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'Nothin' but Blues Skies' tells Rust Belt stories

Book Review

Edward McClelland's book reminds us of what has transpired in the heartland of America over the past 30 years.

May 26, 2013|By Scott Martelle
  • An abandoned factory stands near General Motors world headquarters at the Renaissance Center in Detroit on April 27, 2009.
An abandoned factory stands near General Motors world headquarters at… (Jeff Kowalsky / Bloomberg…)

To drive these days through Great Lakes cities — Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, among others — is to drive through the nation's industrial past. The iconic images have become Rust Belt cliché: weed-choked parking lots, windowless houses, cold factories stripped of their metals and open to the elements.

But there are human stories behind those static images, and author and journalist Edward McClelland digs deeply into them for his empathetic new book, "Nothin' but Blues Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America's Industrial Heartland."

Engagingly written, the book covers some of the emblematic stories of the past few decades, from the 1994 A.E. Staley labor lockout in Decatur, Ill., an underappreciated example of the uneven playing field on which organized labor fights these days, to the creation of a shoppers' paradise out of old steel property in Homestead, Pa., near Pittsburgh, a "microcosm of what America had become: a nation of shopkeepers who sold each other things, instead of making things."

In many ways, "Nothin' but Blue Skies" is a personal travelogue. The book begins with McClelland dropping into a blue-collar bar across the street from a closed auto plant in his native Lansing, Mich., where he entered high school as the bottom was falling out of the auto industry with the 1981-82 recession. McClelland also was a newspaper reporter in Decatur during the Staley lockout, and now lives in Chicago, which also gets some play in the book.

The author is fully present in these scenes, though the tales are predominantly those of others: Steelworkers laid off in their 50s, never to work again; autoworkers in their 40s moving into service jobs at a fraction of their former pay; chronically poor urban scavengers; young men who will never have a shot at a factory job rolling drugs in urban underground economies. Or economies in which nothing is produced.

"Young people who were born after the manufacturing base was destroyed, I don't think they have a clue about what this place was like," Homestead Mayor Betty Esper tells McClelland. "All they know is there's no jobs out there. They don't know why … you can't grow an economy, grow a middle class, without making things."

At its best, McClelland's book reminds us of what has transpired in the heart of the country over the past 30 years and of the battering endured by hundreds of thousands of working-class families as global corporatism and federal trade policies gutted the American middle class. These aren't issues of political partisanship. Ronald Reagan, a Republican, set the tone for management-friendly labor laws with the dismissal of the striking air-traffic controllers. Bill Clinton, a Democrat, did the same for off-shoring jobs with free-trade agreements like NAFTA.

McClelland leaves these issues mostly unexplored, a fundamental weakness of the book. For all the rich details of time and place, the questions "how" and "why" get scant attention. Some of it is included through interviews with labor activists, particularly in the sections on Homestead, but a more dispassionate analysis and context would have made this a much stronger book.

At the same time, McClelland tells us mostly stories from the 1980s and 1990s, which means the first two-thirds of "Nothin' but Blue Skies" could have been written a decade ago. We read about Michael Moore and "Roger & Me," Ben Hamper and his now-two-decade-old memoir "Rivethead: Tales From the Assembly Line," the political rise of Dennis Kucinich, and the times that Cleveland's Cuyahoga River caught fire. By the time McClelland gets to contemporary portraits toward the end, the stories feel more like piled-on examples than insight.

Nonetheless, this is a good and broadening complement to a recent wave of Detroit-centric documentaries and books, including Mark Binelli's "Detroit City Is the Place to Be" and "Detroit: An American Autopsy" by Charlie LeDuff, a former Los Angeles correspondent for the New York Times. (My book, "Detroit: A Biography," was published last year.)

Where those books focused almost exclusively on Detroit, McClelland offers a welcome wider view, reminding us that though Detroit's collapse might be the overarching symbol of the decline of blue-collar America, it's not the only example. Similarly, Detroit's residents aren't the only domestic victims of the global corporate push for cheap labor.

But also as in Detroit's case, solutions to these city-destroying problems are as elusive as a steelmaking job in Pittsburgh.

Irvine-based author and journalist Martelle is at work on "Jones's Bones: The Search for an American Hero," due out next spring.

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