The Case for Kenosha
COURTESY OF MICHAEL UNDERHILL
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."
"I've got to get a card!" shouts Jenn Jackson, an elected county supervisor who is a stalwart of the local Democratic Party, as she nudges past folks carrying handmade Save Kenosha signs. "We've got to get a message to our president about this. I don't think he understands what is at stake."
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.
If Republicans got the blame for hard times, however, Democrats were saddled with the expectation that they would deliver a turnaround. "Bush was the bankers' president," explains Bill Cobb, a 65-year-old Kenoshan who has adjusted to the downturn by delivering pizzas. "Obama's our president." But even as Obama was preparing to take office, he surrounded himself with economic advisers who seemed at best disconnected from industrial America. Oregon Democratic Congressman Pete DeFazio says the president picked economists who were "very much part of creating the problem." Instead of responding to the recession with an infrastructure-investment and productivity-driven recovery plan, DeFazio complains, the president's team kept allocating money for banks and insurance giants while manufacturing industries ground to a halt. The administration's auto industry task force does include a few members who should "get it" regarding the need to revitalize American manufacturing--particularly economist Jared Bernstein, formerly of the worker-friendly Economic Policy Institute, and Ron Bloom, who boasts unique experience as both a former investment banker and special assistant to the head of the United Steelworkers union. But with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and National Economic Council director Lawrence Summers serving as co-chairs--and financier Steven Rattner as "auto czar"--there is no question that it's the Wall Streeters who dominate the task force. Joel Kotkin, a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, notes, "Very few Obama appointees have ties to the country's core productive sectors: manufacturing, agriculture, energy. Veterans of investment banking, academia or the public sector, they seem to see the economy more in terms of making media, images and trades--as opposed to actually making things."