In Joel Garreau’s Nine Nations of North America, the country is split into sections according to their economic and cultural patterns. East meets west in signature cross-sections along specifically charted demarcation lines. Various monikers such as the Dixie, the Breadbasket and The Empty Quarter nickname these multiple belt regions and their respective characteristics. Situated in the Northeastern part of these segments is The Foundry or the Rust Belt as it is more commonly known. Once the bedrock of heavy industrial manufacturing for the United States, this division runs from the Midwest areas of Milwaukee and Chicago straight through the Mid-Atlantic States. Its heart and soul is located deep within the quartet of Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Indiana. This is where steel burned and iron was forged before the lines stopped and the ovens turned cold. In its place remains the corpse of this industrial baggage, populating a dystopian wasteland amongst the living who build upon the past of the dead. In 1892, three hundred Pinkerton agents washed upon the shore of the Monongahela in Pittsburgh only to be confronted by a rage of disillusioned workers. They advanced on the request of Henry Clay Frick, the Carnegie Steel Corporation CEO who opposed union policy and had found himself in a bitter plant lockout with factory employees. Homestead workers and citizens banded together in armed struggle against the strikebreakers leaving many hurt and dead on both sides. When the smoke from the burning barges cleared, the state came not to the aid of the working man but to Frick and his anti-union agenda. When the landscape of labor is built on such explosive foundations it creates a social fusion of working class values that trickle down through the body and soul.
As the waves of industrial decline ebb and flow, we continue to bear the transformative scars. Moving forward through the 21st century the essence of work and organized labor will continue to change. The manufacturing industry has been replaced by a service based economy with healthcare, food and public service being the fastest growing sectors. This change has precipitated a new response from the labor movement, where workers, activists and organized labor are seeking unique and alternative ways of organizing and engaging the public through the creation of community unions and social outreach programs. They are still sons and daughters of the factories and mills. Only the landscape has changed. The traditions are old but the stories are new.