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Bike Maker Closes Plant, but Ex-Worker Says Thanks for Ride

FIELD NOTES: Americans in an Election Year. John Balzar traveled America with the presidential candidates in the 1970s and 1980s. This year, with politics and voters still the assignment, Balzar is on his own in a Pontiac coupe.

September 20, 1992|JOHN BALZAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GREENVILLE, Miss. — When this election-year assignment was conceived back on the West Coast some weeks ago, friends and colleagues were generous with suggestions. To learn what is on minds of Americans, they said, go to Springfield, Mo. There, Zenith is closing its last U.S. television plant. Go to Cortland, N.Y., where 100-year-old Smith Corona is giving up on American manufacturing and closing its typewriter plant.

You know what they mean.

Vast empty buildings, broken windows and broken hopes--this has become one of the haunting concepts of contemporary America. Go to one of these places, look at a locked gate and listen to the weakened spirits of those for whom the lock was meant, they said. That's one of the important stories of America as it steps to the doorstep of the 21st Century.

So, yes, Zenith and Smith Corona are good all-American names in the plant-closing business. But let's choose another: Schwinn.

Last year in Greenville, the 97-year-old Schwinn company shut down its last U.S. assembly line. All of its bicycles are now made abroad, mostly in Hungary and Taiwan, except for a few ultra-expensive hand-crafted machines in its Paramount line, which are produced in Wisconsin.

"Here it is," says Janie W. Johnson, 58. She's dressed in her Sunday best. She looks past the padlock on the chain-link fence to a long, low brick building that resembles a school, weeds creeping into the cracks of the cement walkway. She looks at the empty structure as she would a grave.

"It was the best job I ever had."

The story is so familiar these days, you could tell it yourself. To escape the demands of organized labor in Chicago, Schwinn moves to the South. That was in 1981. Greenville was, and is, a mecca for such industry. Here in America's poorest state, its labor force is hungry, if somewhat downtrodden. Housing is cheap, wages are easy. Factory buildings can be bought at fire-sale prices. Just recently, for example, Fruit-of-the-Loom started moving into the old Vlasic pickle plant. Uncle Ben's Rice is one of the premier industries, and there are factories that make saws, files, packing boxes and more.

Schwinn employed about 250 at any given time. Johnson knows most everyone who walked in the door. She was one of the first hired, and during the 10 years of Schwinn's operations in Greenville, she was in the front office, in personnel.

Divorced, Janie lives alone, far from her two children. Her hopes flicker but have not yielded to the shadows. She is not necessarily comfortable with her contradictions, but they guide her thinking just the same. She is pretty and plump and she holds back her tears with dignity. In short, she is human, an ordinary American and, like all of us, a unique one.

And she probably will vote for George Bush.

Schwinn let her down and let the town down. That's the kind of story we all know for its repetitious telling. But it is worth telling again because it gives context for what we may not all know about Janie Johnson.

Workers were given three months' notice before the shutdown, she recalls. Until that instant, everyone thought life was gravy. They lived in nice houses, they bought new Chryslers and went on vacations and took up collections whenever anyone got sick. They delighted in talk of expansion and more overtime.

"Then, at my age, I felt that the floor was swept out from underneath me," she recalls.

At least she had her savings to help her. A lot of the other workers were younger, many of them single mothers, and they had less. Some got other jobs. Some still haven't.

On such a foundation one could build a monument to bitterness.

Janie Johnson, though, sounds just sad.

Here on the Mississippi River Delta, in sweaty, tough and willing Greenville, industries have become transient and impersonal. Workers have come to regard companies with the same cold detachment as companies regard workers. Some come and some go. Some get sick, some rip you off, some are good.

Schwinn was good. It went away telling employees that it needed to locate its facilities closer to supplies of component parts. It sounded like baloney to the workers here, but so what? If Schwinn would only come back, folks would line up for their old jobs.

"I'd say almost everyone," Johnson figures. Schwinn was paying $6 an hour to start on the line, $11 for an inspector.

Meanwhile, Johnson waits. She tried a job at a bank and it didn't work out.

How has this shaped her politics?

Only this much: She's a woman alone, she has no long-term health insurance, she has no job and she's worried about the expense of having to put bars on her home to protect herself from Greenville's growing crime, and the price if she does not. Still, her fear of change is greater than her fear of the status quo, although both scare her quite a lot, she concedes.

Then she says this: "I look at Russia, I look at Africa and other places and I say, there but for the grace of God go I. I feel so privileged to be an American. . . . I guess I'll vote Republican."

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