GALESBURG -- Many Americans dream of getting rich. Aaron Kemp had more modest ambitions.
"I wanted to work at a decent job and earn a decent wage, with decent benefits, so I can raise my kids, give them a decent education and maybe take them out to Pizza Hut on a Friday night. I don't need a Mercedes, just a ho-hum existence, and now," he says, with sadness and anger in his voice, "it seems hard to even do that."
Eight years ago, Kemp began working at the factory of Maytag Corp., the largest employer in Galesburg, a western-Illinois town of 34,000 and the birthplace of poet Carl Sandburg.
In September 2004, Maytag finally closed the plant after sending a large part of the work that 1,600 people had recently been performing to a new Maytag factory in Reynosa, Mexico; another large part to Daewoo, a Korean multinational subcontractor that is expected to build a plant in Mexico; and a few dozen jobs to a plant in Iowa. Now Kemp, a 31-year-old union safety and education official with a muscular build and a small goatee, has a temporary job as a counselor to laid-off workers at two-thirds his old pay.
The local Machinists union fought the shutdown, taking their case to the streets, to the press, to politicians, and to Maytag shareholders, even winning national attention when U.S. Sen.-elect Barack Obama mentioned their cause in his Democratic National Convention keynote speech. But the union could not stop the Maytag jobs from being added to the tally of 2.7 million manufacturing jobs lost since 2000. Those several million jobs were eliminated for many reasons -- including declining demand, rising efficiency and increased imports -- but a significant portion have resulted when U.S. multinational corporations, such as Maytag, have moved production out of the country.
Although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics concluded that during the first three months of this year only 4,633 workers lost jobs because of investment shifts overseas, a study for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission by Kate Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University and Stephanie Luce of the University of Massachusetts found that at least five times that many jobs were lost in the same period. They also estimate that in 2004 more than 400,000 jobs were shifted from the United States to other countries. That's nearly twice the rate in 2001, and it represents about one-fourth of all mass layoffs in 2004.
Despite the trend toward the outsourcing of white-collar jobs, Bronfenbrenner and Luce found that more than four-fifths of job shifts were still in manufacturing industries and more than one-third of the estimated 400,000 jobs shifted went to Mexico. But China is in second place and rapidly rising in popularity. The two researchers also found that companies disproportionately target unionized jobs, which represent 39 percent of all jobs shifted out of the United States but only 8.2 percent of the private workforce.
The Midwest has been hardest hit, and in that region Illinois has fared the worst, losing at least 7,555 jobs -- almost all to Mexico -- in the first three months of 2004.
Local losses cut deep
The loss of 1,600 jobs with the Maytag closing is hard on Galesburg, where 5 percent of the town's workforce lost their jobs, and the smaller surrounding towns. But the ripple effects -- from lost jobs at nearby suppliers (including a workshop for the disabled that employed 100 people working on Maytag subassemblies) to indirect effects of declining consumption and reduced tax revenues -- will increase the total job loss in the region to roughly 4,166, according to a Western Illinois University study.
That's only a part of the region's woes. In January 2005, the new Australian owners of Butler Manufacturing, which makes steel buildings, will close their Galesburg plant -- dumping both 270 manufacturing employees and the only unionized Butler facility. In the past few years, other area factories -- including a rubber-hose manufacturer, a ceramics manufacturer, and several small makers of industrial parts and equipment -- have closed or greatly cut back their workforces.
Some, but not all, of these other job losses involve shifts out of the country. They become part of the national problem posed by the growing trade deficit, which approached a record $600 billion in 2004. As more governments and financial market players have perceived this deficit -- and the federal budget deficit -- as unsustainable, the value of the dollar has fallen. The deficit increase partly reflects rising oil prices and a growing trade imbalance with China, whose currency, the yuan, is pegged to the dollar and, according to critics, undervalued. But the deficit is also a result of the shift in jobs manufacturing tradable goods.
A declining dollar should reduce this trade deficit. But changes in the American economy may blunt its effect. With the decline in its manufacturing base, the United States has fewer producers of tradable goods for export and relies more on imports for essential goods, even if their price in dollars rises sharply. The U.S. even runs deficits in agricultural commodities and advanced technology, but the small trade surplus in services has been shrinking. The surge in offshoring of white-collar work undercuts the traditional expectation that the United States would simply shift to theoretically more highly skilled jobs as it lost manufacturing.
The attention focused on offshoring call-center or software jobs has reinforced the assumption, at least in elite political circles, that manufacturing is a lost cause, especially if the product can be made in China.
Workers argue for quality, morality
But Maytag workers had a strategy for saving their jobs. David Bevard, the articulate and thoughtful local union president, wanted Maytag to continue to position itself as a high-quality, premium-priced, made-in-America classic; he argued that the company was damaging itself by undermining workers at the Galesburg plant who wanted to maintain high standards of quality and by accepting "junk" from offshore suppliers. Union members also wanted their protests to make other employers think twice about shifting jobs overseas. And they saw themselves in a global battle for justice.
Workers losing their $15-an-hour jobs in Galesburg have a surprising empathy for the Mexican maquiladora workers who will be doing the same work for roughly one-sixth the wage. "The only people being done more a disservice than the people in Galesburg are the people who are going to have our jobs," Kemp says, sitting in the union hall before the shutdown. "They're the only ones more exploited. It shouldn't be American workers against Chinese or Mexican workers but working people against greed."
"We represent 1,600 in the Galesburg plant, but as a union representative, I feel I'm representing all workers everywhere and try to speak for all those workers," says union vice president Doug Dennison. "This is so much bigger than a union issue. It's almost accepted [that] what's happening in Galesburg is OK, that it's OK to do that."
"It's exploitation of the many for the benefit of the few," says Kemp. "Sometimes there's a fine line between what's legal and what's right."
"Morality," Dennison adds.
They clearly think that is missing, as is their power to do much about their situation. Although most workers blamed "corporate greed" for the plant closing, they also blamed the government for enabling or encouraging that greed. And among an otherwise strongly Democratic crowd, people remember that it was Bill Clinton who pushed through NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement]. "People in both parties are allowing this to happen," Toby Ladendorf laments on closing day. "Who's going to defend us?" Concessions can't compete with bottom line.
Over the decades, Galesburg workers had grown accustomed both to the security of the Maytag jobs and to intimations of insecurity, especially as the industry consolidated into a handful of domestic appliance makers. When Maytag bought the plant in 1986, workers were encouraged by its reputation for quality. But by 1992, as a precondition to making an investment of $180 million, Maytag was demanding concessions from the union and public assistance to keep the plant open, including $7.5 million in state grants and loans, a $3 million city grant paid through increased sales taxes, and local tax abatements through 2004 worth about $4 million. (After the closing, the state passed new legislation to make expected public benefits of such aid clear and to recover money when the goals are not met. And the Knox County state's attorney is trying to recover excess tax abatements.)
The union tried to cooperate to increase productivity, says Bevard, but management was only interested in cutting jobs. Union business agent Mike Patrick suggested that management adopt the "high-performance work organization" model that worked well at such companies as Harley-Davidson, giving workers responsibility and authority to use their knowledge at work. "Maytag had no intention of giving employees any control," Patrick says. "They wanted to stay with the command-and-control model." Indeed, Maytag tried to tighten control further and force more concessions, provoking workers to the brink of a strike in 2002.
Then, on Oct. 12, 2002, Maytag announced that the plant would close beginning in 2003. Managers told the union that the plant was "not competitively viable."
Maytag was profitable, but revenue and profits have been stagnant or declining and the company's stock price had dropped. Big-box retailers such as Home Depot were taking a larger share of the market and demanding lower prices from manufacturers. Other refrigerator makers had begun producing in Mexico, and Maytag already had subassembly operations in Reynosa. About three hours of direct labor are needed to build the cheaper refrigerators, and, with cheaper Mexican labor, that can make a difference of $50 on a $350 refrigerator, not counting the savings accrued from less stringent social and environmental regulations. Maytag will save money eventually, but there is speculation in Galesburg that Maytag was simply following the crowd offshore or trying to please Wall Street to boost its stock price.
Galesburg struggles to retool
In October 2004 the unemployment rate in Galesburg was 9.1 percent. Knox County is on the state's youth-poverty warning list. Galesburg recovered from major workplace closings in the 1980s partly through expansion of factories such as Maytag's and by accepting a state prison that residents had previously opposed.
Now, to survive, laid-off workers must retrain as welders, nurses, office managers, and computer technicians. But even in these growing occupations, there are far more trainees than available local jobs. Many look to long commutes or relocations to find jobs or prepare to compete with their kids for $7- to $8-an-hour Wal-Mart jobs. Meanwhile, economic-development officials try to attract investment but rarely mention manufacturing, except to convert the region's abundant corn and soybeans into marketable products. The town has a new logistics park, entrepreneurial centers, and business incubators, and there's some talk about Galesburg's becoming an education laboratory, a tourist center, or an "ag-urb" retirement center for upscale refugees from cities such as Chicago, a three-and-a-half-hour drive away.
The town is playing up its historic -- and rebounding -- strength as a railroad center and its interstate-highway connections in the search for warehouses and distribution facilities. Last summer a delegation went to China, looking for investors and Chinese companies seeking distribution centers for the kinds of goods once manufactured in towns such as Galesburg. It was a sign, local citizens thought, of how globalized the town was becoming.
"Globalization is such a fraud," says Bevard. "It's just a rush to the bottom for cheap labor. Instead of reducing the United States to the Third World, we should be elevating the standards of those countries." Then, perhaps, the Aaron Kemps of this country could hope once again for ho-hum but decent lives for themselves and their kids.