Eliese Goldbach didn’t start out with “steel-mill worker” as a life-goal.
Growing up in Cleveland, in the 1990s, she wanted to be a nun.
Goldbach reassessed that career choice, and many aspects of her conservative Catholic upbringing, when she was in college. But she applied for a job at Cleveland’s ArcelorMittal works purely out of economic necessity.
“I ended up not being able to find a job after the Great Recession,” she said. A friend who worked at the mill suggested she apply.
Her mill experience forms the core of her acclaimed debut book “Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit” (Flatiron Books). The journey traverses everything from her childhood to a sexual assault, and from her mental-health struggles to learning how to work inside a giant industrial operation where almost everything can kill you. National politics also figure in: The first part of Goldbach’s three-year stint at ArcelorMittal took place during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Goldbach studied English in college but couldn’t scrape by painting houses. A union job, with health benefits, looked pretty good. In the mill, she was a utility worker, meaning she shuttled to many different jobs. “You're in a space where you're trying to find your niche," she said.
Some assignments were more interesting than others; her favorite was the temper mill, where the steel made elsewhere on the sprawling premises was hardened. The attraction was as much social as anything. She and her co-workers “would, you know, do crossword puzzles and talk about politics. And so it just kind of created a little sense of family while I was down there.”
The formation of community in the mill had a lot to do with being able to take a joke, and to give as good as you got: Goldbach, then in her late 20s, had to shrug off being nicknamed “Quack Quack,” for instance, and even endured a measure of sexism from the mostly male, mostly older workforce.
“My first couple days, we were learning how to drive forklifts,” she recalls. “And so, yeah, all the men are standing around with their arms crossed, meaning like, ‘Oh, you know, female drivers.'"
“But I think that what it ends up doing with women is we end up like working that much harder to prove ourselves sometimes. And it also created a lot of support between the women in the mill,” she said. “And there were still a lot of men, though, who were very great and very gracious and very supportive.”
Just like the mill’s orientation sessions for new workers itself did, Goldbach relentlessly emphasizes the dangers of the job. Steel mills are much safer than they were decades ago, but the massively scaled equipment (and product) can crush you, and molten metal still burns.
“I had to kind of overcome that fear and just kind of put my head down and, you know, pay attention to my surroundings,” she said.
The shared danger formed its own kind of community. “You tend to look out for each other more,” she said. “There were times when I would fight about politics with people and we would yell on our breaks, we would scream at each other, and then we would go back to work. And it was like nothing ever happened because we … had each other’s back.”
In college, Goldbach had gone from the kid who participated in anti-abortion protests to a liberal feminist. That caused a lot of friction with her parents, but the situation in the mill, which as an outpost of heavy industry served as a politicized symbol of its own in 2016, was more complicated.
Workers she met – the place was far too big to know them all – were divided between supporters and opponents of Trump. Goldbach, for her part, resented the way steelworkers became a political football for the Republican nominee.
“One of the things that I noticed people feel about the Rust Belt is that like, ‘Oh, we’re this down and out people and that is our identity,’ that we're just, you know, struggling to get by,” she said. “And I feel like Trump almost wants that to be our only identity. Instead of seeing like really the grit and [determination] and the dogged perseverance that I think people in the Rust Belt have. And also just the sincerity: I think of people in the Rust Belt, what you see is what you get. And we care deeply about each other. We care deeply about our sense of place. And I hate to see that being used in such a negative way.”
But in a workplace where everybody seemed to hate “the bosses,” what was the appeal of Trump, whose public image rests heavily on a reality-TV show where his signature act was firing people?
“I think that some of that [appeal] has to do with Trump's kind of uncouth nature,” said Goldbach. “I think that people almost identify more with that."
She adds, "I wonder if people don't identify with him because he kind of represents their anger. I think I noticed a lot of anger in people in the steel mill and kind of that middle class and a lot of people who would say, like, ‘I want Trump to tear the system down. I want him to mess it all up.’ And I think just this this rage that was maybe not able to be directed and I think Trump was able to kind of take that and direct it in maybe the wrong ways.”
Goldbach clearly doesn’t enjoy the new national political climate that developed during her years at ArcelorMittal. As she describes it in “Rust,” however, her personal life took several positive turns.
“One of the main things I learned is, when you work down in a steel mill with all [that] big, huge equipment doing these dangerous, kind of intimidating jobs, you kind of start to think, ‘Wow, maybe there's nothing that I can't do, if I can manage to run a crane or drive a forklift or stir a bubbling pot of molten zinc,’” she said.
“For a long time, I was struggling to find work, struggling to find good pay. And so I think it gave me the confidence to kind of build a future for myself, being able to save, being able to provide for myself, being able to just have health insurance, I think was a huge boost to my ego.”
Goldbach now teaches English, at John Carroll University, in Cleveland. She took a pay cut to do it.