It’s not every day that a Knox program gains recognition from national media organizations, namely NPR’s “This American Life” (TAL).
The Knox journalism program, spearheaded by department chair Professor Marilyn Webb, has undertaken its fourth term of work on an in-depth study of former Maytag workers in Galesburg and how their lives have been reinvented.
“There are studies and stories about when plants close, but there aren’t stories existent about what happens to people after that,” Webb said.
Webb mentioned that she has spoken with TAL about their coming to Knox for a story about the project, which, to the knowledge of TAL, is the only one of its kind. Webb noted that she had heard of a similar project done in the Quad Cities and one in Canada.
The Maytag refridgeration plant in Galesburg, which employed somewhere between 3,000 and 8,000 people throughout its history, came to a complete close in Sept. 2004 and was relocated to Reynosa, Mexico. The plant closing was covered in the short term by TKS and local news organizations like the Galesburg Register-Mail, but no in-depth, long-term study had been undertaken about what happened to the workers themselves.
That is, not until spring term 2010.
“We didn’t know anything that had happened to the people [who worked in the plant],” Webb said.
And so, a group of professors of economics, statistics, education and photography, using some money left aside by alumnus Robert Borzello ’58, created the Midwest in Transition project. Its first focus was to be Maytag.
“How is the Midwest reinventing itself? Here we have all of these factories closing down and people talking about a post-industrial economy,” Webb said. “So what is that? If these factories are going elsewhere, where are people going to work?”
Webb’s spring term 2010 class, Creative Nonfiction Workshop, was structured much like the Maytag class currently offered, Special Topics in Investigative Reporting. Essentially, students cold called former Maytag employees to find one person for an “immersion profile.” They each spent most of the term with one former factory worker, learning that person’s story and producing a narrative piece.
Another important aspect of the project was a survey conducted during the summer of 2010. With the help of Borzello Fellows senior Annie Zak, Ryan Sweikert ’10 and Levi Flair ’10, and with the direction of the former local machinists union President Dave Bevard and seven other Maytag employees, a 57-question survey was drafted and sent out to a random sample of 425 former employees. They received 133 responses — a 31 percent response rate.
The anonymous survey was meant to determine the levels of life satisfaction and financial well-being among former employees before, during and after working at the plant.
According to Webb, many will blame plant relocation, from Galesburg and elsewhere to Mexico, on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and NAFTA has a provision for job retraining for displaced workers in “high-growth” areas, which may not have applied to Galesburg.
Nonetheless, they obtained a list of people who had retrained at Carl Sandburg College. The survey respondents were taken partly from this list and a list of union employees laid off in Sept. 2004. The survey may point to the effectiveness of the retraining, if any was done.
Senior Alison Ehrhard, who took the Fall Term 2010 Maytag course, or In-Depth Reporting, saw in those she interviewed an interest in the different perspectives taken by their former co-workers. Her focus in the study centered upon the health impact of the Maytag plant on its workers, and her findings were concentrated accordingly.
According to Ehrhard, almost a third (29 percent) of the workers between the closure and the present had to go without health care, and almost half (47 percent) “delayed seeking medical help when ill.”
“To me, that was a huge finding because it just shows that when a factory closes and people are relying on the benefits the company is providing, and when all of a sudden they don’t have those benefits, it can be a real struggle for people to get basic human needs”, Ehrhard said.
The survey provided a space at the end for the respondents’ comments about their job experience with Maytag. Ehrhard recalled the story of one woman whose son was unable to afford his heart medication after the plant closed. He died of a heart attack.
But not all of the stories in this study have been so tragic. Webb mentioned one woman who realized her passion for design, and she now designs fire engines. She is currently studying for her engineering degree.
“It’s been a mixed review,” Ehrhard said. “[Bevard] told me that if you ask anybody about it, basically people wouldn’t have wanted the factory to close. [The study] shows you that people can be resilient, but it’s a struggle.”
Sophomore Jenneke Oostman took the Fall 2010 Maytag course and is currently working in the Special Topics in Investigative Journalism course. She described the economic situation for some of the former workers as a sad one.
“Some people go to high school, and their dream is to work at a factory,” Oostman said. “They place their entire life in factory work. But as was the case with Maytag, it got shut down, and they lost their pay, their benefits, pretty much their whole lives.”