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DISPATCH FROM BURLINGTON, IOWA

Workers Lose More Than Their Livings

November 23, 2003|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

BURLINGTON, Iowa — America used to need this town tucked into a crook of the Mississippi River.

The assembly lines in Burlington and other factory towns nearby built the products that kept the nation moving -- school buses, car batteries, backhoes, tractor-trailers. Workers put in 60- and 70-hour weeks to meet demand.

The backhoes are produced in Mexico now, the batteries in Canada. Men and women who once defined themselves by what they built now support their families with unemployment checks.

"There's not a market anymore for a guy who shows up for work and does his job well," said Devan Rhum, 37, a former factory worker. "All of a sudden, we've got our hands out. It's degrading."

Rhum put in a dozen years touching up paint on school buses and organizing inventory so the assembly line never ran out of parts. The factory won repeat honors; customers would request buses built in Iowa because they trusted the quality. "But in the end, that didn't matter," Rhum said. The plant closed in October 2002, knocking out 342 jobs.

Across the nation, 2.8-million factory positions -- or 16% of the manufacturing base -- have evaporated in the last 3 1/2 years as plants have consolidated operations or moved production to cheaper foreign labor markets. Even as the rest of the economy showed signs of growth in the third quarter, manufacturing continued to sag. The number of people employed in factories has dropped for 40 straight months.

This remote pocket of southeastern Iowa -- three counties with a combined population of about 100,000 -- has lost more than 2,000 jobs, many paying $16 to $18 an hour.

With at least one-quarter of the regional workforce in manufacturing, nearly every family has been affected by layoffs.

But it is not just financial hardship that presses heavily on these communities.

Laborers here thought they had worked out a pretty fair deal with life. They built what America needed, and they took home a decent paycheck, health insurance, a pension to support a modest retirement. It has been a betrayal to look up from the factory floor and find that deal in ruins.

"For the first time in my life, I realized that it doesn't matter how hard you work. It doesn't matter how many hours you put in. It doesn't matter how good the product is," Rhum said. "That's probably the toughest thing about this."

It's also tough to figure out what to do next. The Bush administration has urged displaced workers to take advantage of federal and state job-training programs. Speaking to laid-off textile workers earlier this month, the president all but promised they would soon find jobs in booming sectors such as health care and biotechnology. That's starting to happen here in Burlington. It hasn't lifted spirits much.

The halls of Southeastern Community College are crammed with a record number of students, many of them laid-off workers in their 40s and 50s seeking new careers as respiratory therapists, auto mechanics, computer programmers or medical assistants.

But even as they train for roles in the service economy, they worry. Many can't afford health insurance. They can't splurge on so much as a pizza for the kids. And many find it distressing to be subsisting on unemployment benefits. "There's something about taking a paycheck and not feeling like you've earned it," said Susie Wardle, 53. "It's just not right."

Wardle is actually one of the success stories. She was three years away from qualifying for a full pension when her battery factory closed in summer 2001, putting 239 people out of work. She enrolled at the community college and to her surprise, loved it so much that she dreams of studying history at a university.

"When I was laid off, I thought that would be the worst thing that ever happened to me, but it has turned out to be the best," she said.

Wardle has found work caring for kidney dialysis patients and feels satisfied with the job, although she earns less than half the $35,000 she once made.

She feels the pay cut most keenly when she visits her twin toddler grandchildren, Nicole and Nicholas. "I wanted to spoil them," she said. "They don't want for anything, but still, it's not like if grandma could spend foolish."

The Democratic presidential candidates barnstorming Iowa have unfurled grand plans for restoring the proud era of made-in-America factory towns like Burlington.

Wardle doesn't buy it: "It's not coming back."

Laid-off bus worker Julie Franklin, 33, agrees: "It's too late. They've cut their own throats. Or rather, they've cut ours."

Hoping to prove that pessimism wrong, local officials have wooed several smaller factories to southeastern Iowa, including a paper company and a meat-processing plant. Dennis Hinkle, vice president of the Burlington Chamber of Commerce, says such start-ups have replaced as many as three-quarters of the lost factory positions.

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