He was alone and miserable, cleaning up a strike station in Peoria, Illinois, where members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) had lived in the heat and the cold.
UAW had just folded its standoff against Caterpillar after years of
strikes and was returning to work largely on the terms the company
had first laid down.
were losers when we came back from Vietnam,” the muscular,
middle-aged worker told me nearly two decades ago. “We were losers
when we put up this battle and now we’ve lost the American dream.”
like him have been losing more than their American dream. They’ve
been losing their lives.
2015, Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton
pointed out that the death rate of middle-aged
white Americans had changed direction and spurted upward,
reversing years of steady
decline. The “turnaround” was mostly driven by the deaths of
those with a high school degree or less.
into questions raised by that study, the economists’ latest
analysis finds that the grim reality has continued to touch
working class Americans with limited educations. And they
predict that these middle-aged Americans are likely “to do much
worse in old age than those currently older than 65.”
the death spiral are growing rates of suicide, drug and alcohol
poisoning, liver diseases and cirrhosis, the economists say. They
liken the trend to the sudden emergence of an iceberg rising up out
makes these middle-aged white workers different from black or Latino
workers in the United States in the same economic straits, or from
workers in similarly rich nations—all of whom show declining death
as Deaton explained in a recent NPR
interview, these white Americans’ death rate now exceeds the
rate for black Americans “as a whole.”
as if poorly educated whites have now taken over from blacks as the
lowest rung in terms of mortality rates,” he said in the interview.
pinpointing a specific reason, Deaton and Case suggest that the cycle
of “deaths of despair” comes from the collapse of jobs and
benefits for these workers who then tumble into heart-breaking
problems of physical and emotional health, family difficulties, drugs
and just plain survival. It is a portrait of cascading hopelessness,
where workers go from stagnating wages to joblessness to dropping out
of the job market.
you’ve spent any time listening to workers’ heartbreak for the
last few decades as I have, however, it is saddening to hear the
shock and controversy among experts over the economists’ last two
could have heard the cries for help building.
they needed to do was spend some time in a union hall, hang out at
an unemployment office, kill an afternoon in a bar or the gloomy
living room of a worker on the decline to hear the despair that fills
workers’ hearts. But this is an especially American tragedy rooted
in our workaday DNA.
American dilemma because when good-paying jobs began to vanish for
workers with a strong back, grit to do a tough or mindless job and
little education besides high school, it’s like somebody stole
blue-collar workers, who once earned decent wages, thought they owned
their jobs and what comes with it. But most American companies don’t
American workers once thought that their tire factory, steel plant,
paper mill or garment mill would never shut down and would be there
for their children. But fate dealt a different hand for workers and
their families in Akron, Gary, Youngstown and across the South, where
the garment industry vanished in a huff.
to these places and more, I realized that the most lethal wound from
the hollowing out of blue-collar jobs for American workers is the
psychic one. Seeking out local union officials in the 1980s at places
where the jobs had disappeared, I found that some had died suddenly
or sunk into solemn silence. They had tried to stand tall, to help
their rank and file move on, but there was little help from their
union or their government and the future kept on darkening all around
these workers hasn’t been easy because so many blame themselves and
not the companies or the American way of doing business for the
misfortune that suddenly enveloped them. One day I talked a young
worker out of suicide. He’d failed to get back on his feet after
his small auto parts plant in southern Michigan had shut down and
met with wives of striking workers in Decatur, Illinois, who came
together to help each other because their husbands had slipped into
silence or were numbing themselves with alcohol. I spent time with a
grief-stricken husband, whose union was on strike, and whose wife
died during a demonstration. I spoke often with a labor-friendly
priest in Decatur, who was stunned by the last words a wife gave her
husband. He had returned unhappily to work after a long-term lockout
and had been fatally injured in a car accident. She told her dying
husband that at least he would not have to go back to the job.
long ago, I met with a middle-aged worker in Chicago, the sole source
of income for her family, who fell into a deep depression
International said it was moving a large chunk of workers’
jobs at its Nabisco bakery to Mexico.
after she was laid off, a job opened up and she was called back. But
her fears about her future had already taken a powerful toll.
hearing news of the layoffs, the woman had begun losing her hair
until she was totally bald. The bakery workers union is fighting the
move with a boycott of
the firm’s Mexican-made products.
of her mother’s situation, her teenage daughter was stunned when
she returned home from college and saw her mother. “I was scared,”
she said. “I thought she had cancer.”
didn’t have cancer. But she had, indeed, succumbed to an
>> The article above was written by Stephen Franklin and is reprinted from In These Times.