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Lost and Found in a Factory Town

When the Electrolux refrigerator plant left Greenville, Mich., for Mexico, employees took it hard. But some discovered new lives.

September 10, 2006|Hugo Kugiya | Associated Press Writer

GREENVILLE, Mich. — Close to the end, when there was only a little bit of light and movement left in the town factory, the small herd of cattle at the Becks' farm grew by a few head -- a winter surprise. The novice farmers had failed to notice the pregnancies and could not account for the calves' conception.

The bull, left unroped the past spring, must have wandered. A rookie mistake.

The Becks, who between them put in about 70 years at the Electrolux refrigerator factory in Greenville before it shut down, had prepared for the closure by fishing for odd jobs, adding the animals, cutting down trees by the lakeshore where they live and installing an outdoor, wood-burning furnace so they could more fully live off their land.

For decades, the Becks and families like them lived off Electrolux, one of the world's largest makers of home appliances, at a large, yellow plant by the Flat River in central Michigan. The jobs built homes, made marriages, fed children, kept their lives in motion.

That responsibility now rested in their own hands.

Shutting down the Greenville plant and building a new one from scratch in Juarez, Mexico, made corporate sense. The infrastructure would be state-of-the-art, labor costs slashed tenfold, the room for physical growth nearly unlimited.

So despite generous financial incentives by the county and state to stay in Greenville, Electrolux -- like so many companies retooling themselves in a global economy -- looked south. The conglomerate set up a new center of manufacturing for North America just across the border, minutes from El Paso, Texas.

The Greenville plant made side-by-side and top-mount Frigidaire models, more than a million a year. It was once the biggest refrigerator plant in North America.

Even in a state that has lost 200,000 manufacturing jobs since 1999 -- 78,000 last year -- the loss of Electrolux was like an explosion in Michigan, said Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

Last September, the plant began to shed workers. In March, it closed for good, letting go 2,700 employees. Some of them had plans, some did not.

Months after she lost her job, Keitha Harris, 49, still had few answers. Born and raised in Greenville, she was among three generations of her family to work at Electrolux.

But her years of service did not give her much at the end, just severance pay of $1,500, most of which she used to buy a laptop computer. She receives $632 every two weeks in unemployment compensation. Her daughter Jessie, 29, born with cerebral palsy, receives about the same every month from the government because of her disability.

Diagnosed herself with fibromyalgia, which causes chronic muscle pain, Keitha Harris has had a tough life -- a home in constant disrepair, destructive relationships, overwhelming debt, a daughter in need of constant care.

The job, she said, "was my escape. I felt like I knew what was going on in the world. I loved it. I really loved going to work. It pretty much destroyed me to quit."

Harris is not alone -- many of her former co-workers are struggling with the plant's closure. But many others have turned the page.

Jim Hoisington had held just about every job at Electrolux in his 27 years there. He started as a janitor and moved on to repair, foam operator and, finally, union representative. His last post represented his toughest years, constantly negotiating and renegotiating and always finishing with disappointment.

"Nightmare," was the word he kept using to describe it.

Today he runs the clubhouse at Glenkerry golf course in Greenville. He tends the bar, dispenses soda, serves sandwiches and hot dogs, takes money for greens fees and carts. He makes much less money but feels as if he has been given his life back.

"There's 110,000 times less stress working here," he said.

Larry and Debbie Ralph are doing all right too. Their homestead on nine acres near Crystal Lake is the product of two lives spent at Electrolux. Just before the company announced the plant was closing, the couple took out a $70,000 home improvement loan to add a family room, garage and dining room. The new house has cathedral ceilings, a grand fireplace and an updated kitchen.

Larry, 46, and Debbie, 52, still need to find work. But they're in good shape. The couple has no children to support (Debbie has two grown daughters from a previous marriage). They have retirement funds and own their trucks. Their mortgage is nearly paid off.

Like the Ralphs, many of their fellow townspeople are handy with most things, squeamish about few, able to fix their own cars, grow and hunt some of their own food.

Their town began in the mid-1800s with a sawmill. Trees covered the hillsides; once cleared, the land was farmed by Danish immigrants.

But for the last 100 years, refrigerators kept Greenville on the map.

After Electrolux, what?

"We're not dying," said Kathy Jo VanderLaan, head of the Chamber of Commerce. "Electrolux doesn't define Greenville. The sidewalks are not rolling up. We are going to be fine."

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