When the Norge Refrigerator Co. opened its new Fort Smith plant in 1961, the town threw a parade, a bunting-bedecked affair with marching bands and dignitaries waving to the crowd from Detroit-made convertibles. The Norge plant was bought by the Whirlpool Corp. in 1966, and soon expanded, eventually growing to a massive 1.2 million square foot behemoth on the edge of town. Back then, the plant looked like the shape of things to come; the steel and concrete promise of an American industrial age that would never — could never — end. It was a different time. Nobody watching the parade that day had ever heard the word "outsourced," and the only thing most of them had ever seen stamped "China" was the bottom of their grandmother's teapot.
There were no parades when Whirlpool shuttered their Fort Smith factory on June 29, a closure that had been announced in October 2011. At the time the announcement was made, the writing had been on the wall at Whirlpool Fort Smith for a while. The plant, which had employed more than 4,500 workers in the mid-2000s, had hung on during the worst of the recession, but had seen its workforce slashed to just over 850 by the time the doors were closed for good. After the closure, production moved to plants in Ohio, Iowa and Ramos Arizpe, Mexico. Compounding the blow on the local economy were the layoffs at ancillary companies that existed largely to provide material for the vast Whirlpool factory: everything from plastics companies to carton makers. That doesn't include the local businesses built on Whirlpool salaries — hair salons, grocery stores, convenience stores, barber shops, pawn shops, bakeries.
There are reasons for the closure, of course — good ones. Recession. The unrelenting pressures of the marketplace. Sadly, that's a story that's been written again and again all over this country in the past 30 years. But this is not that story.
No amount of puffing the dry dust of numbers is going to give the former workers of Whirlpool Fort Smith back the comfortable, blue-collar, middle-class incomes that paid for college educations, weddings, Christmases, births, illnesses, and funerals for 50 years. You will not read any carefully measured statements from Whirlpool corporate spokesmen about consumer demand and the need to take drastic measures to remain competitive in the global marketplace in this article. If you've been paying attention over the past two decades, you could probably write that quote yourself by now. Besides, this isn't about excuses.
Instead, this aims to be a story about people — Fort Smith workers, many of whom gave a sizable chunk of their lives to a job, only to be left behind in the shuffle. People like Howard Carruth, 62, who worked at Whirlpool as a millwright for 43 years, 83 days, and served as the vice president of the United Steelworkers Union Local 370. Like Kathy Palmer, a former press operator who started at Whirlpool when she was 19 and who worries that at age 57, she's going to have trouble finding a job. Like Melissa Dorr, 49, who worked 26 years and one month at the plant, and who says she can't bring herself to even drive by the old factory: "It makes me sick that I wasted all that time there."
This is about looking some of those workers in the eye, hearing their stories, and questioning how much we're willing to pay as a society to get things just a little cheaper.
The former Whirlpool plant in Fort Smith is something to behold, even with its presses stilled and its loading docks emptied — a building so vast it seems to have a horizon, most of it painted a shade bluer than sky. In the neighborhoods near the plant, the building looms like a wall in the distance. While one might wonder how people in those houses slept all those years with the constant comings and goings of workers and trucks and the bang of industry at a plant that often ran 24 hours a day — a fact attested to by the existence of at least one surviving all-night diner a few blocks from the factory — it's probably for this simple reason: For many of the people who lived in those neighborhoods, a lot of whom probably drew their paycheck from Whirlpool, any racket from their big blue neighbor undoubtedly sounded like prosperity.