For much of the industrial Midwest, the past is going or gone. Those who try to hold on to this past may not have much of a future. Exhibit A for this little lecture is Webster City, Iowa.
Webster City is a tough little blue-collar town of about 8,000 souls. It lies in north central Iowa, about 60 miles north of Des Moines. When I was growing up nearby, I knew a red-haired girl in Webster City and used to ride my motor bike up to see her. It was nearly 30 miles on the looping back roads of the day, a trek that quickly quenched the fires of teenage love.
>MacKinlay Kantor, the novelist who wrote “Andersonville,” grew up there. So did Clark Mollenhoff, a legendary Washington correspondent of his day. At least two streets bear their names, typical of the salutes that so many Midwestern towns give native sons who had to leave town to get famous.
The biggest employer in town, then as now, is the big Electrolux washer-dryer factory on the north side of town. It started life 80 years ago as Knapp-Monarchy, making household appliances. Over the years, it’s had other owners and other names – Webster City Products, White, Franklin, Frigidaire. Whatever, it was the place where high school kids who didn’t go on to college got a job, and then got married, and had kids and, in time, retired with a good pension. Their fathers had worked there and, probably, so did their kids. At its peak, it employed some 2,400 people, not only from Webster City but from nine counties around. Beam Industries, also owned by Electrolux, employed several hundred more, making vacuum sweepers in a plant west of town.
I was in Webster City three years ago, feeling like Cassandra. I’d just come from Greenville, Michigan, another town of 8,000 people, where Electrolux – a Swedish global firm headquartered in Stockholm – had just closed that town’s biggest employer, a 100-year old refrigerator factory that provided 2,700 jobs. Electrolux had recently built a big plant in Juarez, Mexico, and had begun shifting jobs there from Webster City. It didn’t take a crystal ball to see that it was going to pull the plug on Webster City, probably sooner than later. I wasn’t the only one. Mike Blouin, then the state’s economic development director, told me he had been urging Webster City to take some of its eggs out of Electrolux’s basket and start planning for the future.
With the handwriting so visible on the wall, I wondered what Webster City was doing to prepare for life without Electrolux. The answer, as it turned out, was nothing.
Gary Sandholm is the town’s economic development director. At about that time, he helped set up a steering committee to talk about the future, “and we just got a big yawn.” Over the years, he explained, there had been regular rumors of Electrolux leaving, to the point that more warnings amounted to “crying wolf.” There was no feeling of urgency, of impending doom.
Sandholm himself seemed torn. I got the feeling he knew the plant would leave but, in a town subsisting on denial, feared saying so out loud. He saw the problem but feared recruiting new industry that might lure workers from Electrolux, because that could anger the big Swedish employer “and chase them out of town.”
Overall, there was a feeling of lassitude mixed with helplessness, a feeling well-known to Midwestern workers whose paychecks are signed thousands of miles away.
“If they said OK, five years from now we’re not going to be here, that would galvanize people,” Sandholm told me. “But right now, management tells me that they’ll keep 1,200 jobs here. They could be here for some time. But I wouldn’t want to bet the farm on it.
“Whatever, the decision won’t be made here.”
Well, the decision has been made now. Electrolux announced in late October that it will close the plant at the start of 2011 and move the jobs to Juarez. Earlier this year, it had announced that it would shut down the vacuum sweeper line at Beam Industries and also close that plant. Webster City’s meal ticket is going away.
So what now? I phoned Sandholm and, after offering condolences (a plant closing in a small town is like a death in the family), I asked him what the town would do.
“That’s our Plan B,” he said, implying that Plan A had been to keep Electrolux. “Plan B is still being formulated.” Mailings have gone out to potential employers. They’re working with a community college in nearby Fort Dodge, itself a depressed city. The U.S. Department of Labor has come up with a $250,000 grant to plan a recovery strategy: spread over nine counties, this might be a little thin.
Electrolux is donating space in the old plant for retraining. Apart from that, there’s no sign that the company plans any financial aid or other help for the town or workers who helped it turn out all those washers and dryers over the years.
I talked with Scott Rector, a good guy who runs the best restaurant in town, the 2nd Street Emporium (2nd Street is Webster City’s main drag.) Business at the restaurant is down, Scott said, but what really worries him is that his daughter’s husband is an executive at Beam Industries and, when that closes, the family, including Scott’s grandchildren, may have to move away.
The rest of 2nd Street is pretty sleepy. Some stores stand empty. Others house an AA center, or a couple of bars, a few appliances stores, some other stores selling dolls or toys that look that they haven’t made a sale in years.
Economies and industries are more than bottom lines. They are the life blood of towns big and small. They support nice downtowns or let them die. They provide jobs for your kids and grandkids or force them to move away.
Most little Midwestern towns are old blue-collar towns like this. The white collars are in the cities and university towns. The assembly plants located in the small towns and employed the young people who didn’t go to college. These blue-collar towns have a blue-collar mentality – hard-working, proud, trusting, dependant. Over the years, the plants are all there is. Everyone knows they might leave. But no one wants to think about this, because it means not just the loss of a job but the loss of a little civilization. Denial doesn’t work. But what else is there?
The only places that still thrive do so because a local company stuck with them. This defines Pella, Iowa (Pella Windows), Columbus, Indiana (Cummins Engine), Warsaw, Indiana, with its big orthopedic companies. Sometimes, a big local company picks up and goes, as Ball Glass did in Muncie, Indiana. More often, the local company is sold to a global company and, in time, gets closed.
Electrolux is not some evil cabal. But it never really cared very much about Webster City. The global economy demands efficiency and minimum costs. The workers in Webster City were good at what they did, and that wasn’t good enough. Like blue-collar workers everywhere, they trusted that things wouldn’t change and, in a global era, this trust, too, wasn’t enough.
A lot of people in the Midwest are thinking hard about whether towns like Webster City can be saved. Some future posts here will study their ideas.