American Idle | The Nation


American Idle

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"Ten dollars an hour in Mansfield's a pretty decent job now," says Brian Speelman. "That's pretty sad, because who can raise a family on ten dollars an hour?" Speelman is president of United Steelworkers Local 169, which represents 279 workers at Mansfield's immense AK Steel mill, where more than half the workforce lost their jobs in a bitter 1999-2003 lockout. "Eventually, people are going to stand up and say, Why is this company making a multimillion-dollar profit and they're paying me eight bucks an hour?"

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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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Unionization of StarTek, Wal-Mart and the rest of the retail and service sector might bring living wages, but Speelman's vision of a labor fightback must be squared with Mansfield's quiescence. Richland County's only self-declaredly "revolutionary" mobilizations are occasional red-white-and-blue tea parties to denounce "socialism." A more reality-based form of resistance did occur in June, when foreclosure justice activists organized homeowners and labor union members to hit the downtown Mansfield branch of JPMorgan Chase, protesting its foreclosures by tossing little plastic sharks around the lobby.

The GM stamping plant, it appears, will end with a whimper. In contrast to Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago, where a shutdown prompted workers to take over a plant one year ago, GM lived up to its contractual obligations, notifying workers well in advance and granting them buyouts or transfers. Furthermore, UAW Local 549's leadership shows no fighting spirit à la 1967. According to Lodema M'Poko, who describes herself as pro-union, the "union morale has drastically reduced" in the plant because members "think the union--not just for Mansfield, the UAW in general--is too in bed with the company."

Every four years swarms of New Yorker and Washington Post journalists blanket Ohio, searching for Joe the Plumber. They file reports that Ohio workers are irredeemably conservative and racist, incapable of voting for, say, Barack Obama (as Ohio did). Few such writers are likely to turn up when Mansfield's fifty-five-year-old GM plant stamps its last part on January 29. If they did, they might detect other story lines about Ohio's working class: the shattering of the link between hard work and economic security, the price working people are paying for the collapse and restructuring of corporate America, and the perversity of an economy that no longer seems to value making anything other than exchange-traded funds and credit-default swaps.

Willis Fraley, holding his "Lest We Forget" sign on Labor Day, faults "deregulation back in the eighties" and "this free trade in the nineties" for the exodus of high-paying manufacturing jobs from Ohio. "Where did they go? They didn't stay in Mansfield. Like an old farmer told me one time, 'Willis, it's a little late now. The chicken coop is open, and all the chickens are out.' "

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