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American Idle

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Christopher Phelps
Christopher Phelps taught American history at Ohio State University, Mansfield, from 1999 to 2009. He is now associate...

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Despite the candy tossed out to children lining the curbs, the annual Labor Day parade in Mansfield, Ohio, last September was a melancholy observance. Pride of place went to United Auto Workers Local 549, its days sadly numbered, but much of the parade bore scant relation to labor. Fez-wearing Shriners zoomed around in tiny yellow cars, the high school marching band shuffled along indifferently and a Jesus impersonator stood astride a float for "Ohio's only life-size wax museum," the Living Bible Museum Bible Walk.

The Steelworkers mounted a float advocating the Employee Free Choice Act, the Richland County AFL-CIO Central Labor Council endorsed universal health reform and the Teamsters, postal workers and building trades all turned out despite gloomy skies. But UAW Local 549--hammered by news that Mansfield's giant General Motors stamping plant, once the city's largest employer, will shut down in 2010--did not rise to the desperate occasion with some defiant final gesture. Not one autoworker even marched. Instead, Local 549's leaders drove the parade route in twelve vehicles bearing a GM dealer's logo, as if obliged to hawk the products of the very firm whose management has sounded their local's death knell.

At the very tail end of this cavalcade, almost unnoticed, came a spark of independent working-class creativity. Two men bore between them a large sign reading "Lest We Forget." Against its black background were listed the manufacturers that have exited Mansfield in recent decades, among them Dominion Electric (1971), Mansfield Tire and Rubber (1978), Hoover Plastics (1980), National Seating (1985), Tappan Stoves (1986), Westinghouse (1990), Ohio Brass (1990), Wickes Lumber (1997), Crane Plumbing (2003), Neer Manufacturing (2007) and Smurfit-Stone Container (2009).

"My family, offsprings, have all worked at these factories at one time or another," said Willis Fraley, 69, the sign's creator. "My wife has worked at two of them. And they've all closed."

Fraley worked at Ohio Brass for twenty-nine years until that firm, a Mansfield mainstay dating back to the nineteenth century, shut its doors. Afterward he held a string of factory jobs in Cleveland, Galion and Wooster, compelled to move along each time because of downsizings or closings. The "Lest We Forget" sign was his tribute to north central Ohioans who have given their lives to companies only to see them abandon the region.

"We actually built Mansfield," he said. "And what's here today? Look up and down the streets, all the empty homes."

A Middletown for the twenty-first century, Mansfield is a microcosm of America idled. Equidistant between Cleveland and Columbus, it has a core population of 49,346, with 128,852 in its metro area. The city's official unemployment rate is 12.1 percent, well above state and national averages--and if the chronically discouraged are considered, the rate is nearly one in five.

Mansfield's fabled origins date back to pioneer days, when it was named for a surveyor appointed by Thomas Jefferson. On ground that is now its town square, blockhouses were built to fend off Indian attacks in the War of 1812. As the seat of Richland County, whose name testifies to the area's early agricultural bounty, Mansfield developed industrially when flour mills arose after railroads arrived in the 1830s. British and German immigration in the nineteenth century, supplemented by white Appalachian and Southern African-American migration in the twentieth, provided a ready workforce.

By the middle of the twentieth century, Mansfield was humming along at near-full employment, making stoves, tires, steel, machinery, refrigerators and autos. "When I got out of high school in '66," said Jon Houston, a postal carrier for thirty-five years, "you could still go to any factory in Mansfield and get a job. I went down to Westinghouse. They hired me and said, You start tomorrow."

That seems another world now. In the current recession alone, the city has lost Con-Way Freight, Value City, Circuit City and Cord Camera, not to mention restaurants like Ruby Tuesday. A multiplier effect of plummeting property values, declining tax revenues and failing small businesses is kicking in. The loss of General Motors threatens a further chain reaction as small suppliers are hit.

"You go out and search all the time for work, and there's nothing around here," says Ron Hacker, 45. "Even if anyone is hiring, it's very low-wage." Hacker lost his Teamsters job at Smurfit-Stone, a maker of corrugated boxes for Anheuser-Busch, when its Mansfield plant was closed in May, leaving eighty-three jobless. His wife, Jinny, had already lost her supervisory job at Gap in 2007, when the retailer eliminated its Richland Mall store. Now the Hackers work three part-time jobs between them, have exhausted their 401(k)s and are struggling with Wells Fargo to retain their home.

"I feel like Americans are missing the picture," Hacker says, "because there are people like us, we've worked our whole life, lots of hours and lots of jobs, we've got our kids through school and college, we were pretty much working toward retirement--and now the rug is pulled out from under us."

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