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Author profiles workers who were laid off when their jobs went to Mexico

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Shortly after his election to the presidency in 2016, Donald Trump sent an angry tweet. He criticized the plan to close an Indiana steel plant and move many jobs to Mexico. The jobs moved anyway, and Trump moved on. But for the journalist Farah Stockman, this was the beginning of a story. She began talking to workers who were losing their jobs at Rexnord, which made every size and description of steel ball bearings.

FARAH STOCKMAN: It reduces friction in bikes, escalators, cars, conveyor belts. Shannon, one of the women I followed, talked about seeing a drawbridge in Florida and saying, that's mine.

INSKEEP: Stockman put three fired workers at the center of her new book, "American Made: What Happens To People When Work Disappears." She followed the three for years as they lost their jobs, got excited about Trump, lost faith in Trump and tried to find new places in a changing economy. Their old employer ordered them to finish their jobs by training their Mexican replacements.

STOCKMAN: Shannon was in charge of these dangerous furnaces. And you know, she was a really a feminist - a blue-collar feminist. And she got the courage to leave a violent man because of that factory job. I really wanted to know what it felt like to be told that your job is disappearing because these people over here are going to do it cheaper. And when I met Shannon, she was sort of in the midst of deciding whether to train her Mexican replacement. And she agonized for a long time about it.

INSKEEP: What choices did they make?

STOCKMAN: Yeah. So Shannon was a white woman who ultimately decided to train her replacement. She took the bonus and trained her replacement and felt very close, actually, to the Mexican guy she trained. And she said, "I was blessed to have this job. I hate to see it go, but now it's your turn to be blessed."

Wally was a Black guy I followed. He had served a stint in prison, so the job had really helped him get his life back on track. He ended up telling me that God had closed that plant so that he could start a restaurant. He was a believer in the American dream. He was the most optimistic person I've ever met.

The last guy I followed closely was named John. He was a diehard union man, the grandson of coal miners. And he was really militant anti-training. And a lot of the Black workers thought, hey, that's racism to refuse to train these Mexicans.

INSKEEP: Wow.

STOCKMAN: So it really showed how they had - you know, their different identities played into their inability to speak with one voice when the factory closed.

INSKEEP: When was their last day on the job?

STOCKMAN: They left at different times during 2017. And I followed them through the rest of the Trump administration to really figure out, where did they get employment after that? And did it change their views on politics?

INSKEEP: And what did they find?

STOCKMAN: So Shannon ended up, by an incredible stroke of luck - I wrote a story about her in The New York Times, and a wealthy New York lawyer paid off her mortgage. So for the first time in her life, she had money in the bank and nothing to do. And she was so depressed and miserable because she didn't have a job. So to me, the big takeaway - the biggest takeaway - was how much work meant to these people, how jobs are more than a paycheck.

INSKEEP: You said that Wally dreamed of opening a restaurant. Did he do it?

STOCKMAN: I followed Wally for a year. I delivered pans of pulled pork (laughter) with him, and he absolutely was on his way to doing it when - I don't know if I'm allowed to have a spoiler alert here. He had a heart attack. He felt chest pains one day and didn't go to the hospital because he didn't have health insurance. And so that was another big takeaway for me, is how losing your job can be deadly, particularly in a country where health care is tied to your job.

INSKEEP: One more worker - what happened to John, the union guy, who was militant and wanted to prevent them from closing the factory?

STOCKMAN: Yeah. So John was a diehard union guy, and he was the one who voted for Trump in 2016. But he agonized over whether to get a job in a factory that was going to make him a steel worker again or to work in a hospital in maintenance, you know, earning less money. But this had been his second plant closing. He'd already been through this 10 years earlier. And so he decided to take the lower-paying job in the hospital because he said, I don't know how long that factory is going to be here. And John had seen his pay decline from $28 an hour to $25 an hour to $23. And by the time this plant closed, he was struggling to get a job paying $17 an hour. So yeah, he ended up working maintenance in a hospital. And that's how he spent his 2020 - COVID - was in that hospital.

INSKEEP: And this has been a period, we should note, that, with some exceptions, like the first few months of COVID, the American economy has grown. We've become wealthier and wealthier as a country. But not everybody.

STOCKMAN: Not everybody. We are a hugely unequal country. And another big takeaway was how almost every decision in this country is made by people with college degrees - in fact, advanced degrees, if you look at Congress and editorial boards. And every president since 1953 has had a college degree. And yet 2/3 of Americans do not have a college degree. A lot of policies, even those that are designed to help them, are not - are poorly designed because decision-makers in this country do not understand blue-collar people. They don't understand their economic realities.

INSKEEP: One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you was that, reading this book, I got the definite impression that you had become radicalized against NAFTA and free trade.

STOCKMAN: (Laughter) I don't know about radicalized. Look. I think there's a lot of upside to free trade agreements. There's - you know, globalization is great for people like me. I've benefited from it. And I think there are a lot of white-collar people who benefited greatly from it. But I saw the downside for the first time.

INSKEEP: Farah Stockman is the author of the new book "American Made: What Happens To People When Work Disappears." Thanks so much.

STOCKMAN: Thanks so much for having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FACTORY")

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Early in the morning, factory whistle blows. Man rises from bed... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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