By Berry Craig
Author of “True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo”
The snow-softened rubble of the Continental General Tire plant at Mayfield, Ky., reminds me of a scene in “New in Town.” We rented the movie from a video store the other night.
Lucy Hill, played by Renee Zellweger, is a high-powered corporate executive from sunny Miami. She’s been sent in snowy wintertime to a small Minnesota community similar to Mayfield, my hometown, first to downsize, then close, a food processing plant that her company owns. Plant secretary Blanche Gunderson, played by Siobhan Fallon, accidentally finds a list of workers Hill plans to lay off. She gently confronts Hill.
“I made that a long time ago,” Hill protests. “I made that list before I even knew you.”
“It’s OK to pull the rug out from under folks as long as it’s nobody that you know?” Gunderson replies. “It’s OK because we’re just silly Podunk Minnesotans, right? We talk funny and we ice fish and we scrapbook. We drag Jesus into regular conversation. We’re not cool like you, right? So we don’t matter.”
German-owned Continental finished pulling the rug out from under Mayfield three years ago. Our economy hasn’t recovered from the loss of the plant. It might not ever. Opened in 1960 by the U.S. company General Tire, the plant produced car and truck tires. Most went to auto plants in Detroit and elsewhere for new vehicles. At one time, the Mayfield factory provided jobs for some 2,200 union and 400 salaried employees.
In 1987, Continental bought General Tire, which ultimately became Continental Tire North America. In 2007, Continental shut the Mayfield factory after several months of drawing down production and laying off workers. A salvage firm bought the plant and is demolishing it for scrap.
I wonder if Continental figured Mayfield plant workers were “just silly Podunk” Kentuckians who talk funny? It doesn’t get nearly cold enough to ice fish in the Bluegrass State. But scrapbooking and talking Jesus are common in these parts.
Continental claimed it had to close the Mayfield plant. The company said the factory was too old, too outmoded and had the highest production costs of any of its North American factories.
The plant union, United Steelworkers Local 665, tried to help Continental keep the plant going, says Terry Beane, who was the last president of Local 665. The union offered to extend our labor agreement and commit to workforce restructuring, if the company would make an equal commitment to invest in the plant and this community.
Beane and Wayne Chambers, the plant’s last vice president, even met with Continental executives. Said Beane:
The Germans looked me in the eye. They looked Wayne in the eye. They said they appreciated our comments on good old Mayfield. They also said:
“We are a global company, and we are going to build our tires wherever we want and as cheaply as we can.”
“Wherever” meant low-wage countries overseas or nonunion Continental facilities stateside, Chambers said.
Nothing else in “New in Town” reminded me of what happened to the Mayfield plant. In the movie, the workers end up buying their factory and running it themselves.
The Hill character goes with the workers. She’ll be plant manager and apparently the new bride of Ted Mitchell, a union official and widower played by Harry Connick Jr. You get the idea that Lucy, Ted, Blanche and everybody else are going to live happily ever after.
I’ve never heard of a real corporate executive who had a conscience attack and sided with workers at a plant he or she was about to downsize or shut. I don’t know of any members of Local 665 who have found better jobs than the ones they had at the factory.
Chambers works part time for the Steelworkers helping former plant employees get their health benefits. Beane fills snack machines for a local vending company. The tire factory, which won awards from car manufacturers for quality tires, is fast becoming heaps of crushed concrete and snapped off steel girders. It looks like images of bombed-out World War II buildings you see on the Military Channel on TV.
Every day, cranes with red, yellow and lime-green arms knock down more of the factory, which sprawled over several acres. The crane arms bob up and down like the bald heads of buzzards picking at road kill on busy, four-lane U.S. 45 North, which runs past the plant site.
People worked at the plant from all over western Kentucky and even Tennessee. Now all those good jobs are gone. It’s just like in the Depression.
Chambers knows Mayfield is not the only town that is minus a big plant. “All across the country, people are in the same bad shape,” he said. “It’s all because of corporate greed. These big companies just want to make all the money they can. They ship our jobs out of the country and don’t care who gets hurt.”
What Continental did was legal, thanks to right-wing Republicans and to some “Blue Dog Democrats,” most of them from Southern right-to-work states. They’re always glad to keep government and unions “off the back” of Big Business.
Big corporations and their friends in politics, the pulpit and the media, call busting unions and shipping jobs and production abroad or to “right to work” for less states “free enterprise.” (The “free enterprisers” also blame “greedy unions” when they close unionized plants.) When conservatives say “free enterprise,” they mean union free. They also mean free of meaningful government regulations that do things like safeguard the lives and limbs of workers on the job, protect consumers against dangerous products and shield the environment against pollution that can make us sick or even kill us.
Heaven help the republic, “free enterprisers” declare, if government does anything significant on behalf of “silly Podunk” workers against the avarice of big corporations like Continental.
Go ahead and slam me as a “socialist.” But I’d like to see Congress slap a hefty tax on companies—foreign-owned or domestic—that move plants from the United States to low-wage countries. I’d like to see a law passed that would give workers a real say in how their companies operate, like workers have in Sweden, whose workforce is nearly 70 percent unionized. (Count me in favor of the Employee Free Choice Act, too.)
A more accurate name for “free enterprise” is “social responsibility free enterprise.” Continental didn’t feel any responsibility toward its employees or to our town, indeed to our region. Profit, not people or the communities where they live, mattered most with the company. Of course, there are dozens of other corporations like Continental, which closed another unionized ex-General Tire plant in Charlotte, N.C.
Chambers and Beane won’t have Continental tires on their vehicles. Nor will I and many others in and around Mayfield. As Chambers notes:
The tires [Continental is]…shipping to this country aren’t any cheaper to the consumer. Sometimes, they cost even more.
He cites a newspaper advertisement for a tire store in Paducah, near Mayfield.
It was in the Paducah paper. There were five different brands in the ad. Size for size, Continentals were the most expensive.
Scorn me as “naïve,” or as a “bleeding heart,” too. But I don’t see how downsizers and plant closers can live with themselves. I guess that makes me “just another Podunk” working stiff unwise in the ways of “free enterprise.”
Admittedly, I don’t “drag Jesus into everyday conversation” very often. But I thank the Good Lord that the basics of my Presbyterian upbringing have stuck with me to age 60. I try hard to live by what Christians call the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” (The same principle is also found in other faiths.)
Five days a week, I drive one or the other of my American-made cars past the tire plant going to and from the community college in Paducah where I teach history. It saddens me to see less and less of the plant standing each time I go by. I know the Good Book says we’re supposed to love people who harm us. But I also get angry when I see Continental’s handiwork.
The Continental bosses, who make big money, live in big houses and drive big cars, probably don’t give Mayfield a thought. But they ought to visit our town, drive out Highway 45 and watch the rubble rise. They also could tool around town and see the empty store buildings and the open spaces on our court square where other stores have been torn down.
The “Conti” brass could bring publicists from the PR division of Continental Tire North America, which is headquartered, not coincidentally, in South Carolina, a “right to work” state.
The flaks could take pictures of the ruins of the Mayfield plant for one of their glossy-paged annual reports for stockholders. After all, what happened where I live was good old American “free enterprise.”
Berry Craig is a member of AFT Local 6010