Affecting portrait of a decaying loop on the Rust Belt.
Science journalist Rudacille (The Riddle of Gender: Science, Activism, and Transgender Rights, 2005, etc.) is a native of Dundalk, Md., a town near Baltimore and, like that larger city, a place of mixed ethnicities and decidedly mixed fortunes. It is now ground zero for what President Obama noted in his campaign about the bitterness felt by blue-collar, and especially white blue-collar, America of late, a remark for which Obama was much criticized. “But he was only saying what anyone who comes from a place like Dundalk knows full well is true,” writes the author. “Over the past thirty years, its residents have watched a hard-won prosperity and security slip away.” Rudacille provides close descriptions of that hard winning, an effort born of union organizing and endless negotiation against improbable odds. Some of the champions of that effort were unabashed socialists and communists. Recalls one worker, “When I was a kid, I overheard a lot of conversations about workers’ rights…A lot of it was in Italian.” Italians and Eastern Europeans bonded with longtime Marylanders to work against the color line—not necessarily out of any strong affection for African-American workers in those days, Rudacille notes, but rather because of the difficulty of trying to organize parallel segregated unions. Some workers prospered; others became ill from lungs full of asbestos and veins full of industrial toxins; but all made a community that thrived until corporate executives, seeking a way to reduce costs while innovating, took the jobs overseas, often to plants built in the aftermath of war against our former enemies. In the end, Rudacille has delivered a book that would do Studs Terkel proud, partaking of his oral-historical approach to the past at turns, imbued with his pro-labor spirit throughout.
Required reading for activists and for those wondering where things went wrong for America’s working people.