Union, and established levels of workers’ organisation.

Given these origins, Winant should put thought to his enthusiasm for healthcare and the care sector as the new front in organising for workers’ power. As he recognises in the opening chapter of The Next Shift, the emergence of healthcare as a large sector of employment in the United States has been part of a pattern of ‘polarization’ or ‘dualisation’ in which ‘profits accrue increasingly to sectors which do not provide mass employment, while labour simultaneously accumulates in low-margin industries’ with limited options for productivity outside of wage suppression and work intensification (healthcare, education and social services).

Perhaps chronic low pay in these sectors is not simply an accident, or down to lack of effective organising of the workforce; perhaps the leverage that employees possess in these sectors — the ability to remove services vital for the health and wellbeing of the public — are fundamentally less influential in the process of global capital accumulation than the production of raw materials like steel.

It’s true that thanks to the successes of the labour movement historically, Western populations have established a certain level of social expectation around access to healthcare and education. At the same time, large healthcare institutions and Big Pharma have become powerful entrenched interests within the body politic of countries such as the US, reliant on a model of mass healthcare consumerism, and will fight for their survival.

But in the first instance, the raw economic power of organised workers — particularly around industries such as steel — enabled such expectations and institutions to be created. Historically, an impoverished, unhealthy working population has been the norm and even preferred default in capitalist economies, widely viewed by economists and business as providing a large pool of reserve labour willing to be exploited. It is yet to be proven that organised workers within the healthcare sector itself could ever wield the same level of influence as those in steel, who helped to build the broader working class prosperity on which the expansion of healthcare was predicated in the first instance.

This is no argument to suggest that organising within health should not be a priority of the labour movement — clearly, it is both a moral and political imperative. It is, however, to query Winant’s continued hostility to suggestions of reindustrialisation, attacks on the nostalgia held by many working-class Americans for more prosperous times, and his continued dismissal of the achievements of the historic organised labour movement. Such views are perhaps expressed with greater clarity in Winant’s 2021 piece in the New York Times calling on Biden to relinquish his focus on rebuilding US manufacturing. The article, entitled ‘Manufacturing isn’t coming back. Let’s Improve These Jobs Instead’ argues against ‘treat[ing] such [blue collar] employment as an end in itself’ and instead argues for investment to increase the wages of ‘low-wage jobs’ in care.

In the article, Winant makes the patently untrue remark that ‘blue collar work’ is not ‘a category of labor for which our economy generates consistent demand’. Following the deindustrialisation of Western economies, the world did not simply cease to produce and utilise manufactured goods. Rather, such work was outsourced to developing nations where the labour is performed by un-unionised, hyper-exploited workers. Apparently, the plights of such workers concerns Winant less than the ‘workers full of poems’ identified by Sadlowski in 1970s Pittsburgh. Equally, given his use of standard economic concepts to discard the idea of ‘demand’ for manufacturing within the American economy, it is bizarre that in its place, Winant proposes a circular economy based on general public taxation toward the subsidisation of a healthcare system, which has no natural economic function for additional capital accumulation, wealth creation or productivity growth.

A Dead End

The truth is, quite apart from being a succubus for the wider workers’ movement, the organisation of labour around key industries such as steel created a wider umbrella of political cover for trade unionism, enabling workers’ organisations to grow in smaller sectors of the economy and even creating new economic sectors to service working people (such as the healthcare system which is the focus of Winant’s work). The loss of these sectors has immeasurably weakened the voice and potential strength of workers elsewhere.

In many senses, The Next Shift presents a perspective which is wholly uncomfortable with the presentation of post-war organised labour as a source of hope or inspiration for the future. It’s a cautionary warning tale to any who may feel inspired by the bravery or self-sacrifice of those communities — presenting them instead as wasted, tragically maladjusted figures whose efforts amounted ultimately to nothing. Such a depiction is, of course, a gross disservice and, frankly, insulting.

As a final point, it must be said that The Next Shift is a remarkable reflection of the contemporary left. As a prominent socialist academic, it is striking that Winant argues against everything that the labour movement left has articulated regarding neoliberalism and deindustrialisation for decades.

The characterisation of careless, macho union men making everyone around them miserable through self-destructive acts of industrial vanity was once a right-wing caricature. The adoption of a fatalist perspective on macroeconomic change justifying the brutal destruction of American industry comes directly from the Reaganite playbook, and obsession with wages as a source of inflation is little more than Friedman-style monetarism. Furthermore, the bizarre, detached observations on the lives of steelworkers in The Next Shift are reminiscent of scandalised Victorian elites gawping at the crude habits and actions of the urban industrial poor.

That such a book was lauded by so many sections of the left is a concerning display of the distance the left has travelled from the labour movement, and which continues to provide it with sustenance and protection. With friends like these, the labour movement hardly needs enemies.