Workers Lose More Than Their Livings

Times Staff Writer

America used to need this town tucked into a crook of the Mississippi River.

The assembly lines in Burlington and other factory towns nearby built the products that kept the nation moving -- school buses, car batteries, backhoes, tractor-trailers. Workers put in 60- and 70-hour weeks to meet demand.

The backhoes are produced in Mexico now, the batteries in Canada. Men and women who once defined themselves by what they built now support their families with unemployment checks.

"There's not a market anymore for a guy who shows up for work and does his job well," said Devan Rhum, 37, a former factory worker. "All of a sudden, we've got our hands out. It's degrading."

Rhum put in a dozen years touching up paint on school buses and organizing inventory so the assembly line never ran out of parts. The factory won repeat honors; customers would request buses built in Iowa because they trusted the quality. "But in the end, that didn't matter," Rhum said. The plant closed in October 2002, knocking out 342 jobs.

Across the nation, 2.8-million factory positions -- or 16% of the manufacturing base -- have evaporated in the last 3 1/2 years as plants have consolidated operations or moved production to cheaper foreign labor markets. Even as the rest of the economy showed signs of growth in the third quarter, manufacturing continued to sag. The number of people employed in factories has dropped for 40 straight months.

This remote pocket of southeastern Iowa -- three counties with a combined population of about 100,000 -- has lost more than 2,000 jobs, many paying $16 to $18 an hour.

With at least one-quarter of the regional workforce in manufacturing, nearly every family has been affected by layoffs.

But it is not just financial hardship that presses heavily on these communities.

Laborers here thought they had worked out a pretty fair deal with life. They built what America needed, and they took home a decent paycheck, health insurance, a pension to support a modest retirement. It has been a betrayal to look up from the factory floor and find that deal in ruins.

"For the first time in my life, I realized that it doesn't matter how hard you work. It doesn't matter how many hours you put in. It doesn't matter how good the product is," Rhum said. "That's probably the toughest thing about this."

It's also tough to figure out what to do next. The Bush administration has urged displaced workers to take advantage of federal and state job-training programs. Speaking to laid-off textile workers earlier this month, the president all but promised they would soon find jobs in booming sectors such as health care and biotechnology. That's starting to happen here in Burlington. It hasn't lifted spirits much.

The halls of Southeastern Community College are crammed with a record number of students, many of them laid-off workers in their 40s and 50s seeking new careers as respiratory therapists, auto mechanics, computer programmers or medical assistants.

But even as they train for roles in the service economy, they worry. Many can't afford health insurance. They can't splurge on so much as a pizza for the kids. And many find it distressing to be subsisting on unemployment benefits. "There's something about taking a paycheck and not feeling like you've earned it," said Susie Wardle, 53. "It's just not right."

Wardle is actually one of the success stories. She was three years away from qualifying for a full pension when her battery factory closed in summer 2001, putting 239 people out of work. She enrolled at the community college and to her surprise, loved it so much that she dreams of studying history at a university.

"When I was laid off, I thought that would be the worst thing that ever happened to me, but it has turned out to be the best," she said.

Wardle has found work caring for kidney dialysis patients and feels satisfied with the job, although she earns less than half the $35,000 she once made.

She feels the pay cut most keenly when she visits her twin toddler grandchildren, Nicole and Nicholas. "I wanted to spoil them," she said. "They don't want for anything, but still, it's not like if grandma could spend foolish."

The Democratic presidential candidates barnstorming Iowa have unfurled grand plans for restoring the proud era of made-in-America factory towns like Burlington.

Wardle doesn't buy it: "It's not coming back."

Laid-off bus worker Julie Franklin, 33, agrees: "It's too late. They've cut their own throats. Or rather, they've cut ours."

Hoping to prove that pessimism wrong, local officials have wooed several smaller factories to southeastern Iowa, including a paper company and a meat-processing plant. Dennis Hinkle, vice president of the Burlington Chamber of Commerce, says such start-ups have replaced as many as three-quarters of the lost factory positions.

But the new jobs typically pay barely half of what the old ones did. Most don't offer pensions or health insurance for retirees. And few people here have confidence that they will be around long.

"They're driven with this sense of despair and distrust," said Lowell Junkins, Lee County economic development director.

Just a few years ago, the local factories seemed so solid that a kid coming out of high school would apply with the expectation that he'd put in 30 years, then retire with a full pension.

That's certainly what Ryan Ford believed in 1990 when he joined the Blue Bird school bus factory in nearby Mt. Pleasant.

"You figure, kids will always go to school and they'll always need to ride buses -- so what could go wrong? Blue Bird was the number one school bus manufacturer, and [the Iowa plant] was its number one facility. You figure you're going to have the job forever," said Ford, a 32-year-old father of two.

When the plant closed last year, some of the work went to Canada, so the laid-off employees qualified for retraining under NAFTA. The federal government covers two years of college tuition and supports laid-off workers with unemployment checks while they're in school.

It's a generous program, and Ford is grateful. Still, he can't stand the fact that he needs it.

His wife, Dayna, works a 12-hour shift, including voluntary overtime, at an envelope factory, starting at 3:30 a.m. She's been putting in lots of overtime, maybe 20 hours a week. In part, Ford said, because "she feels she should, to keep our heads above water," until he finds a job. It's also how she was raised: "If the work's there, we try to do it."

Both Ford and Rhum have 3.97 grade point averages as they study respiratory therapy. Both imagine they will find great satisfaction in helping patients breathe easier. Still, the new arc of their lives disorients them.

"You lose your sense of self-worth," Ford said. "The idea of being unemployed.... " He stopped, trying to capture his sense of unease. "When you're one of the statistics on the news.... "

He tried again:

"It's just that I've always worked."

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