Ohioan Eliese Goldbach has written an engrossing memoir of her working-class life as union card carrier “#6691: Utility Worker” in a Cleveland steel mill. Twenty-nine-year-old Goldbach begins her 3-year period of earning her livelihood as a steelworker in the spring of 2016.
She is one of a few women in the male-dominated steel industry and, after struggling with finances after college, is happy to get the job. Her fellow workers assure the new hire that her paycheck will be the envy of Cleveland. But the greenie feminist immediately feels out of place among her conservative, pro-candidate Trump, Baby Boomer coworkers.
Goldbach‘s initial task at the ArcelorMittal Steel Company is the drab and monotonous sweeping-up of massive buildings. After proving her mettle, she is assigned to lifting unstable loads of product on forklifts and other more dangerous jobs.
Goldbach was raised in a deeply Catholic and conservative Republican home. At an early age she decided to become a nun, but she was traumatized when two young men raped her at the Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio where she was matriculating. This assault, when she was 18-years-old, shook her faith and set off profound fearful behaviors that eventually led to a bipolar disorder diagnosis. These threads of sexism, mental illness and sexual assault are skillfully interwoven throughout the memoir.
Goldbach remarks on the bitter circumstances of people living in the Rust Belt and notes they feel left behind by the United States political system. “Steel is the only thing that shines in the belly of the mill,” she writes. “The buildings, which are covered in rust and soot, have taken on the blackish-red color of congealed blood.” The air smells of rotten eggs because of the sulphur burn off.
The possibility of death always suffuses the factory. Some of the long-time workers tell stories of a woman crushed to death by machinery and a fellow who slipped off a catwalk onto a pile of hot slag. “It just cooked him alive.” One by one Goldbach masters the forklift, learns how to skim the scum off giant vats of red-hot metal, becomes proficient at banding huge coils of steel and preparing them for shipment to Detroit automakers.
After the mill is shut down for several weeks, the workers who return are reassigned. During this furlough Goldbach reaches the conclusion that the steel plant is not her future. She really wants to pursue a career in education. Yet she recognizes that working in the mill has changed her for the better. She comments that, when tragedy strikes her team, these “bunch of Joe Schmos” are as one: “There was no division so great that it could eclipse the unity that had been forged in the light of the mill’s orange flame.” In this heavy industrial plant, she finds an ethic of compassion and loyalty that surpasses divisive ideologies. “I didn’t realize that the mill was sacred ground,” Goldbach confesses.
When the author is finally offered the teaching position to which she has been aspiring, the university professorship involves a significant wage cut and the loss of seniority. However, she takes the risk because her years of working in the factory have given her the self-confidence to move forward and has also provided her a healthy savings account that makes it possible for her to make the transition.
Readers of J. D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” will find Goldbach’s depiction of steelworkers similar to the portrait Vance paints of the working class in Appalachia. “Rust” is a coming-of-age memoir that describes the steelworkers who labor beside molten metal and heavy machinery. It also is a commentary on the ability of people to change and that life-changing relationships can be formed in unfamiliar places. Goldbach leaves the mill with a more inclusive and politically tolerant attitude than when she arrived.