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 The End of the Line?

Twenty-five years ago, Chrysler closed its newly acquired plant in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

The event made national headlines.  Only a few months before, Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca had announced that the company intended to buy out French automaker Renault’s controlling share in the American Motor Company, whose largest plant was located in Kenosha.  Iacocca became a hero to the town of Kenosha, which was primarily devoted to heavy industry and whose largest employer was the automakers.  But amidst the jubilation, industry experts warned that Chrysler now carried excess capacity, and that layoffs and plant closings were immanent.  Chrysler, many believed, had bought out AMC solely to gain Jeep and four-wheel drive technology.  The announcement came on January 27, 1988, that Chrysler would be closing the Kenosha main plant, while leaving the much smaller Chrysler Engine to continue operations.  Iacocca, who had been hailed the town’s savior, was now seen as a gangster who had sold out blue-collar Americans for cheap Mexican labor.

The End of the Line: Lost Jobs, New Lives in Postindustrial America is Kathryn Marie Dudley’s classic anthropological study on the closing of the Kenosha plant and also one of the best books thus far on “Rust Belt” America.  A Columbia student of anthropology at the time of her work, Dudley’s upbringing in Racine, Wisconsin—only a few miles north of Kenosha—made her an ideal candidate for such a project.  She came to realize that Racine and Kenosha were a part of the Rust Belt not from studying the newspapers but from visiting home, from seeing her community wrestle with its changing identity.

What happens, Dudley asks, to the people when the doors close?  How does a “routine” event such as a plant closing affect the thousands of people who had relied upon that work for their livelihood? Not only the workers at the plant, but those who labored in the factories that supplied the plants with parts.  To find the answer, Dudley interviewed scores of displaced autoworkers, politicians, teachers, and community members.  They told a similar story, but through very different lenses.

In the heady postwar years, when American manufacturing was in its glory days, a certain ethos came to prevail.  That ethos said that when you were young, you should plug into a large company that promised that in return for your life’s work of manual labor, it would reward you with above-average wages, good benefits, and a pension to take care of you and your family in your old age.  Unsurprisingly, millions of Americans bought into this patriarchal system.  The bubble burst, and an entire class of people—the people Dudley studied—were displaced. 

Perhaps the most interesting of Dudley’s findings is that when the autoworkers in Kenosha lost their jobs, they also lost their sense of self-worth.  “Work,” writes Dudley, “has meaning because it is truly one of the few ways in American society that people can demonstrate their moral worth.”  Drilling a part onto a car door, attaching a piece of upholstery, painting the exterior—all were done with pride and care, because workers’ very identities were tied up in the quality and type of work they did.  The self-worth and identities of white-collar workers is similarly tied to work, but according to Dudley, professionals “can transport their educational credentials and job history from place to place,” while “industrial workers demonstrate their ability on the shopfloor and compile a track record that is inseparable from their place of employment.”

Another component to the autoworkers’ devastation is the fact that the type of work they did has been judged unworthy.  For decades, the UAW kept wages high, and while autoworkers point to the (literally) backbreaking labor as justification for these wages, white-collar professionals preach that high wages should be reserved for those who “deserve” them.  Merit, respect, good salaries—these come not from working with the hands, they say, but from getting an education.  Writes Dudley, “Manual laborers, it was finally decreed, do not—and never did—deserve to be middle class.”

Losing a job at the plant became, in the minds of white-collar workers, a moral indicator—a well-deserved, if harsh, reality check for “greedy” union employees.  Brendan Woods, a Kenosha politician at the time of Dudley’s study, was one of the more sympathetic voices in the book:

They’re going to lose their home.  They’re going to lose their car.  They’re going to lose their self-respect.  And they don’t know what they’re going to do about it yet.  I don’t know what they’re going to look like [when this happens].  I don’t know what I would look like, I honestly don’t.  If someone took my income and cut it in half and made my wife go to work full time and made me lose my dream of sending my children to college—and I knew that it was my fault, sort of, that I’d not educated myself when I thought I had—I don’t know what I’d be like.  I’d probably be a mess.

The notion that autoworkers were responsible for their fates, that they had neglected to save themselves and their families by recognizing the times and moving on to greener pastures, was a notion that Dudley believed the workers themselves had bought in to.  They knew that many despised them for their high wages, but they had seen those wages as earned, a reflection of what they were worth.  No longer.  

Some of those Dudley interviewed had tried to move on, to take college courses and get certifications or technical training or even a four-year degree, but the reality was that whatever they moved on to likely would not pay as well as the job that had been taken from them.  And in the meantime, they had to work, and an education is expensive.  They had mortgages to pay and families to feed, and those realities were not going to wait while they finished school.

Indicative of the shift to a white-collar economy in Kenosha is that upon the plant’s closing, an almost entirely new city council was elected.  The previous council had been predominately blue collar; this one was predominantly white collar.  One of the council’s first actions was to vote “nay” to pressing a lawsuit against Chrysler.  The decision angered many former autoworkers, but the council believed that for the sake of the town’s image, they needed to let go of old wounds.  Other plans were being made, too.  City planners and developers began working out a facelift for Kenosha’s riverfront, which had been dominated by the auto plant.  The leaders of Kenosha planned to reinvent their city entirely.  Instead of a plant town, they would be a bedroom community for the professionals commuting to Chicago or Milwaukee.  They squarely rejected their blue-collar identity for a new professional one.

That change was perhaps inevitable, particularly after NAFTA sent U.S. manufacturers swarming to Mexico, and countless other cities have wrestled with the type of transformation that Kenosha, in the closing pages of Dudley’s study, was contemplating.  Nonetheless, Dudley believes, we Americans are not all in agreement about the type of work that should define us.  In the closing chapter of her book, she writes:  

At some level we are all like the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, believing that without the diploma we have no brains.  For in truth we know we are worthy only when a symbol of social worth is conferred upon us…. What we see in America today is not a unitary consensus about technological progress, but a cultural debate about two very different ways of calculating the value of the work we do and the worth of the people we are.

Have we since reached that consensus?  Have we decided how to value work?  Perhaps the jury is still out, but the very existence of the term “Rust Belt” implies otherwise.

*

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were making the trek from our hometown in Rockford, Illinois, to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and decided to take a detour up Interstate 94 and east toward Kenosha.  I had been reading The End of the Line for some weeks, and wanted to see whether Kenosha has, in fact, succeeded in reinventing itself.

It has.  And well.

In 2010, the Chrysler Engine Plant, the last stronghold of the automotive industry in Kenosha, closed its doors.  The event—which was peaceful—might be seen as symbolic of Kenosha’s gradual but steady transition.  White-collar employment in Kenosha has been rising quickly, largely due to commuters.  As of 2011, only 53% of Kenosha county residents worked within the county, while 17% percent worked in other Wisconsin counties, and almost 30% worked outside of Wisconsin altogether—in Chicago and the northern suburbs.  Median household income in Kenosha County in the period 2007-2011 hovered at a respectable $55,000, and poverty was under 12%.  The Milken Institute, a California-based think tank, named Kenosha and Lake Counties in the top 50 in its America’s High-Tech Economy, a report that measures levels of technologically based business.

Evidence of this transformation is scattered throughout the county.  My husband and I drove through miles of farmland and through sprawling business parks before finally entering Kenosha city limits.  We drove further, through neighborhoods of neat, modest homes that reminded us of Kenosha’s blue-collar past.  Finally, we reached the lakefront.

The crown jewel of Kenosha is HarborPark, which is located on the very ground where the Chrysler plant used to sit.  HarborPark is a development of mixed open space, parks, upscale residential homes, bike and walking paths, and Southport Marina.  It is within walking distance of downtown shopping and restaurants, and is also home to two public museums.  In a report entitled “Repurposing Former Automotive Manufacturing Sites,” prepared by the Center for Automotive Research for the U.S. Department of Labor, the authors claim that two things in particular were “crucial” for the redevelopment project in Kenosha: “community engagement” and “policy flexibility and customization.”  At the beginning of the HarborPark project, Kenosha officials hired Urban Land Institute consultants to develop a plan of action.  The ULI worked closely with community leaders and also held large public meetings that were broadcast on local television.  By the time the decision was made to sell the land in a slow, measured way to developers from Chicago, community members understood the process and backed the initiative.  In addition, city officials worked to extend certain financial incentives to developers.

Urban planners hail HarborPark a model of good development, and for obvious reasons.  The one apparent “failure” of the project thus far is that it has not had the hoped-for effect of downtown revitalization.  One reason, according to the CAR report, is that many of the upscale residential condos in HarborPark were sold as second homes to people in Chicago or elsewhere, who use them during the summer months and on vacations and thus do not contribute to the local economy on a daily basis.  Options for continuing development into the downtown area are still being explored.

HarborPark is nonetheless remarkable, and as we drove through it, we admired the new buildings and gawked at the million-dollar yachts moored in Southport Marina.  We wondered whether something like HarborPark is a part of the solution for other Rust Belt towns, struggling under the weight of empty factories, high unemployment, and other signs of urban blight.  Our own home, Rockford, is one such place, chronically making Forbes’ list of top ten most miserable American cities.  Rockfordians generally disagree with Forbes, but if something like HarborPark could get them off that blasted list, they would consider it.  One thing we couldn’t help but wonder, however, is where all those blue-collar workers went.  Have they all managed to gain an education and move into the white-collar ranks?  Doubtful.  I speculate that, as in Rockford, some of Kenosha’s blue-collar working force have found new employment, some have moved, and some have been forced to rely on social services.  But as Dudley writes, they have all in some way or other been “displaced” from the lives they led.

We eventually turned back toward I-94, and on the way out of town, drove by an underpass for the Metra rail.  A train had just stopped, and passengers were hurrying around the platform.  

“Huh,” said my husband, who had no idea of the title of the book I was reading.  He peered up at the railcar.

“I wonder if that’s the end of the line.”

Nicole M. King is the managing editor of The Family in America.