EDITOR’S NOTE - They survived the factory closings of the
EDITOR’S NOTE - They survived the factory closings of the 1980s with decent jobs, good benefits and the promise of pensions. But there’s a downside: These auto, communication and steelworkers have had to leave their communities and families behind while they follow their jobs from one plant to another. The final part of a three-part series, ″Blue Collar - A Vanishing Dream,″ focuses on this nomadic labor force, their lives and their fears for the future.
Undated (AP) _ By SHARON COHEN Associated Press Writer
OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. (AP) - Each night, autoworker Thomas DeLong leaves his job and returns to a sparsely furnished trailer. His home, his wife and his son are seven hours away. So, too, is his heart.
DeLong is among a growing breed of blue-collar workers who’ve traded the comfort of family, friends and community for the security of a paycheck. They’ve become nomads, not by choice, but by necessity.
The closing of hundreds of factories in the ’80s, many in the Rust Belt, has forced thousands of blue-collar workers to follow their jobs to new towns, where they face more uncertainty. They worry if their new plants will close, wonder if they’ll have to move again - and wish they could go home.
″It’s the upset of my life,″ said DeLong, a 23-year General Motors employee, who came here after his Missouri plant closed. ″Letting that company come between you and your family is enough reason to hate it.″
″You’re forced to go someplace because you do want to support your family,″ said DeLong, who makes the 762-mile round-trip drive to his Missouri home most weekends. ″I’ve tied so many years up ... It’s too late to quit now.″
Global competition, mergers, deregulation, improved technology and productivity have helped shrink the pool of manufacturing jobs, contributing to the expanding numbers of blue-collar migrants.
These workers are survivors. While tens of thousands of others lost jobs in the past decade, they still earn good money, receive good benefits and can take advantage of union-won transfer rights.
But experts say there’s a price - separated families, smaller communities and, ultimately, weaker corporations.
″Being forced to uproot is emotionally destructive,″ said Bennett Harrison, a professor of political economy at Carnegie Mellon University. ″It’s also socially destructive. It undermines productivity.″
″It’s a classic struggle between corporation and community,″ said Barry Bluestone, professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. ″It is happening to more factories, to more plants, more offices and more people.″
The nation lost 1.2 million manufacturing jobs from 1980 to 1990, and employment in that sector fell by another million since the recession began in 1990, government statistics show.
Nearly one in nine manufacturing workers was displaced between 1985 and 1989, compared with about one in 20 in the service industry, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said.
Only half of 1.2 million manufacturing workers who found new jobs stayed in that sector. Of those in transportation - which includes autoworkers - 60 percent earned less than they did previously.
Companies say they know moving can create hardships. AT&T, for example, finances new career training for workers who don’t want to move; at least half the blue-collar ranks reject transfers.
But corporations also say the opportunities they’re providing in hard economic times shouldn’t be overlooked.
″I feel sorry for people who have to move from one town to another,″ said GM spokesman John Maciarz. ″On the other hand, I’m offering you a job. That’s something else no one else has done and likely no one else will do.″
Unlike employees of single-factory companies, GM workers have the advantage of being tranferred to plants in many states, he said, though more than 85 percent of the automaker’s labor force is in Michigan, Indiana and Ohio.
Still, workers say they often lose money maintaining two households. And even when their families accompany them, spouses sometimes give up good jobs.
The factory atmosphere also can be tense: Veteran workers sometimes settle for inferior jobs or face hostility from local employees.
″You can only slide down the pole and start at the bottom again so many times in your life before you start getting a little despondent, before you start feeling that despair of ’What’s the use?‴ said Steve Featherson, president of United Auto Workers Local 1999 at Oklahoma City.
Such sentiments have surfaced at GM, where the hourly work force fell 37 percent - 470,000 to about 291,000 - from 1979 to 1992.
And GM said last winter that it will cut another 74,000 workers and close 21 plants by 1995. Since 1980, 30 company plants have closed.
At Oklahoma City, about a third of the workers are transfers from 67 locals, Featherson said. They and others in the same predicament are dubbed GM gypsies.
Ernest Laguna, a 26-year veteran, is one, having moved from California to Kansas to Oklahoma since 1982.
″You don’t know where you’re going to land tomorrow or if you’re going to have to relocate again,″ he said. ″There’s a sense of insecurity.″
It’s not just autoworkers. The Communications Workers of America, for one, reports its 105,000 membership is roughly half of what it was before AT&T’s court-ordered breakup in 1984.
Steelworkers, too, have seen their forces dwindle, their members hit the road.
Fred Haynes, a 49-year-old USX Corp. electrician in Pennsylvania, has moved twice since 1984.
″You establish your roots, you meet all new friends, then you have to pick up and move again,″ said Haynes, who recently returned from a two-month layoff. ″I’m tired of being a ping-pong ball.″
But these workers have few options.
″They’re too old to get any real job with a long future,″ said Ralph Maly, a staff representative for the communications workers. ″It’s like chasing a carrot. You have to follow that carrot if you want to get a retirement.″
But if relocating solves their money problems, the separation creates others.
″You start asking what life is about if you’re going to spend it in a mobile home next to a factory,″ said Dan Lacey, editor of Workplace Trends, an Ohio-based newsletter. ″You’re talking about returning to the ’30s in terms of quality of life.″
Jerry Pujat, a 27-year GM veteran, was laid off in July from the company’s plant in Tarrytown, N.Y. He returned to his New Jersey home after a three-year family separation.
He’s already resigned to his third move, but says, ″I’m tired of chasing cars down the line. I want to get my 30 years in and get out ... It’s no fun living out of a suitcase.″
But he’s realistic, too, aware of rising unemployment and military job cuts.
″Other times, there would be a place for those people to go to and be picked up in society,″ Pujat said. ″Today, it’s not there. There’s nowhere to go. What are these people going to do?″
The answer for George Natowski, a 24-year AT&T veteran, is to keep moving.
Natowski, who moved from Michigan to Pennsylvania to suburban Chicago, hasn’t lived with his family for seven years. He’s on his fourth roommate, spends $160 each month on phone bills and goes home only on holidays.
″The wife’s getting tired,″ he said. ″I’m not saving any money. I’m not getting anywhere. All I’m doing is putting my time in.
″I miss my kid. I’ve got five cats - they go underneath the couch when I come home. I say, ‘Hey, it’s the boss here,’ ″ he said. ″My family needs me. Every time I come home ... things are just not the same. If I’m away any longer, I’ll be a stranger.″
But Natowski, 51, doesn’t want to risk moving his family. Three months after he bought a house in Pennsylvania, he was told his office was closing.
″I get mad sometimes,″ he said, ″but what can I do?″
Companies say they understand the strain and try to accommodate workers when possible.
AT&T pays for courses and job training for those who don’t want to be uprooted, said spokesman Burke Stinson, who estimates 2,000 non-management workers are transferred annually.
″We have really bent over backward to try to make transfers palatable and recognize that some people ... don’t want to move,″ he said. But, he added, ″there are no guarantees or entitlements to a job″ and in this era of global competition, bigger doesn’t mean better.
GM is shrinking, too.
And even though a UAW contract provision allows workers transfer rights if their factories close, GM worker Brian Ellis worries the company will run out of places to move people.
″If you leave, you get nothing,″ said the Tarrytown worker. ″You’re talking about your life in a heartbeat. It’s the most uncomfortable work environment you can imagine.″
GM worker Carol Griffin moved from Kansas City to Tarrytown and back when she was laid off in July. Still, the single mother of two, who joined the company after high school, said, ″GM hasn’t trapped me. I trapped myself.″
After a year in Oklahoma, DeLong feels he’s at least doing something positive - accumulating time toward his retirement.
Still, it’s lonely for a man who lived in the same Missouri house since he was 5 years old and married his next-door neighbor.
He recently bought a trailer to save rent and drive home weekends. It will also make moving easier - if necessary.
It’s not what he planned for his life.
″The American dream used to be you get a home paid for, get some kind of retirement, get your kids raised, you have a little bit of free time. That’s not happening anymore,″ he said. ″It’s just like everything’s a little bit out of reach. Everything you try for, you just can’t get.″
End Adv Tuesday, Sept. 8