Why does the working class no longer support the party of working men and women? Well, obviously the decline of organized labor plays a huge role; the proportion of private-sector workers represented by a union is 6 percent, about half what it was in 1992. But Lainey Newman, a law student at Harvard, and the Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol suggest in their new book, Rust Belt Union Blues, that the decline shouldn’t be measured just in terms of falling membership. It should also be measured according to unions’ presence in the rank and file’s everyday nonworking lives.
Through fieldwork Newman conducted in Western Pennsylvania, the book documents the community-building role that union halls and labor-affiliated churches formerly played but mostly play no longer. Some of this was practical, like the sponsorship of blood drives and Alcoholics Anonymous chapters. Some was purely recreational, like fishing clubs, coin-collectors’ clubs, golf field days, and yes, that favorite of Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam, bowling leagues.
The thesis of Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, which created a sensation when it was published in 2000, was that the decline of fraternal and other volunteer and recreational organizations left Americans feeling isolated and mutually distrustful. That certainly fits what Newman and Skocpol describe. But it’s also more complicated than that. In many cases, the communities themselves simply vanished as industrial plants shut down. The ones that remained were no longer close by; workers had to travel long distances to get to work. Skocpol, who grew up south of Detroit, told me she’d recently been back and noticed that while Ford’s massive River Rouge plant in Dearborn was still in business, the smaller auto plants further south along the river, around which thriving communities had formed, were mostly gone. Today autoworkers, she said, “are driving in.”