Cities like Cleveland, Cincinnati and Detroit are shaking off the Rust Belt moniker — or, in some cases, embracing it in a new era. But in some Midwestern, mid-sized cities, recovery is lagging as the memory of high quality manufacturing jobs remains wishful reminiscing.
While some cities are hoping to expand their tech and medical industries to pave the way forward, the process of deindustrialization still has an impact on regional communities — even those distanced by generations from the industrial peak of the Midwest.
“People were still writing about the industrial histories and the experience of deindustrialization in those places decades after the major mill closing and plant closings,” Sherry Linkon, English professor at Georgetown and former co-director of the Working Class Studies program at Youngstown State University, said.
Today, after decades of deindustrialization, there are fewer quality manufacturing jobs, ineffective development strategies and a struggle to retain workers with necessary training — all of which are problems that policymakers and communities are looking to address.
Understanding the future of manufacturing in the Midwest and beyond requires revisiting the region’s decline. And so we start, as a case study, a few hundred years back in the small town of Toledo…
After the Civil War, Toledo was a small but up-and-coming city that had been built on the back of the Miami and Erie Canal — and later, railroads — as a major trade hotspot. By 1880, Toledo was one of the largest cities in Ohio and one of the largest railroad hubs in the country, second only to Chicago. The easy access to transportation allowed multiple industries to spring up, including furniture, carriage and wheel makers, foundries and breweries.
Over the course of the next century, small towns across Ohio would root their identity in manufacturing. Youngstown was a steel city. Akron was renowned for its rubber industry. Toledo was the Glass City.
The glass industry arrived in Toledo through Edward Drummond Libbey’s relocation of his New England Glass Company to Toledo from Cambridge, Mass. in 1888. Libbey and one of his employees, Michael Owens, pioneered innovations in glass-making, including a method of producing flat glass suitable for use in automobiles, just in time for the auto industry to start booming around 1920. Toledo glass companies Owens-Illinois and Corning also trademarked fiberglass in 1936. Owens Corning, the result of a merger of the two glass giants, is still a leading fiberglass manufacturer headquartered in Toledo.
In addition to glass manufacturing, by 1890, Toledo was the top producer of bicycles in the U.S. The market for bicycles, however, was overridden by the automobile industry in the early 1900s, when several automobile companies popped up in Toledo, including the Willys-Overland Company. In 1941, Willys-Overland won a bid to design a reconnaissance vehicle for the U.S. military, ultimately leading the military to order 18,000 Jeeps for use in World War II. Willys-Overland changed hands multiple times over the years and is currently owned by Stellantis, a multinational automobile corporation. The Jeep Wrangler and Jeep Gladiator are still manufactured at the Toledo Assembly Complex, which includes the original plant where the Jeep was manufactured during the 1940s.
A variety of other industries, such as auto parts and scales, called Toledo home during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Toledo continued in its industrial success after World War II, when consumer demand for cars was strong. Ohio’s manufacturing jobs not only provided workers the money to participate in America’s post-war prosperity, but also gave them the prestige of creating the boom; industry had become their identity.
“Working class people, industrial workers in particular, had a very strong sense that their work mattered and that they were rising in the world,” Linkon said.
Toledo’s manufacturing collapse stems from unique structural problems with the region’s economy. Today, the city remains industry-driven, but numbers show a severe decrease in the jobs available within those industries. In 1977, Lucas County had almost 40,000 production manufacturing workers, with nearly 36,000 in Toledo alone. According to the Economic Census, in 2017, Lucas County had just over 17,000 production workers. Today, the Jeep Toledo Assembly Complex, one of Toledo’s largest manufacturing employers, employs over 6,000 workers, a little over a third of the 17,000 workers Jeep employed in 1950 in Toledo.
While other Ohio cities like Cleveland lost more jobs than Toledo in raw numbers, the impact of deindustrialization in Toledo, as in many smaller cities, was much more pronounced.
“They feel bigger when they happen in Toledo because there's less for Toledo to fall back on,” Bradley Sommer, a historian at Carnegie Mellon University who studies deindustrialization in Toledo, said. “There's less margin for error in a place like Toledo. And that is a Toledo thing, but it's also a smaller city thing.”
World War II had sustained Toledo’s manufacturing sector. The military constantly required Jeeps, automotive parts, bulletproof glass and fiberglass insulation for warplanes. After the war, glass companies advertised their products for suburban construction. Owens Corning pitched fiberglass insulation for housing, while other companies pivoted from bulletproof cockpits to storm windows.
But as the post-war housing boom ended, Toledo’s glass manufacturers found themselves producing goods most consumers would purchase only once, limiting possible profits. Some even argue that Toledo products were maybe just a little too reliable; at the peak of Toledo’s manufacturing industry, the city produced a wide variety of goods known to be durable, rarely needing replacement.
“[O]ne of the things that Toledo companies prided themselves on was how good their products were. And they were,” Sommer said. “And you could argue maybe they were too good.”
The city’s industrial fate was also tied to deindustrialization in Michigan. Toledo’s automotive plants like Electric Auto-Lite and Doehler-Jarvis built car parts and frames for Michigan GM and Ford plants. When Michigan assemblies decreased output, relocated or shut down, Toledo parts manufacturers suddenly lost buyers.
Supply chain issues still impact the remnants of Ohio’s automotive industry. When the Lordstown Cruze plant closed in 2018, supplier plants like Lordstown Seating System also closed. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt the semiconductor chip supply in the U.S., which led to hundreds of job cuts at GM Toledo Powertrain and caused Stellantis to temporarily halt some production at its Toledo South Assembly Plant, both in the summer of 2021.
By the postwar era, Ohio’s manufacturers were seeking a cheaper source of labor in response to unionized workers demanding better pay. Toledo’s Electric Auto-Lite and GM strikes in the mid-1930s propelled the United Auto Workers Local 12 to fame as one of the most powerful unions in the nation. Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, thousands of workers went on strike annually in Toledo, Cleveland, Akron and Dayton.
“Toledo, in the decades prior to World War II and the post-war boom, had multiple large-scale violent strikes, which for a city that had only recently become kind of a bigger industrial city — a bigger city in terms of its impact and its influence on America's economy — was unique,” Sommer said.
Manufacturers found a new workforce in former farmhands displaced by tractors and mechanization, Sarah Low, professor of regional economics at the University of Missouri, said.
“Factories started moving out of the city to rural America because land was very inexpensive, there was lots of labor, and the labor that was available was farm people,” Low said. “They were used to fixing things with their hands, they had good work ethic, they were used to getting up at three o’clock in the morning to milk cows.”
Displaced farm workers also had no union experience. The National Labor Relations Act — the New Deal law providing the right to organize and collectively bargain — excludes agricultural workers.
Manufacturers also turned to outsourcing component production to other firms, domestically and internationally. Manufacturers of consumer goods, like cars, don’t build the entire product at one facility. Other plants manufacture individual components, and historically, they were owned by the lead firm. The Powertrain Toledo plant, for example, is owned by GM.
Today, however, parts manufacturing is increasingly outsourced to other firms, where competition is higher and wages are lower, since the produced parts and components could be made anywhere, Shields said. By only purchasing parts — as opposed to paying workers to produce the parts — manufacturers could increase profits.
“We start to see other kinds of job quality problems creeping into the supply chain that we didn't see before,” Shields said. “We see more wage theft, for instance, in these lower tier supplier firms.”
Starting in the ‘90s, manufacturers turned to contract and temp workers, who aren’t provided benefits, Low said. Plants with enough contract workers or who have outsourced component production can cut down the number of full time hires, which decreases workers’ bargaining power to set wages and benefits. Meanwhile, companies are not required to negotiate with temporary workers under a 2017 NLRB decision.
For manufacturers looking to maximize profits, the southern U.S. became more attractive than the Midwest, as the region had less union density. In 1985, Youngstown attempted to recruit GM’s Saturn brand, but was passed up for Spring Hill, TN.
“This 2001 recession was like, ‘Things are really changing in U.S. manufacturing,’” Low said. “U.S. manufacturing became a lot less oriented around places like Ohio, which are union shops. Manufacturing that had to be domestic was really moving to the South.”
In the early 2000s, under a new international trade reality marked by the North American Free Trade Agreement and China’s ascension to the World Trade Organization, labor became even cheaper abroad, as these agreements lacked requirements for good working conditions and wages.
The Impacts of Deindustrialization
Declining unionization, declining wages
The turn to contract and temporary work in manufacturing emerged over a decades-long process of declining union strength. Between 2000 and 2020, union representation of Ohio’s manufacturing workers fell by over 50 percent. Ohio’s manufacturing workers are now less likely to be represented by a union than other workers in Ohio. In 2020, 12.4 percent of manufacturing workers were represented by unions compared to 14.2 percent of all Ohio workers.
“When we think about what has made manufacturing traditionally a very high quality job and a well-paying job is that the manufacturing sector has had a lot of union density,” Shields said. “That is something that we're losing.”
Manufacturing wages are not as competitive with other sectors, either. Manufacturing holds a wage premium, meaning workers in manufacturing are paid higher wages than in other industries, even for those without any college education. But this wage premium is decreasing in the Great Lakes region. From 2000 to 2019, the wage premium for all manufacturing workers fell by over 26 percent.
Fluctuations in wage premiums are not felt equally, according to a Policy Matters Ohio analysis. The premium for Black manufacturing workers with a high school diploma or less fell by nearly two thirds from 2016 to 2019, and while the premium for Latinx workers rose, it is less than a third of the premium for white workers. The wage premium for women in manufacturing with a high school diploma or less fell by nearly 75 percent compared to a 22 percent decrease for men.
Wage premium decreases arrived in the context of subpar wages in other industries, too. On a state-wide level, wages have not kept pace with production, Shields said. As of January 2022, the minimum wage is $9.30 an hour in Ohio.
“We've had a breakdown between productivity growth and the wages that folks are taking home, even as they are becoming more productive than ever. That's a bargaining power breakdown,” Shields said. “It's not an economic problem. It's a policy problem.”
By the turn of the century and throughout the 2000s, manufacturing also became a larger proportion of employment and pay in rural areas than in cities. This was in part due to manufacturing moving to rural areas, but also because rural areas lacked large medical and service sectors as in bigger cities.
Some rural areas became dependent on a single plant and lost large proportions of their manufacturing workforce when the plant closed. Trumbull County lost nearly a quarter of its manufacturing jobs from 2018 to 2019 when the Lordstown Cruze plant closed.
The drain of urban manufacturing residents disproportionately hurt the Midwest’s Black residents. Black midwesterners found manufacturing employment only after World War II labor shortages and court orders against hiring discrimination. When manufacturers began to shed jobs, Black workers were often the “last hired and first fired” due to seniority rules.
So-called “urban renewal” programs in partnership between cities and the federal government razed Black neighborhoods for infrastructure or “mixed-income” housing, Sommer said. In Toledo, the Dorr Street corridor, an economic, social and cultural hub for Black Toledoans, was demolished for a street expansion.
“There's a one-to-one relationship between access to housing and access to work, and access to work and access to housing,” Sommer said. “So if your housing is destroyed your chances of maintaining your job are pretty slim, and conversely, if your job is lost you're probably not going to be able to afford your house.”
Narratives and news coverage of Ohio’s cities has changed over the decades, as well.
“When these places did not bounce back — the standard American narrative, you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you make everything okay, you attract some other industry to come in — when that didn’t happen, those places then became symbols of failure,” Linkon said.
After the first waves of plant closures in Ohio, national news stories focused on the shock of the loss. But as companies continued moving out of the region, “Rust Belt” became a commonplace term synonymous with urban decline.
“The internalization of all of this is the way the story becomes, ‘What's wrong with those places?’” Linkon said. “‘What’s wrong with Ohio?’”
Meanwhile, working class communities that anchored their identities in manufacturing were in crisis.
“When all of that stopped, it was like, who are we now?” Linkon said. “If we’re not a steel town, and we don’t define ourselves by work that matters, why do we matter? Who are we?”