The Last Refrigerator

Ten years ago today, the Maytag plant in Galesburg, Illinois, closed its doors. What's become of the town in the years since?

Dave Bevard, former union president of the Machinists in Galesburg, Illinois, with the last refrigerator ever produced at the Maytag plant there. (Chad Broughton)

Ten years ago on this day in September, the last Maytag refrigerator moved down the assembly line in Galesburg, Illinois, a quiet little city of 32,000 on the western edge of the Rust Belt. Workers signed the white appliance with a black Sharpie as it passed, said their goodbyes, and left to start new lives.

In that same spot, a century earlier, a few dozen men hammered out steel plowing discs in a little brick workshop for nearby prairie farmers. A sprawling patchwork of buildings swallowed the old workshop in the postwar years and, by the early 1970s, the factory buzzed with the work activity of nearly 5,000 people. Called “Appliance City” by some, it supplied millions of appliances each year to America’s kitchens. Today, a decade after the shuttering, the autographed refrigerator sits in the Galesburg Antiques Mall. The former Appliance City site—the size of over 40 football fields packed together—is now mostly rubble and weeds.

Inside the Maytag factory in 1994 (courtesy The Register-Mail)

Rusting line inside shuttered factory in 2008, before the building was razed (David Samuel Stern)

The Galesburg shuttering, highlighted in Barack Obama’s iconic 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote address, was part of a historic hollowing of the industrial base of the United States. Manufacturing job loss has been a fact of American life since the 1970s, but in the 2000s manufacturing stepped off a cliff, shedding 5.8 million jobs, or about one of every three—most of them before the Great Recession began at the end of 2007. Illinois alone lost 320,900 manufacturing jobs, or 36.6 percent of its total, in the 2000s. Good jobs for those without a college diploma disappeared in the 2000s and generally did not come back. In December of 2000, the ratio of unemployed job seekers to job openings had been 1.1 to 1. At the end of the decade, it spiked to 6.1 to 1. The 2000s was the first recorded decade of zero job growth.

Commentators debate offshoring’s role in the jobs crisis, but there’s no doubt that it became downright fashionable in the early Bush years—alongside an increasingly short-term focus of the investor class. Maytag, for example, shifted refrigerator production to Reynosa, Mexico, in 2004. According to manufacturing expert John Shook, “There was a herd mentality to the offshoring” in the early 2000s. In the 1990s, American multinationals added 4.4 million jobs in the U.S. and 2.7 million jobs overseas. But in the 2000s those same multinationals cut 2.9 million American jobs and increased overseas employment by an additional 2.4 million.

U.S. Manufacturing Jobs in Millions, 1939-2014
Chart by author using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Click through for bigger version.

Western Illinois had a front-row view of the results of that industrial hollowing: an eroded lower-middle class, a surge in downward mobility, and growing income inequality. In Galesburg, the relative equality of factory life at Maytag—where workers earned, on average, $15.14 an hour and had good benefits—gave way to wildly unequal outcomes. A lucky few got steady jobs with the expanding BNSF Railway (Galesburg is a railroad town) or with John Deere in Moline, Illinois, 50 miles north. They earned more than they had at Maytag, maybe $16 to $22 an hour, though it always came at some cost. One former Maytag worker, Aaron Kemp, calculated that he had logged a few hundred thousand miles in six years at BNSF traveling weekly by car between his family in Illinois and his work on the rails in Texas, New Mexico, Louisiana, and California.

Most of the laid-off earned less—often significantly less—than their Maytag wage, even after two or four years of schooling and retraining. One couple, Jackie and Shannon Cummins, together earned almost 60,000 (or about $76,000 in today’s dollars) at Maytag as assemblers; now, a decade later, they scrape by on a combined income of $37,000, even after both retrained and found nearly full-time jobs. Jackie works at a local hospital and Shannon works as a special education aid at a small rural high school, and sorts and folds clothes at Goodwill over some summer breaks. Like many displaced refrigerator-makers, Jackie and Shannon entered the expansive lowest rungs of the healthcare and education sectors, both of which are heavily reliant upon public funding. The lower wages haven’t been the worst of it. For many, especially those with 15 or 20 years at the factory, the loss of good health insurance and a solid pension stings the most. Jackie and Shannon have cycled between private coverage, Medicaid, and no coverage at all in the past few years.

The Cummins family on the porch of their home in Abingdon, Illinois (Chad Broughton)

As ex-Maytag workers struggle, so does the little city. After Maytag left and more stores in Carl Sandburg Mall shut down, the tax burden shifted to residents, who’ve seen property taxes rise as the housing stock declines. When the Great Recession hit, the state’s fiscal problems pinched education, health, and social-services budgets, just when the need for those resources grew. Since the closing, the percentage of people on Medicaid in Knox County has nearly doubled as employer-based coverage at Maytag and other private employers has waned. Likewise, the percentage of children classified as “low-income” in cash-strapped District 205 in Galesburg increased from 43 percent in 2002 to 68 percent in 2013. This year, the school year began with a tense 15-day strike as the school board and teachers in Galesburg faced off in part over ever-scarcer local resources.

Galesburg is in slow decline, but this is hardly the devastated ghost town that some predicted a decade ago. “This town is going to die,” R. J. West, a Maytag worker at the time, told The Register-Mail when the closing announcement was made. Defying the catastrophic forecasts, fewer than one thousand people trickled out of Galesburg in the decade since the shuttering. The railroad, buoyed by its key logistical role in international trade, which includes shipping manufactured products from China to American consumers, has helped, some, to fill the enormous void Maytag left. Though payday loan shops, fast-food joints, and a new Walmart Supercenter line its main commercial strips, there is a hint of gentrification downtown near Knox College, where a new craft brewpub and upscale coffee shop thrive. Consumption patterns in Galesburg, in a modest way, reflect a growing divide among high- and low-end consumers nationwide.

Galesburg endures because its residents have stuck it out. They stay for their friends and families, and because of the low cost of living, especially housing. As local employment counselor David Lindstrom said, “You can sell your house here, and you can buy a brick in Chicago.” The Maytag casualties—nearly half of whom were women—were mostly mid-life with families or nearing retirement, with little desire to start over or to deal with the bustle of the big city, where their wage prospects aren’t much rosier. They want to stay, and, for most, it makes sense to stay. Labor stays put if it can, as Adam Smith observed in the early years of the industrial revolution. “After all that has been said of the levity and inconstancy of human nature,” Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations, “it appears evidently from experience that a man is of all sorts of luggage the most difficult to be transported.” Jackie Cummins said it this way: “We love apple pie, baseball games—we’re just kinda cheesy Midwesterners.”

The old Appliance City site today (Chad Broughton)

Galesburg may never make appliances again, and if it did it would not need the crowded work-city of the early 1970s to make them. There are forward-looking possibilities, however. Newton, Iowa—Maytag’s headquarters for over a century—now manufactures wind towers in a former Maytag laundry plant. Walla Walla, Washington—another town hard hit by free-trade agreements—now manufactures wine (yes, wine-making is manufacturing). To enter the green economy, Newton needed a federal tax credit for wind energy and an innovative state-local plan to get going. In Walla Walla, the local community college developed a specialty in viticulture and enology.

U.S. manufacturing faces not only foreign competition and incoherent federal support, but widespread disinterest and even prejudice. For many it’s part of the old economy that is losing out in the inevitable advance toward the post-industrial age. That view is wrong. A 2012 report to the president shows how manufacturing is central to a thriving, modern economy—especially advanced manufacturing in areas like green energy, nanomanufacturing, and three-dimensional printing.

There are still more than 12 million manufacturing jobs in the U.S. and output is as high as ever, and just behind China’s. In an overlooked story, the United States added manufacturing jobs for 12 months in a row in the past year. The gains are modest, but such a winning streak has only happened four times in the last 30 years. Some business elites have shifted their thinking. General Electric’s CEO Jeffrey Immelt wrote in 2012, “Outsourcing that is based only on labor costs is yesterday’s model.”

When Obama came to Galesburg last year he noted the uptick in manufacturing in a major economic speech. “For the first time since the 1990s, the number of American manufacturing jobs has actually gone up instead of down,” the President said. “But we can do more… I know there’s an old site right here in Galesburg, over on Monmouth Boulevard—let’s put some folks to work!”

The Great Recession garners attention; the wrecking of manufacturing that predated it does not, but should. When manufacturing leaves, it takes more than jobs; it takes with it ingenuity, creativity, and an economy’s inventive edge. Manufacturing offers a nation the best mix of variously skilled jobs, strong exports to lower the trade deficit, and security in its food, energy, health, and cyber-defense systems. The American economy cannot thrive on the service sector alone. As Dave Bevard, a former union president of the Machinists in Galesburg, said, “I don’t know of an economy that can survive on the principle of ‘You mow my lawn, and I’ll wash your dishes.’ We’re great because we make things.”