The Tale of Two Cities in the Modern Global Market

Byline: Kierstyn Schneck

WASHINGTON, D.C.— Chants of “U.S.A” broke the brisk morning air in Galesburg, Illinois, 12 years ago when a factory decided to move south to Mexico.

University of Chicago public policy lecturer Chad Broughton witnessed the 150 union members marching around the Maytag headquarters. Their chants puzzled him and led him to spending the next decade writing his first book, “Boom, Bust, Exodus: The Rust Belt, the Maquilas, and a Tale of Two Cities.” Broughton remembered that day of marching at Politics and Prose Jan. 24.

“More than jobs were at stake in Galesburg. It was about family, it was about one’s hometown, and it was about one’s country,” Broughton said. “Everything seemed to rest on a razor’s edge.”

With only 34,000 residents, Galesburg relied on the plant’s $15.14 per hour wage and the benefits. For many companies in the 2000s, however, competition drove manufacturing operations south of the border. About 1600 employees lost their jobs when the Maytag factory moved to Reynosa, Mexico in 2004.

Galesburg is just one part of a transnational story, Broughton said In his book, Broughton shows the human story behind two cities: the one Illinois town left behind and the one border town now overflowing with American factories.

“We may benefit as consumers and investors when a union shop in a place like Galesburg is shuttered,” Broughton said. “As global citizens, though, I think it’s essential and maybe even our responsibility to listen to the voices of people who are bearing the heaviest burdens of economic globalization.”

In the aftermath of Maytag’s move, people were selling off their possessions to make ends meet, houses were put up for sale and shops were closing, according to Latin teacher Sarah Legowksi. Legowksi was a freshman at Knox University in Galesburg when the factory closed and attended the book talk.

“We saw a town collapse,” Legowski said. “It was shocking how quickly the closing of this one factory impacted the everyday life of the citizens of this town.”

While Maytag was the economic anchor for Galesburg, it is one of the many maquilas—foreign-owned factories—in Reynosa.

Broughton told the story of one maquila worker, Maria de la Luz Potero. Starting work at the age of 15, Potero worked at a General Motors Co. factory for 13 years before she developed cancer. She was fired for too many absences due to her health and had to find another job. Despite the low wages, she wanted to stay in Reynosa because of the greater opportunities for her three children. Reynosa had better schools and brighter possibilities for women, according to Potero.

“Working in a maquila meant she wouldn’t have to say to her kids, as she had that Christmas [she was fired], ‘Well, sometimes Santa Claus makes a mistake,’” Broughton said.

Vera Cruz and other southern Mexican towns become part of the narrative too. Many people left Vera Cruz to find jobs in this industrial promiseland and beyond into the United States, according to Broughton.

In his book, Broughton laces these narratives with the economic history of the area, as well as the public policy behind the near shoring. Near shoring is when a company moves part of its operation to a neighboring country. It has an advantage over off shoring because transportation costs are much lower, Broughton said, among other reasons.

The book discusses immigration, trade and industry policies at the implementation stage.

“I would hope people would have a much richer understanding of the human dimension of these policies,” Broughton said. “Policy [to me] is when it hits the ground, when state meets citizen.”

This human side of policy resonated with State Department policy worker Kelsey Cambronne, who focuses on Central American policy. The human narrative makes it more interesting than a pure policy paper with just numbers, Cambronne said.

“I think these stories are important in terms of future negotiations,” Cambronne said at the book talk. “I think they can definitely make a difference, but you have to get people interested.”

While the focus of the book is to show the lives affected by the Maytag factory move, Broughton said the trend of near shoring and off shoring could have sociological repercussions for the rest of the United States.

Galesburg’s story, Broughton said, is part of a larger trend in the United States: the erosion of the lower middle class. About 5.7 million manufacturing jobs were lost from 2000 to 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“All of this that we see,” Broughton said, “may be tearing at the American social fabric in ways we might not fully understand.”

Chad Broughton's book on display for the book talk at Politics and Prose.

Chad Broughton’s book on display for his talk at Politics and Prose.

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