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.