Maytag Project: The Reinvention of Self after Maytag

March 14, 2011

Rebecca BenoBy Rebecca Beno, Class of 2012

GALESBURG -- A large survey conducted in 2010 by Knox College faculty and students found an overall sense of resiliency in the lives of former Maytag Refrigeration Plant employees, more than six years after the manufacturing giant left the city.

The survey entitled Maytag Employees in Transition was mailed to a random sample of 425 former Maytag workers. Researchers wanted to know what happened to the final wave of 902 union workers who were displaced in September 2004 when production shut down here and moved to Reynosa, Mexico. A list of management workers let go at that same time was not available.

The Maytag Project

During 2010, Knox College professors and students conducted a survey of workers displaced by the closing of the Maytag plant in Galesburg in 2004, hoping to find out how the workers fared after the closure. The survey covered a wide variety of topics, including personal economics, education, current employment, and life satisfaction.

In 2011, the Galesburg Register-Mail published survey results, along with in-depth analysis and personal profiles of selected workers written by Knox students and edited by Marilyn Webb, Distinguished Professor of Journalism.

The Maytag Project welcomes responses from former Maytag employees who have not filled out a survey. Links to a survey form and all the stories are on the Maytag Project home page.

"We wanted to see if we could find some answers," said Marilyn Webb, Distinguished Professor of Journalism at Knox College and director of what is now known as The Maytag Project. "When factories leave do people end up not working at all or do we bounce back and develop new ways to make a living? How do people figure out new lives? Or are people even figuring that out? Have masses of people been left permanently unemployed? Or have they reinvented themselves? And if they have, how did they do that?"

The survey was designed to be anonymous unless a respondent wanted his or her name noted for a follow-up interview, and it included 60 questions about people's lives, their finances, health, social experience and family health.

"We were worried about people being abandoned after the plant closed," Webb said. "We were curious about the success of the local retraining programs created under the provisions of the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA), and we wondered especially what happened to older workers, since the last to go at Maytag had the most seniority. We also wanted to see if the claim was really true of a new economy emerging in a so-called post-industrial America."

Researchers discovered that Americans here are creative in building second chances for themselves. In the face of adversity, 65 percent of the former workers surveyed said they believed in re-inventing their own futures, and 52 percent agreed that the American Dream is attainable by those who adapt. Yet it has often been a struggle.

Not all former workers have emerged well from the loss of their job. Overall life happiness has dropped since Maytag closed, but only from an eight to a seven on a scale of one through ten. The median household income dropped $10,000 and 40 percent of survey respondents feel they will never recover financially.

On the other hand, a surprising 67 percent of those who enrolled in retraining programs, most of them at Carl Sandburg College (CSC), say the job they have now fits them better as people than did their work at Maytag. And some people are now earning much more than they earned before.

The study as a whole was led by Webb, with the additional support and cooperation of Knox College and professors Richard Stout, of economics; Diana Beck, of education; Mike Godsil, of photography; and of Suzanne Michaels, a sociologist at the City University of New York; Dave Bevard, the former president Maytag's International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) union; and a team of Knox students and Journalism Program Fellows. The study was unique in that it also included a group of former Maytag workers themselves in designing the survey.

Of the 452 survey forms mailed out, 133 were returned, which researchers consider a good 31 percent response rate. Recipients of the survey were randomly chosen but they were representative of the exact proportions of the total 902 workers who were men and women, who retrained and who didn't, and those who had lived in specific wards in Galesburg and the surrounding area. The study is also one of only a tiny few that have looked at what happened to manufacturing workers years after they were laid off.

"In general, the people that have not done as well did not answer the survey," said Bevard. "The feeling is -- what good can it do me?" That means the information returned might be skewed toward those who have more successfully recovered rather than toward those who have had a rougher time. More women answered than did men and only a fraction of members of minority groups who worked at the plant filled out the survey forms.

The Maytag closing is still a sore topic for many. "A lot of people are close-mouthed about things. It probably hurts for them to talk about it," said former Maytag employee John Eskridge, 50, who was part of the study design team. For some people, it brings on a lot of emotion. It changed their lives a lot. A lot of people out there, it was the only place they ever worked. Generations of families worked there."

When the Galesburg Maytag Refrigeration Plant was open, the company had allegedly employed between 3,000 and 8,000 people at any given time. However, in 1994 when former President Bill Clinton signed NAFTA, companies like Maytag were now able to outsource jobs. Many, like Maytag, relocated factories to Mexico in search of cheaper labor. Factories also relocated to other countries, but similar tax and incentive provisions were not covered under NAFTA.

Galesburg's Maytag employees were first told on October 11, 2002 that their plant would be shut down in two years. At that time, the plant employed 1,600 IAMAW union members. "That two year period was very stressful," said Bevard. "The question became: How do you reinvent yourself?" In September 2004, when final production shut down, that question became even more pressing

Maytag's pension plan was a possibility for some. Those who worked at the plant for over 30 years could retire and were able to collect $32 a month per year of service at the plant along with a supplement until they reached the age of 62, when they're eligible for Social Security and Medicare. Depending on the years worked at the plant, others employed for 15 years or more could receive partial retirement benefits after turning 55 years old.

Those who didn't retire were eligible to retrain in a new job field with the help of a federal NAFTA-funded Transitional Adjustment Assistance (TAA) training program. While in school, people were able to receive up to two years of unemployment compensation and have some additional expenses paid for as well.

"When Maytag closed, the Journalism Program [at Knox] covered the story. And we covered the aftermath in continuing to examine what happened in the city." said Webb. "In 2008, we were given $25,000 to create a reporting project on anything we wanted. The money was provided by Knox alumnus Robert (Bob) Borzello. We were most concerned with what happened to the people who had worked at Maytag."

In Spring 2010, Webb taught a journalism course in which students wrote narrative stories about the new lives of nine former employees who had gone to CSC for retraining.

This project became a jumping off point for the Maytag Employees in Transition survey. Seven of the nine who were profiled agreed to be a part of an advisory group, including Melissa Bowling, Christine Britton, John Eskridge and Rebecca Nott, of Galesburg, as well as Barrie Schaffer of Abingdon, Dyson Shannon Jr. of Alexis, and Linda Rice of East Galesburg.

Bevard participated as did Webb, Stout, Beck, and three Knox Borzello Fellows in Journalism: recent graduates Ryan Sweikert (later a Register-Mail reporter) and Levi Flair (now a graphics designer), and Knox senior Annie Zak, a former Register-Mail intern and current editor-in-chief of the college newspaper.

"What has happened here is important. Lots of communities in the Midwest have de-industrialized. We had the opportunity, with this survey, to try and answer a few questions. What has happened here? How can we describe it? Did retraining help? How did people help themselves," said Stout.

"We looked at surveys that other people had used, got ideas and then plugged Maytag into the questions. I was inspired by the Pew Research Center," said Stout, referring to a research organization sponsored by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

"We helped by inputting ideas and suggestions for questions on the questionnaire," said former employee, Barrie Shaffer. "They sent us a rough draft of the survey and we made suggestions about it. I thought the whole thing was a great idea and a good project to work on. We were all interested in finding out what has happened to everybody and figuring out a way to do that."

After six drafts, the group was ready to send the survey to the community. Two letters were included, one from Webb; the other from Bevard and the former employee advisory group. "Ryan [Sweikert] and Annie [Zak] spent the whole first part of summer finding people's addresses," said Webb. Stout fashioned a scientific sample of the group of 902 former employees as a whole and the survey was mailed.

"Ryan and Annie entered [the returned survey] data into an Excel document, which was then transferred to a statistical analysis program known as STATA," said Stout. This fall Webb taught a class in In-Depth Reporting. Knox students, along with Webb, Stout and Sweikert, analyzed the data returned.

"The unique thing about this process is it is not just reporting the summarized findings of some polling firm, the students actually dug into the raw data," said Stout. Students focused on 11 issues, included as final stories in a series published in the Register-Mail: job retraining, financial well-being, betrayal of the American Dream, life satisfaction, aging workers, gender, health impacts, impact on the next generation, recovery fears, and rebuilding a sense of community after the loss of the Maytag "family."

The survey found that former Maytag workers' median household income has fallen $10,000 since the closing of the plant, despite the increase of median household income in Knox County overall. While at Maytag, the median household income for respondents was between $40,000 and $50,000 and it is now between $30,000 and $40,000. Over half of the respondents received a partial Maytag pension while slightly over one fourth received a full pension.

Many respondents, however, believe they will never recover financially from the loss of the Maytag Plant. About 16 percent now earn household incomes between $10,000 and $20, 000 a year, below the national poverty line of roughly $21,000 for a family of four.

On the other hand, 29 percent of the respondents said they now earn more than they did then. "For the most part I enjoyed my time at Maytag. They paid good and I ended up with a good job. I really miss the hourly rate I made there and wish something like Maytag would come back to Galesburg," said one female respondent, expressing the feelings of many.

Others agreed with a second respondent who said: "My life has changed 100 percent for the better since Maytag. I work for a company that respects me and its workers. I feel I make a difference at work. I am challenged daily to do better. I look forward to going to work. College was the best transition for me and gave me confidence and skills I needed for my current job. When the doors closed at Maytag I never looked back. I have moved forward with my life and have new friends that build me up and encourage me in my new career."

Fifty-two percent of the survey respondents said they had taken advantage of retraining programs offered, most of them at Carl Sandburg College. Of all those retrained, 60 percent were happy to very happy with their retraining program. However, only half of respondents who answered that they had retrained said their current job fits the retraining program they entered.

Although more women engaged in job retraining, households with female former Maytag employees have a lower household income, but women who retrained are more likely to have a full-time job now than those who didn't. Nearly half of those who retrained said their new job fits them better as people than had their job at Maytag. Of those who retrained, only 30 percent reported that their current wages are better than those they had at Maytag.

"Our economy and our social security are in dire jeopardy due in great part to the outsourcing of jobs," wrote one survey respondent. "Someone in another country is doing a job we (I) could do and their economy is reaping the benefits! We're going downhill- one step forward, two back."

Of the respondents who said they would never recover financially from the loss of their job at Maytag, 35 percent had participated in the retraining offered by the NAFTA TAA program. And even those people who retrained had apprehensions about ever recovering from the loss of the plant.

"When Maytag closed, it ruined a lot of families," said one female participant. "Some of us had a hard time getting funding for school. Life after Maytag has been HELL!"

Many respondents wrote that what they missed most about Maytag was the sense of community and friends they had made there. A number of respondents feel more socially isolated now than they did while working at Maytag.

However, the survey also found that there were four factors for those who rate their life satisfaction now as high as they did when they were working at Maytag: a sense of community and friendship with those they work with, fairly comparable annual income, benefits, including time off, work flexibility, and health insurance and pride in their job.

"There was a sense of pride we workers put into each refrigerator," one respondent said. "Some people didn't care, but for the most part we cared very much about putting together a great product. In the end it didn't matter because the higher ups in the company got greedy and we all suffered."

For those who answered that they were dissatisfied with their current jobs, however, nearly all said they felt betrayed by the American Dream they grew up with. "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer," said one participant. "Many lives have been torn apart."

According to many respondents, the American Dream is gone for U.S. manufacturing workers. Eighty percent of the survey respondents said that the American Dream is out of reach for this type of workforce. Of those who believe manufacturing workers cannot achieve the American Dream, many believe that their children cannot obtain it either.

However, some hope that this shift towards deindustrialization is not permanent. "I really liked my years at Maytag. It was a good place to work with good insurance and good pay. I had finally got enough time in to get a good job hoping to retire there. If they would come back tomorrow I would take it," said one respondent.

Nonetheless, the trend toward adaptation is significant as well. Workers such as Bowling and Britton from the advisory group have moved from blue collar jobs to white collar careers. The former designs trucks for Alexis Fire Equipment Company while the latter works as a nurse at Cottage Hospital.

"There is a good workforce here. People know that," said Bevard. "That's why the Maytag building was there for over one hundred years. We can't survive without a middle class. We need to produce the clothes on our back and the cars that we drive. I'm not an economist but the movement toward a ‘service economy' is the biggest load of crap I've ever heard. Wal-Mart cannot set the standard."

Successful adaptation, hard as that is, seems to be key. "It is reassuring," said Stout, "that after the devastating loss of a good job, many people have bounced back and are still leading satisfactory lives." Others, however, still remain angry and bitter, feeling betrayed by a plant and a dream to which they gave so much of their lives.

-- Editor's Note: Time references are as of 2010, when this and other Maytag Project stories were written.