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Following a Factory to Mexico

Boom, Bust, Exodus by Chad Broughton Oxford University Press, 2015

What It's About

Boom, Bust, Exodus: The Rust Belt, The Maquias and a Tale of Two Cities by Chad Broughton.In Galesburg, Illinois, life revolves around the $15-an-hour jobs at a Maytag refrigerator operation—until the factory closes and moves to Mexico. Chad Broughton, a lecturer in public policy at the University of Chicago, follows the fates of the townspeople, from the union leaders to the assembly-line workers, as they contend with the closure. But Broughton doesn't stop there: He then follows the factory to Reynosa, Mexico, one of many cities that sprang up in the aftermath of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and where residents are so unfamiliar with the appliance company that they pronounce it "My-tyg." By studying the lives of the workers at each site, Broughton reveals how social and political conditions can make the same job look very different.

Target D.C. audience

Negotiators on international trade deals; Rust Belt lawmakers; corporate executives; anyone interested in labor rights.

Best line

"Our relationships with consumer goods such as smartphones or Smithfield bacon are immediate, visceral, and concrete. Our relationships to the human beings making our things, on the other hand, have only grown in distance and abstraction."

To Be Sure 

Broughton is clearly pro-union, and it shows. He places the bulk of the responsibility for Galesburg's woes on greedy corporate executives and makes little mention of the broader domestic and international trends that led to globalization. He also fails to address the fact that, even working under far worse conditions than their counterparts in Galesburg, the Reynosa employees—and their community—benefited from the factory's move.

One Level Deeper

Lawmakers who fund and tout federal job-retraining programs might want to check out the sections that deal with the Illinois workers' experience with such courses in a highly limited jobs landscape. Most of the programs available carried the expectation of lower wages for lower-quality jobs, at best, and even those workers who went back to school to pursue a degree found few prospects outside of manual labor.

The Big Takeaway

As it becomes cheaper to move factories abroad, America's mid-century manufacturing dominance will continue to wane—and, without stronger social supports, dislocated American workers will continue to suffer.