Since the late 1970s, 75,000 manufacturing jobs have disappeared from Los Angeles County. Steel plants, rubber plants, auto plants, meat-packing plants--industries that paid wages high enough for blue-collar workers to enjoy middle-class lives--shut down. The jobs were either eliminated or transferred to cheaper labor markets overseas, in Mexico or in the South.
The pattern has become so familiar that one of the latest plant closures--Oscar Mayer Foods Corp.'s meat-packing facility in Vernon, which employed 500 people--was scarcely noticed.
Blanca Mercado noticed. As an employment representative of the state Economic Development Department’s South Gate office, where unemployment insurance claims have risen 30% in the past year, she was assigned to coordinate career workshops to help the Oscar Mayer workers plan their next move.
Mercado, 36, a 15-year department employee, began holding the workshops at the Oscar Mayer plant in August, a month before the closure was to take effect. What she found was typical of the wrenching adjustment that millions of U.S. workers have been forced to make as the nation’s manufacturing economy has faded. Her experiences are also a cautionary tale for all workers in an increasingly uncertain economy.
Q: By the time the workshops started, the employees had known for months that the plant was to close. What sort of attitudes did they have?
A: They were angry that this was happening. They were going through a period of denial: “It’s really not going to happen.” “Maybe something will happen between now and that closing date.” A period of hope. There were rumors that someone else was going to buy the compa ny. That’s common when a closure has been announced. There are rumors of all types, and usually they’re hopeful.
Q: Does that denial keep people who have been told they’re going to be out of work from making proper job-search preparations?
A: Yes. We still see it now with some of the Oscar Mayer workers. In some cases, they came back (to the South Gate Economic Development Department office) a month after the plant closed--it had taken that long to go by before they decided, “I’ve got to do something.” We went in with plenty of time and plenty of ideas for them to use. They were like, “I’ll wait. Maybe something will happen.” Time went by and now we’re seeing people either starting school or taking on jobs that we’re offering them.
Q: The Oscar Mayer workers were relatively well paid because they were union members. Yet meat packing is becoming increasingly a non-union, low-wage industry. Did that fact contribute to the sense of denial you encountered?
A: Their salaries were $10 to $13 an hour. Some of them refused to believe they weren’t going to find work immediately at that wage. We were making them aware of the difficulty, but again they wouldn’t accept it: “Oh, no, something’s going to happen.” But a lot of them were willing to accept $9 an hour, take a $3-an-hour pay cut, and those are the ones who are working now. Even though they took a pay cut, we put them in jobs where they can be making up to that (old) salary within a couple of years, work their way back up to it. Those persons who are still looking for their old salary are probably still unemployed.
Q: It must have been difficult for them to make a decision.
A: You can’t go from one meat-packing plant to another--there aren’t many left in Los Angeles. I think a lot of people took the opportunity to retrain. That’s where many of them are right now. We offered counseling to a lot of persons who were unsure what they wanted to do. And testing. Some needed English classes to begin with. Some took training for other careers--drug and alcohol counselor and computer technician are two examples. We tried to limit the use of private job-training schools; we couldn’t see these people being able to repay the loans with just unemployment insurance payments.
Q: White-collar workers have been advised for years that the old notion of job security--the idea you could work for one company the rest of your life--has disappeared. Manufacturing workers don’t tend to get that sort of counseling until it’s too late.
A: I think that’s changing, simply because of all of the layoffs that are occurring. The fact is, if you have a relative, someone near you, and you know that after 20 years they lost their job, then you become fearful of your job. There may be some doubt in your mind, even though you’ve been in your job a long time. It’s more of a reality now.
Q: Give me a portrait of the average Oscar Mayer production worker.
A: An average person had been there 20 years, probably lacking a high school diploma, probably 10th-, 11th-grade education. They ran all kinds of machinery, from sausage making to packing machines--that was the extent of their production experience.
Q: But many of them owned homes, they’d been able to develop middle-class lives despite those minimal skills.
A: That’s very true. They worried about losing that, but they also spoke of their mortgage payment being very low as compared to some payments now that run up in the thousands. Some even told me what they paid. It was in the $200 range. They bought a long time ago. They live in less expensive areas. That was part of the denial, too: “Well, I can make it on my unemployment if I have to.”
Q: For many of the workers, it had been a long time since they’d looked for a job. Was that a problem?
A: They forget what to do. And we can tell just by our EDD application, which is probably much simpler than the one they would encounter with a company. They even have a difficult time completing ours. The assistance we give them is very valuable.
Q: Are we talking about literacy problems or just time?
A: It may be both. There were some in that company who couldn’t read or write, but I think it’s mostly being out of practice: “Gosh, I forgot what this was all about.” “What do I say, what don’t I say?” Having them complete applications, interviews was helpful. They weren’t going into meat packing. We had to teach them to sell their skills to a whole different industry, whatever may be out there.
Q: That must be a scary process.
A: Yes, for them it is.
Q: What sort of goals do you have on a project like this? What makes it satisfying?
A: Helping someone. They have to think, they have to plan. The satisfaction is just knowing that I’ve gotten to one or two individuals in the whole group, that I’ve made them at least think about what they’re going to do.