I grew up in a plant town.
The largest manufacturer back then was a lawnmower plant that made riding mowers for Sears. Over two thousand people worked there.
We had other plants – a division of Hughes Aircraft, a division of Ashland Chemical, a plant for Purina Dog Food, a subsidiary of General Electric, a manufacturing plant owned by Utica Tool, an assembly plant for Kirsch window treatments – but the lawnmower plant was the biggest.
A lot of these plants would shut down for a week during Thanksgiving, and sometimes for a week during Christmas, ostensibly to retool or do routine maintenance on the big machinery that they used twenty four hours a day seven days a week, but also partly because it was easier than trying to work through a high absentee rate.
Couple that with school closings, and you had a large part of the county roaming around town, running errands, getting haircuts, tuning up cars before they got on the road to visit relatives. The plant's employees looked forward to this week.
Whenever business was slow, the plant would use the break as a way to cut back production, adding a week or two to the layoff. Every once in awhile, there would be a four week layoff. This caused problems for their employees. One week off was a vacation. Two weeks off was hell, three weeks off was torture, and four weeks off was never ending, especially when their employees were used to being paid once a week.
The ones who already had side jobs or small businesses that they ran to supplement their income fared the best. By end of the second week of a four week layoff, you would see people out looking for some kind of work to do until the plant came back online. My own family’s small industrial uniform rental business suffered during these long layoffs at the lawn mower plant too – back then it was our company’s biggest customer.
During Thanksgiving and Christmas break when I was in high school and college, I often made deliveries to the plant during these layoffs. There were no uniforms to deliver, but the maintenance guys usually used thousands of shop towels cleaning and adjusting the hulking machines that the plant depended on to stamp out the main parts of a lawn mower.
The plant itself sat right off of a main traffic artery, close to a major interstate on-ramp. But with the layoff, I didn't have to watch out for the eighteen wheelers being hustled across the intersection so they didn’t have to come to a complete stop. No cars clumped around the two convenience stores at this junction of the main artery and the side road leading to the plant that seemed to have a crowd after every shift change.
It would really hit me when I passed in front of the plant itself. There were empty parking spaces all the way up to the main entrance, a five football field sized stretch of empty asphalt which looked forlorn without the contingent of well maintained cars and trucks that normally sat between the white lines.
The guard at the back gate was bored. The loading dock where I normally had to fight to get a space to park was wide open. I had to walk to another checkpoint to get in the plant at times like these, then walk all the way back through the backside of the plant to open a loading bay door so I could make my delivery.
Pushing the delivery carts that I’d brought through the plant to the tool bay was eerie – a massive building like this didn’t sound right when the machines weren’t running, didn’t look right when the forklifts were idle.
It was at times like this that I realized that the lawn mower plant wasn’t really our customer, it was our partner, a partner I wished would get back to the business of making lawn mowers so my parents could sleep at night and I could stay in school.
General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, for better or for worse, aren’t really just major American employers, they are major partners in our American way of life. You will be affected, whether you work at these plants or not, if these plants sit idle for an extended period of time.
You know those six degrees of separation you hear about, the idea that if you examine the people you know, and then take the people they know, repeating this cycle six times, your life will be “connected” to everyone else on the planet?
There will be no degrees of separation here in America between you and the people who work in the auto industry if our auto manufacturing plants remain idle.