The economic structure of Jim Henson's cartoon realm called Fraggle Rock reflects our own. In one HBO episode, the industrious, hard-hatted Doozers prepare to leave the rock, which would have quickly left the Fraggles starving. Somehow, politicians and powerbrokers in this country don't see the simple parallel. If the U.S. continues to send its manufacturing overseas -- with the latest proposal General Motors plants -- the result will be hungry U.S. families.
I saw this up close and personal as I toured the U.S. last week on the 11-state, 32-city "Keep it Made in America" bus tour. I talked to unemployed manufacturing workers who are desperate. Through no fault of their own, they've lost their jobs, their homes, their health care. These are the people who are the strength of America, who in better times volunteered in New York City after 9-11 and in New Orleans after Katrina. Now, they're forced to get groceries at their union hall's food bank. They're humiliated.
This economic crisis was inflicted on them by recklessness on Wall Street and in Washington. Over the past 40 years, politicians have eroded regulations that could have helped prevent the sub-prime mortgage bubble and bust. And Wall Street banks and investors took full advantages of that rule-free environment to behave capriciously in the market, causing stocks to tank, driving unemployment up to the current 8.9 percent, and contributing to the loss of 5.2 million manufacturing jobs since 2000.
Let me introduce you to four Steelworkers, four hard-hats struck down by the decisions so disastrous to the economy made in Washington and on Wall Street. They are Diana Arends, an aluminum can maker; Matt Dossett, a rubber worker; Andy Nirschl, a papermaker, and Kevin Vest, a copper miner.
Diana Arends' employer, Ball Corp., shuttered its Kansas City aluminum beer can manufacturing plant March 27. Ball blamed the economy when it announced the closure that cost 150 Steelworkers their jobs. Beer sales are down. As the economy contracted, Americans had fewer coins in their pockets for every little pleasure, including throwing a few back.
The plant closure was both an economic and emotional shock to Arends. She's divorced, and supports a daughter and granddaughter. Before the plant mothballing, she routinely worked 12-hour days, with the overtime paying her mortgage and bills. Now she's only getting unemployment.
Her house in Lees Summit, Mo., on which she has paid for 10 years, already is going to foreclosure. She doesn't have any credit cards, but she does owe on a used car she bought a couple of years ago.
When she heard the plant was to shut, she immediately dropped her internet and cable TV services, ended trash collection and stopped eating out. She buys food in bulk at a wholesale store. But it's just not enough.
She's thinking about taking the remnants of her stock market-ravaged 401K and using it to support herself, her daughter and granddaughter because she has been unable to find another job. No one has called her back for a second interview, although she also has 28 years experience manufacturing grain bins for CTB, Inc. Let's face it, she points out, who's going to hire a 59-year-old?
She recollects, a few years ago, "I got to feeling set. I had a 401K and just a few more years to retire." But now she's jobless, and soon she may be homeless. "I did nothing to deserve that," protests Arends, who went the extra mile, serving as president of USW Local 13, a position she loves, but one she'll be forced to relinquish May 14 because she no longer is employed as a Steelworker.
Diana Arends is concerned about running up federal debt to pay for the bank bailouts and stimulus package, so she doesn't understand anyone proposing to use one dollar of that money overseas. The stimulus is American tax dollars designated to create American jobs - not Chinese jobs or Korean jobs or Mexican jobs. So when General Motors submitted a bail out plan in which it would get American tax dollars, then use them to build fewer cars here and more cars overseas that would be sent back here to be sold, Arends just couldn't believe it. "These are middle class jobs lost, the people who go to the grocery store and support food banks and the Little League," she noted.
And they're not just GM assembly line jobs. The more jobs GM sends overseas, the more support and supply jobs go overseas too. And that threatens the economic lives of millions more Americans -- workers like Matt Dossett.
He's a rubber worker from Fancy Farm, Ky., furloughed with 50 other Steelworkers from the Goodyear Tire plant in Union City on Feb. 28. Dossett, 27, who tried to get a job at the plant since he graduated from high school, had worked there just a year before the lay off. He knew it was a good job because his father and uncles had all worked there. "They had their whole careers there," he said, "They worked 40 years and retired there. They had good lives from working there. It is one of the best paying jobs in this area."
He worked on a balance crew in the curing department - cooking tread onto the tires, a place where it could get well over 100 degrees in the summer. Still, he longs for that call back, "I really enjoyed it down there. I enjoyed the people I worked with and the job I was doing," he said.
But that's all jeopardized by the sagging economy, unfair trade practices by China in supporting its tire makers which export to the U.S. and GM's plan to move production offshore - including to China.
When he was working, Dossett paid off his car loans and saved money just in case he got furloughed. But making the mortgage payments is starting to get tough. His wife works, so that's helping them pay the bills. And they've cut out all frills. They don't visit her family in Chicago anymore. They don't go out to eat. They don't visit Nashville for weekends. Dossett has a credit card, but no debt because he only uses it in emergencies. "I worked hard for everything I've got," he explained, "I'm trying not to lose it all now."
He sees a clear connection between GM building cars here and his job. Because billions of American tax dollars have already gone into bailing out GM, they shouldn't be talking about moving jobs overseas, he says. "We gave them money to build here, to create jobs here. Let the Chinese pay if they want a plant in China," he said.
Like Dossett, Andy Nirschl worked for an industry damaged by unfair trade. He was a process operator, controlling pulp, for the NewPage Corp. Kimberly mill in Wisconsin. It made the kind of glossy paper used in magazines and new car catalogues. The mill had operated in the town of 5,000 since 1889 and was the largest employer. Kimberly was NewPage's largest producer, but the Ohio corporation closed it after a defeat in a trade case with China under the Bush administration.
That was Sept. 30, 2008. Nirschl, president of USW Local 2-9, knows all the gory details: 475 Steelworkers lost their jobs, and 125 salaried guys got thrown out of theirs. When NewPage refused to sell or re-open the plant, the town considered renaming its high school teams. They are called the papermakers.
Nirschl's wife, who had worked at home, had to switch jobs so the family could get health insurance. He'd married late in life, so he had a good start paying off his mortgage. He isn't behind yet but knows lots of fellow Steelworkers who are. He has only one credit card and no debt on it or on his cars, so he's in better shape than many of his friends. Still, his family has cut out vacations and eating at restaurants.
Nirschl got a new job earlier this month, a good union job with the state helping the unemployed find work. It doesn't pay as much as the mill did but has good benefits. The pay comes from the $700 billion stimulus package, and he's hoping the position is renewed in the state's next budget year in June.
He says he hopes Congress gets on board to save the American auto industry. He says his friends understand that to have a strong, solid economy, America must manufacture. It's not clear to them why politicians are willing to back struggling banks with billions but balk at supporting industry.
Like Nirschl, Kevin Vest talks about a cycle of industrial life. It's obvious to him. The haul truck driver furloughed with 600 fellow Steelworkers Feb. 13 from Freeport McMoRan's Chino mine in New Mexico, where they extracted copper and molybdenum, a steel hardener, offers this story:
He read in a newspaper about a $100 million wind farm to be built near his daughter's house in Arizona. The 30 wind turbines are to be manufactured by a company from India and the huge towers are to be constructed in Mexico. Vest wants to know why GE can't make those turbines. If the American company did the work, they'd probably buy the copper wire for the turbines from an American company. And that company might buy the ore to make the wire from his mine - or some other downed U.S. copper mine, putting some Steelworker back to work. If there's one cent of tax breaks or stimulus money in this wind farm, then it's doubly outrageous to employ Indian and Mexican workers.
For the same reason, Vest always buys American cars. There's copper wire in engines and molybdenum (molly) in other steel car parts. Buying that car keeps him employed, but also fellow Americans who make the glass and axles and all the other parts.
And he's got news for people who deride the quality of American cars. He's owned a series of them and driven them more than 150,000 miles with no problems. Now he has a 1997 Chevy Silverado with 160,000 miles on it that he's planning to drive 1,400 miles to Iowa to visit relatives. His father has owned nothing but American cars, and when his brother bought a Nissan, told him to park it down the street. "When I got out of the service," Vest said, "my dad tried a Toyota Celica GT. . . He looked at me and said he felt bad to have even test driven it. He bought a Ford Ranger pick up."
At 54, Vest is without health insurance and behind on his credit card payments. He owes $2,000, and the collector is hounding him. He is hoping to get a job at a mine in Arizona, close to where his daughter lives. But that may not be possible until copper prices rise.
Workers like Vest, Nirschl, Dossett, Arends and me are taking the message to Washington D.C. this week for a teach-in to explain how crucial manufacturing is to the economy of this country and how essential manufacturing is to construction of automobiles in this country, not just the final product, but also all those products leading up to the final car -- from glass for windshields to glossy paper for brochures. We are going to try to explain that 7.2 million paychecks are dependent on U.S. autos, including health care, education, service and other jobs, so that the politicians and policy makers understand clearly that the very idea that General Motors would ask for taxpayer dollars to ship more car manufacturing overseas - and then import the cars - is an insult and an affront to American workers - as well as an economic threat to the country. We are not going to allow American manufacturing to starve for support. But that support cannot go to pay for manufacturing overseas, or ever more American families will end up stretched like Arends, Dossett, Nirschl and Vest.
Follow Leo W. Gerard on Twitter: www.twitter.com/uswblogger