There are loftier monuments to human progress in Bloomington, Indiana–the Kinsey Institute, the alma mater of one-half the DNA discovery team of Watson and Crick, the site of the original Dog and Pony Show–but nothing so exuberantly represents the excess of American household convenience as the General Electric side-by-side refrigerator-freezer, manufactured exclusively in the city since 1967 in the biggest such factory in the world. This “Cadillac of refrigerators” (up to $2,449 retail) has been rolling off Bloomington assembly lines under the label GE or Hotpoint or the redoubtable Kenmore at a rate of 230 an hour, 4,700 a day, 1.6 million a year. But the mood at the plant is far changed from what it was thirty years ago, when the Bloomington Herald-Telephone ran boosterish photographs of bright-faced GE workers rewarded with checks in the thousands of dollars for their cost-saving suggestions.
In 1999 plant management announced that profitability was falling, that $65 million in cost savings was needed, and it was the job of members of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2249 to come up with the money. When they did, the company said it wasn’t good enough. Half the production would have to be moved to Celaya, Mexico, where instead of $24 an hour in wages and benefits, labor can be bought for $2 an hour. This past December, 733 GE workers in Bloomington were cast off; in the next few months hundreds more will be out of a job and hard put to match their income and benefits anyplace else in town. When it’s all over, 1,400 of the plant’s 3,200 jobs will be gone.
GE is the largest manufacturer in Bloomington, but in times of “prosperity,” stories like this one don’t tear through a town the way they did in the 1980s. Bloomington’s official unemployment rate is 1.1 percent. Hoosier basketball coach Bobby Knight lost his, but jobs are in greater number than ever. The city’s biggest employer, Indiana University, is expanding; its newest offering, a School of Informatics for the techno age. Real estate is moving at a rapid clip, and the signposts of development are everywhere as this “Crossroads of America” town increasingly becomes a destination for tourists, well-off retirees and small high-tech companies. But there’s a bitter wind blowing through the boom. Over the past two years 3,665 well-paid factory jobs have left Bloomington. In Indiana as a whole, since 1994, 15,000 workers a year on average have lost their jobs. The most passionate political dispute in town involves what environmentalists, rural preservationists and others call “the NAFTA highway,” a proposed Interstate extension that would put Bloomington on a high-speed freight route from Canada to Mexico. The United Way’s Josh Cazares, who also coordinates the local Jobs With Justice, tells of full-time workers taking supplemental part-time gigs, making regular visits to food pantries. “There’s a lot of insecurity,” Cazares says.
General Electric has made an art of insecurity. It is, says the New York Times, “regarded in many management circles as America’s most admired corporation.” On the cusp of 2000, Fortune named CEO Jack Welch, a ruthless megalomaniac, “management revolutionary of the century.” Before Welch aborted his well-publicized retirement to make one more big deal, Time Warner paid him $7.1 million for his memoirs, adding to the trove of books offering tips to business climbers eager to emulate his success. No other company has ever posted a year-end profit even close to the $12.7 billion GE piled up in 2000. In polls, consumers recognize its name more widely and think more highly of it than they do any other corporation. They also know almost nothing about it.