Rust Belt - USA

rust belt map

With its epicentre around Lake Erie, the term ‘Rust Belt’ describes the region of the US’s heavy manufacturing and steel industry which has essentially collapsed. Beginning with the industrial revolution two centuries ago this region began to specialise in finished goods and raw material processing. As technology improved so too did the size of the industries clustered in the region, expanding to giant steel plants, auto manufacturing and shipbuilding amongst others. The industries which formed the backbone of the Rust Belt


attracted large numbers of migrant workers from other states and overseas, drawn by the often well paying jobs and job security.

The Great Lakes region (including the Canadian coasts), the Northwest, Mid-Atlantic and Upper Midwest states were the scene of industrialisation because of their availability of raw materials such as coal and iron ore, energy and comprehensive transport networks including waterways and railroads. Once a group of industries developed others were attracted, the availability of skilled workers another drawcard. The city of Detroit being home to Ford, General Motors and Chrysler being the ultimate example of this.

A consequence of the heavy industries of the Rust Belt was the development of unions; collective organisations designed to provide a single voice in wage bargaining and to promote the maintenance of working conditions. The practice of the ‘closed shop’ developed, where a majority of workers can compel the remaining workers to join their union. Employers argued this removed personal freedoms, while the unions maintained the non-members


enjoyed the hard won benefits their colleagues had fought for. States which have outlawed the closed shop are called ‘Right to Work’ states, however wages and conditions for these employees are considerably lower than those protected by a union.

Heavy industry of the Rust Belt began to decline with the emergence of lower wage economies, especially in Asia from the 1970’s and accelerated with the adoption of Reaganism. The removal of protective trade tariffs and the opening up of US markets to the world witnessed the rapid decline in US manufacturing. Many Rust Belt states responded by developing other industries or remarketing themselves as service economies, but many regions have stalled.