This article appeared in the June 1, 2009 edition of The Nation.
May 13, 2009
Down the hall from the marble plaque celebrating the commitment of a Midwestern union local to the freedom struggle of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., past the collages made by the children and grandchildren of proud blue-collar families highlighting more than a century of carmaking in their community, next to the posters celebrating the election of Barack Obama, a woman wearing a Yes We Did! T-shirt hands white postcards to the hundreds of shellshocked workers who pour into the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 72 hall on the north side of Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Less than a week earlier, on April 29, the same workers had gathered at the same hall to cast 89 percent of their votes for a package of pay and benefits cuts that they were promised would "keep manufacturing jobs here in the United States." Within hours of the vote, Chrysler was forced into bankruptcy proceedings that were portrayed by Obama as a painful but necessary step to give the company "a new lease on life." Then, in bankruptcy documents describing "the new Chrysler," came the news: the company, which had already accepted more than $4 billion in federal loans and which was maneuvering to collect $6 billion more, is preparing to use this largesse to jettison the Kenosha plant and seven others while ramping up production in Mexico.
The white cards spell out the plight and the hope of more than 800 workers and their families in Kenosha, a Lake Michigan waterfront city that started making cars during the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt. "Dear President Obama," they read, "I call on you today to intervene to save the Chrysler Kenosha Engine Plant.... It would be a betrayal of your goal of investing in America if Chrysler is allowed to close the Kenosha plant and import the very same engine from Mexico."
Getting a clear read on the extent to which Obama understands what is at stake in Kenosha, and the extent to which he might be willing to intervene to avert a plant closure in this auto town, will go a long way toward answering questions about the administration's commitment to save the struggling auto industry. The ongoing effort to restructure Chrysler has served as a precursor of the bigger fight over the future of General Motors, the battered behemoth of American manufacturing that has already collected $15.4 billion in federal loans but is still losing $113 million a day. GM faces a June 1 deadline to present the administration with a restructuring plan that cuts costs and reduces debt in return for more federal support. There are already strong indications that GM will follow Chrysler's lead by shutting plants and laying off US workers while using bailout bucks to shift even more production to foreign plants. With "fixes" like these, it's tough to imagine how Obama plans to fulfill his campaign promise to "revive and strengthen all of American manufacturing."
Since his election last fall, the president has taken workers in Kenosha and other auto towns across the Great Lakes states on a wild ride. Elected with the highest levels of support accorded any Democratic presidential contender in decades by the working families of Midwestern battleground states, Obama headed to the White House promising to tip the balance away from Wall Street and toward Main Street. UAW members took that commitment personally. Their industry had shed 300,000 jobs during George Bush's presidency, the result of a toxic combination of free-trade policies; poor planning and absurd choices by corporate managers; skyrocketing healthcare and pension costs; and a scorching credit crunch. Factory shutdowns and layoffs made the recession a painful reality in the industrial heartland long before it touched most of the rest of the country. The unemployment rate in Kenosha, for example, moved into double digits months ago.
Obama appeared to follow the Bush administration's lead at first, focusing on bailing out banks while tossing bones--enough money to avoid collapse but no more--to the auto industry. Finally, as winter turned into spring, the White House told the auto companies that Chrysler and General Motors would have to radically remake themselves if they wanted to continue receiving government support. It's not that the demand for reorganization was unreasonable; just about everyone agrees that US auto companies have been miserably managed for decades. What was unsettling was the recognition that while banks and insurance conglomerates are seen as "too big to fail," the auto industry is not similarly treasured. The kid-glove treatment accorded Wall Street was replaced by the hard line of an administration that seems, Kotkin warns, "if not openly anti-industrial" then at the very least "anxious to embrace a decidedly postindustrial future."
That dark assessment will be put to the test in Kenosha. More than in most plant-closing battles in recent history, this one is the canary in the coal mine. What happens in Kenosha may foretell the fate not just of its workers, and not just of Chrysler, but of the auto industry as a whole. "If we can't save an engine plant that has won all the awards for quality and efficiency, that has been modernized and supported by the city and the state, that has workers who have been willing to cut their pay and benefits and change their work rules in order to keep the work here, what auto plant are you going to save?" asks Rudy Kuzel, a longtime worker on the line in the Kenosha plant who in the 1980s and early '90s served as the president of Local 72. "The government's coming in, saying we have to shape these companies up and providing the money to do it. That's good. That's what we want. But if the companies use the government support, the tax money, to shut factories and move the jobs out of the country, what are we saving? The company name?"
The company name doesn't mean much to Kenoshans. They've called their auto plant by many names since 1900, when Thomas Jeffery bought a bicycle factory on the waterfront and later started mass-producing vehicles with two groundbreaking innovations: steering wheels and front-mounted engines. Historians say it was in Kenosha, not Detroit, that cars began "to look like cars." Those small, inexpensive, sometimes homely vehicles, known as Ramblers but jokingly referred to as Kenosha Cadillacs, were made by the Thomas B. Jeffery Company, then by Nash Motors, the Nash-Kelvinator Company and the American Motors Company, which George Romney (Mitt's dad) made an American success story. AMC partnered with the French firm Renault to pioneer production of fuel-efficient cars in the 1970s and eventually sold out to Chrysler in 1987.
Through most of the past century, the constant in Kenosha has been not a particular company but the union. Already organized with the American Federation of Labor when the founding convention of the UAW was held in 1935, Kenosha's Local 72 has been at the heart of the UAW ever since--and the UAW has been at the heart of a community that still proudly calls itself a "labor town." The union's passion preserved Chrysler's presence in the city in the late 1980s, when Local 72 members, working with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and other national activists, battled plans to shutter the plant. Gone are the days when more than 16,000 families took home AMC checks, but the 800 families who work for Chrysler still pump more than $50 million annually into the local economy. And Local 72 remains an essential player in Kenosha politics. Obama was just the latest politician to covet, and eventually benefit from, the UAW endorsement in this tightknit town of 90,000.
Now Local 72's future rests with Obama. Even before the president took office, Chrysler collected a $4 billion federal loan (compared with $12 billion for much larger GM) as part of the initial auto bailout. But no one thought that would be enough. Chrysler, with 54,000 employees worldwide, spent the first four months of Obama's presidency teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. The administration promised more money but only if Chrysler's lenders agreed to slash nearly $7 billion in secured debt. The four big banks that held 70 percent of the debt agreed to erase it for $2 billion, but a group of hedge funds that control roughly 30 percent of the debt held out for more money.
That money is the key to Kenosha's future, and to that of nearly two dozen Midwestern auto towns. The industry's instability has shaken the Great Lakes region, creating some of the highest unemployment figures since the Great Depression. Yet the strings that have been attached to the bailouts seem to favor downsizing-obsessed managers and foreign investors looking for cheap entry into the US market.
Obama makes a point of saying he does not want to "run" car companies. "The sooner we can get out of that business, the better off we're going to be," he argues. Unfortunately, if the government simply throws money at manufacturing firms and walks away, there are no guarantees that even the most skilled workers will keep their jobs or that their industry will make its future in the United States.