Michigan: Bad news for Bush

The economy of Greenville, Mich., will be devastated when a big refrigerator factory moves to Mexico. Now residents here are getting ready to express their fear and anger at the polls.

Published February 8, 2004 12:22AM (EST)

The big election-year question for voters in this charming little town of 8,000 in north central Michigan was posed last year -- on Oct. 21, to be exact. That's when Electrolux announced that it would close the refrigerator factory that had been the mainstay of the local economy since 1877 and move its operations to Mexico. As a result, most of the plant's 2,700 workers would lose their jobs.

Until then, many local Democrats had been focused on the war in Iraq and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, explains the Rev. Vince Lavieri, chair of the Montcalm County Democratic Party. But after the announcement, that changed, Lavieri says. "Everyone began thinking: Where am I going to find work?"

With the economy and the "jobless recovery" topping concerns of voters nationwide, it's no surprise that Michigan Democrats heading to their caucus polling sites this Saturday are overwhelmingly focused on their economic future. After all, Michigan is tied with Oregon for the second highest unemployment rate (7.2 percent, compared with 5.7 percent nationally), and the state has lost more than 300,000 jobs -- including nearly 200,000 in its crucial manufacturing sector -- over the past three years. This is a huge reversal from the late 1990s, when Michigan was actually adding substantial numbers of highly skilled, decently paid manufacturing jobs, and its jobless rate was well below the national average.

But nowhere in Michigan does the economic future feel more uncertain than in Greenville. In most people's minds, the jobs question is inextricably linked with two other issues -- healthcare and globalization. "The No. 1 issue is jobs: How do we create real jobs in this country that can support a family," said Denise Cadreau, director of the state AFL-CIO's political operations. "No. 2 is trade. Where do the candidates stand? They have to be for fair trade. Even the manufacturing unions realize globalization is here ... People also want something on healthcare, some kind of national healthcare."

For many, the fear of joining the 44 million Americans without health insurance is even more frightening than the prospect of trying to earn a living by working part-time at the local Meijer superstore. At least Meijer's workforce is unionized. But even that option is growing less secure. The company is laying off employees and preparing for competition from a new, nonunion, low-wage Wal-Mart coming to Greenville.

"The biggest fear people have isn't terrorists," says Don Pellow, a full-bearded, burly former president of the main United Auto Workers union local at the Electrolux plant. "The terror is that they won't have medical care, not getting blown up in a taxi by an Iraqi."

In a town where generations of families have worked at the same plant, with the men looking forward to some days off for deer season in the fall almost as much as for Christmas break, people often feel remote from the tribulations of the rest of the world. But the plant closing by the big multinational corporation "suddenly brought the world home," Lavieri said, making acronyms like "NAFTA" and the "WTO" come alive.

Greenville Mayor Lloyd Walker, a Republican like the majority of people in the county, led an effort by local notables from business, churches, professions and organized labor, including UAW officials, to put together a package that would save the plant. It was a lucrative deal for the company: $30 million a year in concessions from union workers. No state or local taxes for 20 years. The promise of a highly efficient new factory that the company could lease to own.

The community's package would save Electrolux $74 million a year, without the risks and costs of moving and losing a skilled, highly productive workforce, close to the $81 million a year that managers said they could save by moving to Mexico. And union leaders, using data from the company, estimate that it will cost $250 million to build the new factory.

But a little more than two weeks ago, Electrolux nixed the deal, confirming that the primary factory making many famous refrigerator brands --including Frigidaire, Kelvinator, Tappan, White-Westinghouse and many Kenmore models -- will leave Greenville. The target date for closure is November 2005, when the current union contract expires.

It's not surprising that workers at the plant who now make $15.25 an hour (plus benefits that cost $5.75 an hour) think it's unfair that they have to compete with workers making $1.57 an hour (plus $1.03 in benefits) in Juarez, Mexico, where their plant is likely to be relocated. "We couldn't understand how the company could walk away from a profitable plant and a proven workforce that could build high-quality refrigerators," chief union steward Dan Bissell said.

In the past, when Electrolux and even its predecessor owner, Gibson, threatened to move the plant to Mississippi in the 1960s or to Mexico more recently, many local residents tended to blame greedy workers, even though the union has accepted wage freezes and other concessions in recent years. But now, Pellow said, "they see it's the greed of the company.

"We probably need world trade," he added, "but we need fair trade -- so Mexico can't skirt environmental laws, so they have a fair and livable wage."

It's not just their own fates at stake, either. If there are no jobs or only Wal-Mart jobs, says union president Carl Hoag, "there won't be any money to run the government .... How you gonna fix the state deficit if people aren't working?" And the impact will ripple further into the community. A local doctor, for example, will soon be forced to move by his health-plan employer. In all, local estimates say, the Electrolux shutdown will cost the economy here 8,000 jobs.

But the reaction of 74-year-old Mayor Walker to his failed effort to save the plant is a little more surprising. "It's a tough time for me," he said, reflecting on his experience in the cozy parlor of his home. "I've been a lifelong Republican. I have never voted for a Democratic president or a Democratic governor, but I think I'm going to change this year. I think NAFTA -- and I supported that -- is just killing the industrial strength of this country. Michigan is being hit especially hard."

He wants an international minimum wage, enforcement of stronger environmental laws, and protection of worker health and safety, or else imposition of a tariff that can be used to retrain workers, though he hastens to add, "for what, I don't know."

Walker was particularly affronted by President Bush's trip to Mexico, promoting expansion of NAFTA-like trade agreements throughout Latin America, at the time he and union workers -- whom he came to respect and whose wages he thinks are perfectly reasonable -- were trying to save Electrolux for Greenville. "That was rubbing salt in the wounds," he said. "I don't see how our middle class can compete."

But if Republicans in Greenville are willing to consider voting for Democrats out of frustration with the rules governing global trade and investment, Democrats are frustrated with some of their own. "You know who I blame?" asked Dave Kohn, another former UAW local president. "I blame the people we elect to government. They don't do a very good job of taking care of us. And it's not just Republicans."

One result of this anger is a boomlet of support for a candidate written off in the press and winning minuscule numbers of votes in the first primaries -- U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, who favors canceling the NAFTA and WTO agreements, single-payer national health insurance, strong governmental support for workers joining unions, and much more that resonates deeply among the Electrolux workers. On the union hall marquee, below a black POW/MIA flag flying from a pole, was the announcement of Kucinich's appearance late Friday afternoon.

"I'm going to vote for Kucinich," Pellow said. "He says everything I believe in. Everyone says he's not electable. But is that a reason not to vote for him? At least I'm not voting for someone I disagree with."

Bissell countered: "If we vote for Kucinich, it's like throwing away our votes. We've got to have a candidate against Bush. Kerry seems the man."

"I'm saying, let's vote for somebody who talks like us," Pellow rejoined.

"Kucinich is the only one I'm even considering anymore," Hoag said. "He's certain to do something about NAFTA."

Most of the UAW officials and members at the local hall probably would not have joined Kucinich's opposition to the war in Iraq early last year, when he organized congressional opposition to giving Bush authority to invade Iraq. But even those who were persuaded by Bush's argument that weapons of mass destruction posed a threat are now convinced that Iraq is turning into a sinkhole of money and soldiers' blood on behalf of a cause advanced by presidential lies. "When it came to the war and I thought there were weapons of mass destruction that could turn against us in 45 minutes, I was behind Bush," Pellow said. "Now I find there weren't any WMD. Now I think: Was that the right thing to do?"

Last year a Kucinich representative visited the county Democratic Party meeting and got a warm, but disappointing, reception. "In terms of where Kucinich was on most issues," Lavieri recalled, "that's probably where most people were. We thanked him, but nobody was for Kucinich. That's when it hit me that the issue was electability." Lavieri reports extraordinary interest -- even volunteers paying party membership fees -- and extraordinary passion, but mainly against Bush, not for any Democratic candidate.

"Everyone has like three candidates," not one for whom he or she is vigorously campaigning, he said, including himself. He's a former Bob Graham supporter who has a Wesley Clark bumper sticker on his car but is still undecided. "I could be easily persuaded to vote for Edwards, but I'm comfortable with Kerry."

A month ago, retired psychological nurse Patty Holly had been insisting the party line up behind Dean. But she voted on the Internet, as Michigan's caucus rules permit, for John Kerry, someone she sees as less "hair-trigger" and more "presidential" than Dean. Retired auto dealer John Chapin decided during the course of a telephone interview that he favored Edwards as young, positive and charismatic, even though he'd earlier said he liked Kerry and Clark equally. Jeanine Keeney, a former teacher, was an early Kerry backer who didn't waver, and according to the polls she will be in a decisive majority on Saturday. Even many of the Kucinich supporters at the UAW local hall, who had liked Rep. Dick Gephardt before he dropped out, liked Kerry as their second choice.

But the anticipated big vote for Kerry reflects more cool calculation than passion, among both voters and among the politically influential unions in this state. The labor movement itself, a major force in Michigan politics, has been divided, but not in a rancorous way (unlike the deadly duel in Iowa between Gephardt and Dean supporters). Lacking a two-thirds majority for any candidate last October, the AFL-CIO remained neutral. The United Auto Workers, the 800-pound gorilla of state Democratic politics, has also remained neutral.

Last fall, a coalition of more than 20 unions backed Gephardt, who withdrew after his Iowa fourth-place showing. Recently they have been meeting to decide whom to endorse. It most likely will be Kerry, even though Kerry has supported all of the global free trade agreements that these unions, in particular, dislike. Harry Lester, regional director of the Steelworkers Union, part of the Gephardt coalition, says that he and his members are supporting Edwards, as a candidate who is "speaking out on the issues, about bringing jobs back to the country, giving incentives to companies that keep jobs in this country." But at the request of the union's top officers, he made no official endorsement, and he could easily switch. "I think Kerry is a good man," he said. "He'd do a great job." But he had good words for Dean and Kucinich as well.

On the other hand, Bob Potter, president of the 34,000-member United Food and Commercial Workers local in Michigan, was freed by Gephardt's withdrawal to back Kerry, whom he'd favored all along. "I see him as the mainstream of the Democratic Party," Potter said, contrasting him with Dean as someone who might be "too left of center" for the general election. "I think he's been aggressive about the economy being a central issue in the campaign." Kerry, who had only the backing of the firefighters among labor unions at the start of the season, now has support from the Communications Workers, the United Farm Workers, the Michigan Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and others.

Dean's big labor supporters -- AFSCME (public employees) and the Service Employees (SEIU) -- continue to work hard for their man, despite an expected poor showing in Michigan. SEIU has taken laptops to members' workplaces so that they can sign up for the caucus and then vote on the Internet. "We've had a lot of members energized by the process," said SEIU state council president Phil Thompson. "We're trying to sell the principles of Dr. Dean and how his political positions will help public employees, but we've seen a little bit of second-guessing since Iowa and the New Hampshire primary. One thing I do notice is our members are very much in the camp of anybody-but-Bush."

Among Michigan's large black population, the most reliable Democratic voters, the patterns of opinion are similar, but perhaps even more intense. "My impression of African-Americans in Michigan and throughout the country is that they are willing to support any viable candidate to defeat George Bush in the fall," said Vincent Hutchings, an associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan. "There's no consensus candidate."

Don Boggs, president of the Detroit-area Central Labor Council, largely agrees, but he cautions that Democrats still have a challenge convincing black Democrats that a victory will make a difference. "People understand the importance of getting rid of George Bush," he said, "but I don't see any particular candidate who has galvanized support, or who has convinced them that they'll make a difference for African-Americans. It will take some work."

Ultimately, Michigan Democrats, whomever they're backing, seem convinced that any Democrat will do better than Bush on jobs, healthcare and trade. They also sense the urgency of action.

"Somebody has to do something or this will be like Mexico in a couple of years," Hoag said. Indeed, as he talked, workers from a small foundry were in a room next door discussing their employer's demands for wage concessions. Their plant's workforce had been cut in half in the past few years by a shift of work primarily to China. That same day, Mayor Walker was negotiating with Greenville's second largest employer, bankrupt auto parts manufacturer Federal-Mogul, trying to keep company executives from shutting down and following Electrolux out of town.

At the UAW union hall, the local leaders -- most with two to three decades of experience at the plant -- took comfort in the support they'd received from the community. Many businesses were offering discounts to Electrolux workers. "Even the funeral home was offering a 10 percent discount," Pellow noted. Then they all broke up in laughter, the only thing, they said, that preserved their sanity in a world that looks to them more and more insane.

By David Moberg

David Moberg is a senior editor at In These Times and a fellow at the Nation Institute.

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2004 Elections Dennis Kucinich D-ohio George W. Bush Howard Dean John F. Kerry