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Whirlpool withdrawal in Fort Smith: Careers shattered

The Whirlpool plant was the cornerstone of the Fort Smith economy, once employing thousands. In June, that all swirled away.



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.   

Those days, however, are in the past. While Fort Smith manufacturing isn't down and out — there are still a number of big industrial employers there, including Gerber Foods, heating and air manufacturer Rheem, and electric motor manufacturer Baldor — Whirlpool was clearly a cornerstone of the local economy, and the loss has rippled through the town like a shockwave.  

Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders worked for Whirlpool for 32 years prior to being elected. He said the news that Whirlpool would depart was "disheartening," he said.

"I was very disappointed because we had the most efficient plant that Whirlpool had domestically, but I wasn't privy to the factors on which they made their decision." 

The bright spot for Fort Smith, Sanders said, is that other companies in town are slowly beginning to add jobs, and the city continues to work with the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission on potential prospects. He said that the national economy has been so bleak that it's difficult to judge when hiring in the city will rebound, but he added that he hopes to have "an announcement or two" early next year regarding expansion and growth by current employers.

"What we hear is that nationwide there's pent-up investment dollars," Sanders said, "but companies are just holding on waiting for the tide to turn. We're hopeful that when those investment dollars start to break loose that we're in the mix."

In the communities near the former Whirlpool plant, however, the voices are not even so hopeful as that. AAA Pawn, a strip-mall shop on Highway 271 south just behind the former plant, had a shiny Whirlpool washer in its showroom on the day we visited. AAA manager Loren Throne said he has seen the effect the closure has had on his business. "We've definitely seen an increase in money going out, as opposed to money coming in," Throne said. "We get a lot of folks in here who say, 'I just need to pay a bill,' or 'I just need some gas money.' I'm sure some of them were former Whirlpool employees."

Throne said his business is down enough that the shop has had to go to alternative sources of sales, relying more on the Internet and sales at local flea markets, to stay afloat. "I still don't understand it," he said. "It's greed, if you ask me, to send jobs somewhere just to save a buck."

Next door to AAA Pawn at Nanny's Boutique thrift shop, owner Gwen Motsenbocker said she's felt the ripples from Whirlpool as well. Her late husband, Joe, worked at Whirlpool in the 1970s, and she said it was a good-paying job. While many of the appliances in her home were made at the factory and bought at annual "scratch-and-dent" sales, she vowed she'll never buy anything else the company makes. The closure, she said, has "put a hurt on Fort Smith."

"People come in here all the time trying to sell me stuff that you know came out of their homes," she said. "They're just hurting for money. I'm not saying that Whirlpool is the whole cause, but it knocked a lot of other plants out of business."

A few blocks from the plant, Danny Flippen runs TSC Digital Entertainment Systems, a commercial satellite TV system installer. Loud and unashamedly Democrat — prone to going on tears about how American industry dodged a bullet when the voters rejected Mitt Romney — Flippen said he sees the outsourcing of jobs as one of the most unpatriotic things a company can do. As a kid, he went on the picket lines with his father, who worked for the city of Fort Smith. He said that although blaming unions for plant closures has been popular in the past, it wasn't union demands that closed Whirlpool.  

"They say it's the union's fault," Flippen said. "Keep telling yourself that. It wasn't the unions that did it. If it wasn't for the unions, we would be working Sundays for two bucks an hour, and we will go back to that if we let it."

While your local economist might scoff, Flippen said he believes Americans would pay more for a U.S.-made refrigerator, not only because of a sense of helping out their fellow citizens and American industry, but because of quality. It's a sentiment shared by most of the people we talked to in Fort Smith. Putting American workers back to work, Flippen said, could help people get enough money in their pocket to choose quality over price.

"You get people making a little money," Flippen said, "they'll say: 'Well, why would I want to buy that cheap piece of shit when I can buy this one, made in the United States, with twice the warranty, made down the road in Alabama, or up in Missouri or over in Kansas?' "

The workers in those plants would spend money with local businesses, Flippen said, and the economy would lift.

"The only way we're going to get industry back is to get off the high horse of thinking that the God Almighty Dollar has to be made no matter who sacrifices to get it," Flippen said. "It's sad. I think about all the kids that went to college, all the homes that were built, all the dreams that were accomplished by that factory out there. Now they won't be. It's lost." 

At 12:30 p.m. on a Thursday, the classrooms at the Crawford County Adult Education Center in Van Buren are full, and the people filling the seats are almost all ex-Whirlpool. While they're officially here because they're being retrained through the government's Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which pays for some education for workers laid off due to production being shifted to NAFTA partners Canada and Mexico, this is really something more like a half-way house — a rest stop between the repetitive, regimented life of a factory worker and what they all hope will be life as a successful college or trade school student, with a well-paying job beyond.

Most are in their mid-50s, some of them squinting at computer screens through reading glasses. Many of them worked at Whirlpool since they were 18 or 19. Now they sit shoulder-to-shoulder with people they built refrigerators with for 20 years and try to learn their way back to the lives they knew. While most are getting ready for college courses or nursing school, a few of them dropped out of high school to start at the plant, confident they'd retire from Whirlpool and thus never need a diploma. Now, at an age when most people are worried about what to buy the grandkids for Christmas, those people find themselves scrambling after GEDs so they can qualify for even the lowest-paying of jobs, much less the middle-class wages they were making before.

The Arkansas Times spoke to more than a dozen former Whirlpool workers taking classes at the Adult Ed Center. In the center's assembly hall, they were loud and boisterous as they waited on their interviews, laughing over inside jokes from the old days, or commiserating over what's been visited upon them. Every hand shaken in that room was hard, solid, callused — hands that know work. The other thing that united them was a clouded, universal look of worry, even when they smiled.

Even though Carruth, the 43-year employee and former vice president of the local Steelworkers Union, is not a union leader anymore, he's still a leader. It was Carruth who gathered the former workers together to chat with Arkansas Times. He told us to bring doughnuts — even specified where the doughnuts should come from to best please the former Whirlpoolers — and so we did. He's that kind of guy.

Like a lot of former Whirlpool employees, Carruth said the workers did everything they could to save the plant, working with management to trim costs and even helping decide which of their fellow co-workers to lay off in recent years. He pointed out that Whirlpool Fort Smith was first in quality among all Whirlpool factories in North America right up until it closed. He admits that he's bitter about the decision to close the plant, which he called "a shitty deal."

"Moving things to Mexico is a big mistake," Carruth said. "Who is going to buy these refrigerators from Mexico when we don't have jobs? I'm an honest believer in that. We're going to a service-type nation, selling hamburgers."

For many of his fellow students, Carruth said, going to school is a way to survive. He's better situated than most given how close he is to retirement, but he's still clearly concerned about his former co-workers. To many, he said, the retraining assistance they're receiving from the government feels like a handout.

"We'd gladly accept our jobs back and give them this money back that we're drawing right now," he said. "There's not a person out there who says they don't want to work and have a job. We're going through something that most of us have never been through in our lives."

Everyone in the room seems to be living the truth of that. It shows in their eyes, and you can hear it in their voices:

Former press operator Palmer said she has trouble with school due to a learning disability. "I'm 57 now, and it's hard to find a job. I don't know what to do. Who is going to hire someone at my age? I tried to get on at the airport. I tried to get on at the school. It's hard to get a job right now. ... I don't want to work at McDonald's. I don't want to work at Subway or Sonic. I want something better. I had a better job, and it's gone."

Theresa Soucy, 58, who started at Whirlpool when she was 20 and shares some of Palmer's concerns, said she's heard rumors that many local employers won't consider ex-Whirlpoolers because the factory was unionized. "I looked at a job that paid 40 percent less than I made at Whirlpool," Soucy said. "Should I take that big of a cut? I've got to go back and get an education just to make the money I made at Whirlpool, and by that time, I'm going to be old. Who is going to want to hire me?"  

Jeannie Tucker, who worked 28 years at the plant, said she feels ashamed because she can't give her daughter the things her other children had during their senior year of high school: "We never expected to get slapped in the face like that — slapped down to nothing."

Paul Vinsant said his 27-year-old son recently told him to forget about having pride when he finds another job: "He said, 'Dad, whatever you do next, you can't have pride. You can't just give them 110 percent. Just give them enough to get by. That's all you can do.' I told him that I don't know if that's in me or not. He said: 'I hate to tell you, but you'll be done this way again.' "

Shelley Tomlin, 48, who is attending school with her husband, Bobby, who she met at Whirlpool before they were 20 years old, said: "Somebody asked me if I knew anybody who could come work at the employment office, and they had to have a bachelor's degree. I asked what it paid, and they said $14 an hour. I told him we didn't even have college, and we made more money than that. It's kind of hard going back to college not knowing whether you can make what you made beforehand. The good-paying jobs are gone." 

"I don't feel like I learned anything from being there," said Melissa Dorr, the former worker who said she can't even drive by the old factory. "How's it going to help me now? I was going to retire from there. I was going to retire and go on about my business. If I'd known, I would have been looking for something else to do."

Dr. Debbie Faubus-Kendrick, director of the Adult Education Center, said that trying to help people in their 50s figure out how to cope with losing a job they held for 25-plus years — and the prospect of finding another one in a world where even younger and more qualified candidates can't find employment — is sometimes heartbreaking. She said that during the first round of layoffs, one older former Whirlpool worker came to a small, getting-to-know-you session at the center. The next week, Faubus-Kendrick said, she heard that the man had told his wife to ask his friend if she had any questions about what he was about to do, then went to his truck and shot himself. At press time, we were unable to determine whether that story was true or just an urban legend of the dispossessed; something former Whirlpool workers whisper to each other to remind themselves they haven't hit rock bottom.

"They break down and cry sometimes," Faubus-Kendrick said. "They say: 'What am I going to do?' We try to find resources for them and get them pointed in the right direction. They say: 'I haven't been in a classroom in 35 years,' and we'll tell them: 'You'll be fine. We don't expect you to walk in and know everything.' "

She said that while most of the former Whirlpool workers she sees come to the center looking like "deer in the headlights," they are soon able to fall back on what made them good at their previous jobs: punctuality, consistency, work ethic, the willingness to work as a team and lean on one another for support. She said that even after students move on to college, many of them show back up at the center, seeking reassurance.

"This is a stepping stone," she said. "It's almost like we coddle them and protect them. They get the one-on-one. They get the attaboys they need. They get the warm fuzzies, and they get that we're behind them. They're not going to get that on a college campus."  

With the economy so dire and her students destined to compete with just-as-qualified candidates who are less than half their age, Faubus-Kendrick said that the faculty at the center has to wear a lot of hats for the older students they see: friend, psychologist and confidante.

"It's difficult," she said. "It's sitting and listening to their anger, their disappointment, their fear. It's listening, and saying: 'Let's take a piece of this at a time.' "

Laura Strange, 55, worked at Whirlpool for 29 years and two months, eventually becoming a coordinator on the refrigerator door line. Strange didn't want us to take her picture, but you already know what she looks like — what grief looks like, what sleepless nights look like, what worry looks like. When we talked to her, she was mad, heartsick, always seeming to be on the verge of shouting. During our interview, when she mentioned that she'd at least be receiving Whirlpool insurance when she eventually does retire, she was gently informed by Howard Carruth and others that this was not the case because she was a few months shy of 55 the day the plant closed — the 55-year-old cutoff age being one of the quirks of the final compensation deal worked out between the union and the company. She and others at the table came close to arguing about it, with Strange insisting she'd been explicitly told by "the people upstairs" in management that she would receive company insurance upon retirement. Eventually, however, the realization that she'd been either mistaken or outright lied to seemed to wash over her. And just like that — poof — another dim spark of her hope was gone, before our very eyes.  It was a horrible thing to witness.

Her situation, Strange said, is almost unbearable at times. "The stress is unbelievable," she said. "People say, pick something else and do it! That's hard to do. I can't go back to a factory. I tried one time, and I failed the physical. I have carpal tunnel. I have arthritis in my shoulders and in my hips. Going out and getting another factory job is probably not going to happen for me."

Even as she tries to push forward with her education, Strange said, her time at Whirlpool is still holding her back. When she was young, Strange was a crackerjack typist, able to top 50 words per minute. "Now I can't get past 20 because my fingers are so messed up," she said. "My fingers just don't work like they used to."

While Strange seems determined to press on, she knows, like the other folks from Whirlpool, that the clock is always ticking. It's a common refrain: Who is going to want to hire any of them?

"After two years of retraining that's definitely not going to get me a job in this area that pays as well as Whirlpool, I'm going to go out there and try to compete at doing something I've never done before with kids who are fresh out of college," she said. "They'll want that same job, and if I were in charge, I would take the young person. In two years, I'll be 57. I can't retire, and I'm a long way from the Social Security line. What do you do?"

"Too old to go start over," intoned a woman sitting nearby, "and you're too young to retire."

For now, Strange and her husband are living on her unemployment and her husband's monthly Social Security check. She said she isn't taking any kind of government aid other than what's available through the Trade Adjustment Assistance retraining program, but she and others know ex-Whirlpool employees who have gone on food stamps just to feed their families. Just talking about that possibility seems like a humiliation to her and the rest, but there may well be a day when it comes to that for many of them.

"Six or seven years ago, we thought that the people who were drawing government assistance were 'those people.' " Strange said. "We had no idea we'd be 'those people' someday."

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