On a cool summer day, far away from a metropolis or highway, Donnie’s Big Four Store is at a crossroads in the Appalachian Mountains just outside the small town of Sandy Hook in eastern Kentucky. 

Donnie, the white-mustached owner of the store, watched as a woman and man with sunken eyes clambered into their big red pickup and vanished down the road. According to Donnie, they were drug addicts who didn’t work.

“They don’t want a job,” he said, between smiles, referring to non-working people in his town. He offered these parting words before he left to attend to his cattle.

Many from the Rust Belt speak easily about the non-working people in their communities. They claim non-working people are welfare-dependent opioid addicts. But these non-working people – subjects of both contempt and pity – are rare to come across. At times they seem more a spectral fear than tangible people.

The Rust Belt is coming to grips with the changing world of work. Automation, international competition, and industry consolidation are eating away at steel and other industries in the Rust Belt. As manufacturing jobs lose ground to professional white-collar work and low-wage service and care jobs, a new work ethic is developing and threatening to replace the one that created a blue-collar middle class. This new work ethic, predicated on advancement through education, is foreign to many of these parents and communities who do not want to abandon the blue-collar identity that orients them in the world.

This isn’t a new story. American communities have always resisted economic change when their values were on the line — including the values underlying work. The disappearance of work has threatened the transmission of work ethic from parent to child. Now, people in the Rust Belt are not just worried about the future of work; they are uncertain if there will even be one.

***

In the Rust Belt, the value of hard work has grounded identity and community for generations. Steel jobs in the 19th century built the Rust Belt in all its families, communities, towns, and cities. For a few places, they still serve that role. “We are the community,” said Pete Trinidad, the President of Local 6787 of United Steel Workers in Chesterton, Indiana. Chesterton, like much of northwest Indiana, has flourished thanks to the steel industry. “A job means everything,” he said. It means feeding, clothing, and raising a middle-class family, retiring with dignity, and leading a decent life. Pete worked to win the union members’ benefits: healthcare, pension, vacation, overtime and holiday pay, and a family wage above $100,000 in annual income. And these benefits don’t require a bachelor’s degree – thanks to the union, the plant will train you on-site. Pete is proud to say his mill has the best steelworkers in the world.

Before the industry could unionize, steel communities produced an identity based around men doing manual labor hours at a time to provide for their families and contribute their part to national prosperity. Founded in 1800, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, quickly became a steel town and home to several immigrant groups who found opportunity in the steel mills. Rebuilding after the flood and fire of 1889 demonstrated the strength of the steel community. The mills meant more than a job. They represented an ethic, a way of life. This spirit rooted generations of steelers in the valley, resisting its natural proclivity to flood and wash away civilization.

Johnstown’s spirit lived on its work ethic, and the steeler work ethic sprang from the demand that the mills never stopped forging and the furnaces burned hot, day and night. Eight-hour shifts ran from 7 AM-3 PM, 3 PM-11 PM, and 11 PM-7 AM. If a worker didn’t show up for his shift, someone else would be forced to cover it, inculcating a strong sense of personal responsibility to show up and work hard. At the same time, workers and their families could rely on one another if in a bind because mill work structured the town – the community pitched in to make sure the kids didn’t go hungry during strikes. Sharing the same work-life meant workers would toil away side by side, blow off steam at the same dive bar, and go home to sleep – then repeat it all the next day. Contributing to the community and providing for one’s family forged a certain dignity for workers that ensured the mills ran day and night – nothing else could.

Johnstown, Pennsylvania

Today, only remnants of the steel industry remain. The scrap metal factory on the outskirts of the town feeds on the former life of the steel mills, squeezing out what it can. But the blue-collar work ethic that built Johnstown is hanging on for survival.

Samuel Esbasito sat on his retirement pension – and porch, watching the annual amateur baseball game begin in Johnstown. Sam’s father came from Genoa, Italy, and worked in the mills in the 1960s to feed a family of 15 children. Immigrant enclaves built communities around the mills. Through his scraggly grey beard, Sam mumbled, “Working hard won’t help you anymore.” Sam meant that hard work, as he understood it, cannot exist without the mills. But the mills are gone. That door is closed. “Everything is overseas. You get something made, it’s overseas.”

Sam recognized that work opportunities have been limited since the mills shut down, but he linked the phenomenon of people not working to their easy access to welfare benefits, such as food stamps. “People giving [non-working people] everything made them that way. People who don’t wanna do nothing, who don’t wanna work, don’t bring ‘em to Johnstown.”

Those who grew up with the mills may have a conception of hard work that excludes low-wage service employees, not just the non-working people they consider lazy or overly dependent. 

 “Them half-way house people, they work at McDonald’s over there to pay their bills because they are afraid to go out and get a job. They don’t want a job,” Sam said.

According to Jennifer Klein, a history professor at Yale, the value of work is tied to the way people define concepts like “breadwinner” and “masculinity.” Significant parts of a person’s identity are wrapped up in their work. In a place like Johnstown, service jobs fall outside of the conception of hard work that meant men breaking their backs in the mills. They find no dignity in them. This is a problem. Low-wage service and care jobs have been outpacing manufacturing jobs for several decades, a gap that will only continue to widen. Yet the old work ethic rejects this reality and denigrates these new jobs, leading communities to struggle and collapse.

“If the mills were to leave, just look at what happened in Gary,” said Pete Trinidad, who hails from nearby Chesterton.

Gary, Indiana, was once a true steel town — its plant manager was the mayor. Today, U.S. Steel owns the last mill in the city. As of 2015 it employed only 5,000 workers of the 30,000 it had in 1970. Thirty percent of Gary lives in poverty. The once-commercial main street of Broadway now largely consists of gas stations, dollar stores, and boarded-up buildings. Newly painted residences sit next to burned-down homes and spontaneous treehouses. Only 20 minutes away from the Cleveland Cliffs mill in Chesterton, Gary is a warning for steelworkers.

When a mill closes and workers lose their jobs, it can be devastating. The skills workers develop in the mill over the course of their lives are hardly transferable to other jobs. “It’s very tough for someone in their 50s used to working in the steel mill environment to go out and work for Google,” Pete said. 

A 44-year-old bartender and former union representative at a paper mill, Danny witnessed the heroin epidemic kill his former classmates in Middletown, Ohio, just around when AK Steel locked out and replaced workers on strike. “This town ain’t what it used to be. This town used to be a good town,” Danny said.

***

Yet this narrative of industrial decline in the Rust Belt and its effects on the community conceals why the white-collar opportunities that do spring forward are not always taken. One-time steel cities like Pittsburgh and Chicago have largely overcome the decline of their blue-collar industries. They now offer professional pathways in law, business, medicine, and academia, but only if one is able and willing to get an education. 

Economic change has made the tools for education inaccessible to displaced blue-collar workers. Pittsburgh’s Carnegie neighborhood library system is a case in point.

Suzy Waldo, manager of the South Side Carnegie Neighborhood Library, explained that over 10,000 “mill hunkies” came to the library in its opening week in 1909. The library met the needs of the vast working immigrant population by lending technological and mechanical books in numerous European languages. As one of Carnegie’s 17 neighborhood libraries in Pittsburgh, it served its intended mission: “to engage the community in literacy and learning.”

Then, when the mills shut down in the 1980s, white-collar workers gentrified much of Pittsburgh, including the South Side. Whereas the old working-class customer base used the library for educational purposes and workforce development, the new professional “lunch crowd” goes to the library for poetry readings and jazz performances. Blue-collar families are effectively shut out of this opportunity for life-long education. 

The clinging pride of the Steeler work ethic prevents many blue-collar parents from prioritizing the education of their kids, even though this is key to accessing professional opportunities. Their resistance often keeps their kids out of the world of work altogether.

A 21-year-old lifeguard manager at the pool behind the South Side Library, Jalen Pennix explained older men preach “hard work” and “getting dirty,” even though that life is long gone. “Parents tell their kids to get union jobs,” he said. “If you want to go to college and graduate college, they’re proud of you, but they don’t understand it, so you don’t get the right motivation for it.” Without strong parental support, Jalen said that pursuing higher education is more difficult and less familiar than joining a gang, given how embedded gangs are in the neighborhood.

Parents are key to passing on a work ethic to their kids — in their absence, that work ethic dies.  Barbara Barber, a grandmother from Chicago’s West Side, said that a lot of the kids in the neighborhood call her “mom” because their parents are absent or addicts. Because gangs often feed, house, and look out for their members, many kids join gangs, so they have people they can call family. And without parental or community encouragement, Barbara said that many kids drop out of school around eighth grade.

Schools alone cannot motivate kids to seek out the white-collar opportunities that conflict with the work ethic and identity of their blue-collar parents. Though the teachers at Jalen’s alma mater, Brashear High, try to cultivate their students’ interests and skills, Jalen noted that they don’t put up much of a fight when they run into motivational problems with students. “Nobody really cares, no one is really striving to do anything,” he said. 

It’s almost too easy to craft a story of blue-collar parents and their kids who resist abandoning a way of life that they also can’t preserve. With their work ethic dying, they may try to escape this trap through drugs and gangs. But this path of resistance further forecloses opportunities. Without an education, only the low-wage service and care jobs are left. And these too conflict with the value of hard work associated with the mills.

Blue-collar parents and kids resist the jobs of the new economy because the memory of the mills and what they meant lingers. The mills once grounded communities, built schools, and fed large families. They made the good life accessible through hard work alone.

This sociological picture is probably true in part. But its idealization of the past misses something crucial: Industrial work might not be what it was cracked up to be, and maybe it never was.

In the ghost town of Gary, it is strange that so few of the workers at U.S. Steel are from the city. Pete Trinidad from Chesterton explained most commute from nearby towns or neighboring states.

At 34, Terrence Woods has a felony from his past involvement with gangs and recently became homeless. A felony conviction is a scarlet letter in many workplaces. But it isn’t the only thing that stopped Terrence from working at U.S. Steel. Terrence didn’t want to. “That’s the last place people decide to go work at,” Terrence scoffed.

Terrence knew a lot of mill workers who got injured or died “falling asleep and going there drunk.” Risks aside, many in Gary seem to have changed their minds about the value of industrial work since the mills left. “It’s too much hard work,” Terrence said. “It’s dirty work.” People from Gary would rather work at a Walmart, Family Dollar, or some other service job.

“I told my kids I’d kill ‘em if I ever caught them working in that steel plant,” Danny said.  Though he cited the risk of injury and death, he added, “They make good livings, but they don’t have a whole lot of life.” In the sometimes 90-hour workweek, the factory becomes a black hole. “It’s your own greed too. If you want all that money, you can work as many hours as you want. They’re not doing it against their wills, but they look back over the years and think, ‘I could’ve done a lot more than that.’”

Even with his rose-tinted glasses, Pete Trinidad recognized how racking up hours at the mill can affect family life. As union president, he’s helped steelworkers who have told him, “My wife left me. My kids don’t know who I am.”

Given changing attitudes and the risks to health, family, and well-being, these perspectives suggest that mill work may not be worth saving.

“If your choice is working in the hazardous waste pit or not working, is not working really an irrational choice?” Klein said. 

*** 

Like other Rust Belt towns and cities, Sandy Hook, Kentucky, is more than its industry. Though industrial jobs probably drew people there in the first place, they are not why people want to stay anymore. They want to preserve their way of life.

Sandy Hook’s amateur genealogist Anita Skaggs, loves to talk and laugh, but she grew quiet and cautious when asked about drug addiction in her community.  “We are so much more than poverty,” she said with a kind Southern drawl.

“There’s no place I’d rather live,” Anita’s husband, Gobel, said. “No better place to live and raise your kids.” 

Sandy Hook has no major waterways, rails, or highways, but Gobel and Anita like it this way. They are far away from the drugs and crime of the city, not to mention the sirens and odors. Tucked away in the peace and quiet of the mountains where the sky is clear even when it’s grey, Sandy Hook feels Edenic.

The Kentucky work ethic has stubbornly defied Sandy Hook’s natural obstacles to industry. Farms are perched in every flat plot of land, no matter how small or high up in the mountains. Whether bulldozing coal or welding, Gobel has never worked closer than 45 minutes out of town. Talking about Gobel’s father, Anita said, “Daddy worked as hard for one dollar as for thirty. It was the way he was brought up; you do the job.” 

But when the government stopped guaranteeing the minimum price of tobacco and there was no more coal left to mine, the town’s main industries dried up, leaving many without jobs. But the people didn’t want to leave.

Resistance to economic migration can take many forms. Some opt out of work entirely even if it earns them the contempt of the community. Anita explained, “These people don’t want to leave, so they figure out public assistance generation to generation to sustain their way of life.” 

Others persevere to make a living with what is still available. A former coal bulldozer, Gobel got technical training and commutes longer distances to be a welder. Anita runs an inn with aims of investing in tourism. 

Michael Denning, a professor of American Studies at Yale, said, “Work changes faster than our ideas about work under capitalism, which is different from other kinds of societies in which you might have done the work of your parents and grandparents.” Market forces, indifferent to human dignity, disrupt the idea of work that grounds communities, forcing people to find new ways to justify why they work. 

As much as resisting economic change is part of Sandy Hook’s history, the frustration and pity directed at non-working people might signal a deeper fear — that the future of work may not leave space for resistance.

The post-industrial economy is upon us, and there is no going back. At some point, market forces will compel the industrial working class to ask if preserving an antiquated work life is viable under capitalism. Will these people be able to accept that service and care jobs and higher education may be the “hard work” of a new work ethic? Or rather than resist by refusing to work, will they rebel against the economic system that routinely hollows out their identity?

For now though, the resistance to preserve the blue-collar work ethic lives on. 

The hope that Sandy Hook’s past has a future is enshrined in Donnie’s Big Four Store. A massive airplane-windmill contraption is suspended on a pole out front. The lone gas pump must have rusted since the 1950s. Inside, Donnie watches a Western on a flatscreen. His antique collection and hand-crafted metal sculptures share the shelves with pickled pork hocks and bottles of pop. Vintage guns and a beehive hang from the ceiling. Donnie stands at the cash register in his overalls with his sun-worn, cheerful face. And at the bottom of the glass cashier booth is a little red hat that reads, “President Trump 2024: Keep America Great.”

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