Sunday, March 8, 2015

Beth’s Books: Boom, Bust, Exodus

Beth's BooksSubtitled The Rust Belt, The Maquilas, and a Tale of Two Cities, author Chad Broughton

I came across a description of this book somewhere and thought it sounded very interesting. It made me think of my hometown, South Bend, Indiana, and our loss of the main employer in the area, Studebaker, over fifty years ago.

The book recounts the story of how Galesburg, Illinois lost its own “Studebaker,” the Maytag plant. This happened at a time when many companies were moving operations to Mexico and other such locations, partly due to NAFTA, and it also looks at how Mexican border towns were affected by this change.

The book is well-researched and well-written, and left me with an overwhelming sense of loss and sadness. The struggle of some workers to deal with the impending loss of what they had thought to be a lifelong career was sometimes courageous, but most often heartbreaking. Some planned ahead and worked hard to get a degree. For those who went into fields like healthcare, chances were good that they would get a job. Others ended up doing something completely different, like part-time teaching, janitorial work, or railroad work, often for much lower wages than they had been getting.

As for the Mexican workers who flocked to the border towns like Reynosa to find steady employment, they were subjected to long hours, slave wages, and abuse. Drug cartels meant a dangerous environment for them and for their children. Some in this country love to hate the Mexican workers “who are taking our jobs,” but they are hard workers who are used by corporations to feed their profit margins.

I mourn for the loss of strong unions in this country. While the union was unable to save the jobs at the Galesburg Maytag plant, they put up a good fight, if an ultimately futile one. Some of the Mexican workers were fighting for stronger unions and worker protections, a fight that took place here years ago, and one that it seems we have finally lost. I know that unions aren’t always saving angels, but in the face of overwhelming corporate profits, they are the working person’s last refuge for representation. The loss of strong union representation in this country helps no one but the corporations who exploit the workers.

Boom Bust ExodusWe have gone from a post-WWII boom, one in which corporations shared the profits with the people who manufactured their goods, to an atmosphere of antagonism and exploitation of workers. I find this tragic. So when people like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker boast about breaking unions as some sort of grand achievement, I think that this is a person who doesn’t respect the American worker.

The South Bend experience is mentioned in this book:
South Bend, Indiana, once home to Studebaker automobiles, is now home to a data center for cloud-based computing, with hopes for rebirth based on high-tech manufacturing.
I know we aren’t the only town, especially in the Midwest, to have experienced the loss of a main employer like Studebaker. Galesburg dealt with the same thing some thirty years after we did. It can be a devastating thing for a community. Most of us who grew up in this area had at least one relative who worked there; I had a good half a dozen. Suicide rates in town went up after the plant closed; our population took a significant hit as people moved elsewhere to find work; the loss of pensions for Studebaker workers led to federal legislation that protected pensions even when companies declared bankruptcy. How does a community deal with such a loss? Fifty years later, it is still a work in progress for South Bend, and we have a larger population than Galesburg as well as another large employer (University of Notre Dame).

Income inequality is only growing in this country. The top 1% control 40% of our nation’s wealth. Wage stagnation fuels the growing divide. Who will stand up for the American worker? Who will be the voice of the middle class?