The Next Shift | Gabriel Winant

Summary of: The Next Shift: The Fall of Industry and the Rise of Health Care in Rust Belt America
By: Gabriel Winant


Dive into the fascinating transformation of labor markets in Rust Belt America in ‘The Next Shift’ by Gabriel Winant. This book summary sheds light on how the fall of the steel industry paved the way for the rapid expansion of the health care sector. Understand the implications this shift has had on society, as employers prioritize profits over workforce welfare and the public and private welfare state evolves. Discover the racial and gender divides manifested in these industries, how health care has responded to rising costs, and the challenges faced by low-wage workers.

The Trilemma of the US Care Industry

The US care industry faces a trilemma with increasing polarization in the labor market. While the care sector continues to grow rapidly and is among the largest employers in the US, it operates at low margins with limited productivity and efficiency options. The employers in this sector seek to rid themselves of responsibility for their large workforce through “fissuring,” misclassifying workers as independent contractors. Care workers are responsible for everyone, but no one is responsible for them. The industry can either keep wages low, increase wages and shed jobs or rely on government intervention.

The Rise and Fall of Pittsburgh’s Steel Industry

Pittsburgh’s steel industry once provided the majority of jobs for blue-collar workers, with white women occupying clerical roles and Black women taking on service and domestic work. However, there was a clear racial hierarchy, with Black men largely working as unskilled laborers. The industry’s decline in the 1970s exacerbated the divide between those who had union jobs and those who did not, and it was driven a significant part of the workforce into the healthcare industry.

In its heyday, Pittsburgh was the quintessential steel town, with steel mills and factories providing jobs for over 80% of workers in the steel-making industry. However, the blue-collar jobs were subject to a clear racial hierarchy, where most Black men worked as unskilled laborers and had little representation in skilled and semi-skilled roles. Furthermore, white women occupied clerical positions, which were barred to Black women. The result was a largely male workforce, with around 75% being men and 60% working in manufacturing.

Pittsburgh’s dependence on the steel industry meant that it did not attract migrants, preserving the city’s demographics and racial and gender divides. However, the decline of the industry in the 1970s had far-reaching effects, exacerbated the divide between union and non-union workers and drove a significant portion of the workforce into the healthcare industry. Overall, “The male-headed household formed the elementary institution of the public-private welfare state”.

America’s Steel Industry in Crisis

In the late 1940s, the US steel industry dominated global steel production, aided by government support. However, their lack of investment in advanced technology and focus on building larger plants led to outdated and unprofitable mills after a drop in demand post-Korean War. Unionized workers, seeking higher wages, added to the industry’s woes. Policy makers were concerned over increased inflation that would arise from passing on rising costs to consumers. The Truman administration attempted unsuccessfully to nationalize the industry. By failing to invest in technology, steel mills had to reduce the workforce and pressure remaining workers, further dividing managers and workers.

The Working-Class Women’s Burden

After WWII, working-class women in Pittsburgh took on the responsibility of being homemakers and raising children while their husbands worked in the steel industry. Despite their husbands being the sole earners, their income wasn’t always enough to live a comfortable life. Women had to stretch the money as far as possible through budgeting and creativity, and in times of shortage, they had to hide their struggles from the community and their prideful husbands. They maintained the image of a working-class affluence and raised their children to follow in their footsteps, perpetuating the cycle of working-class life.

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