Memories from childhood

By John R. Stiles

It’s really funny what you remember sometimes about your childhood.

The other day I was reminded of the time back in the 1950s in my hometown of Galesburg when the city decided to switch from the well water that had sustained the town for its first 100-plus years of existence to a pipeline that ran to the Mississippi River 35 miles to the west.

The standing joke at the time was that scrawled on restroom walls in every town between the river community of Oquawka, where the pipeline began, and the Knox County seat, were the words "Flush twice, Galesburg needs the water."

Now you might wonder just what brought that bit of bathroom humor to mind. So, if you’ll bear with me for a moment, I’ll try and escort you through the corridors of my all too cluttered memory.

Last fall Galesburg was informed that the town’s major employer — Maytag — was pulling up stakes on 1,400, $15 an hour jobs and moving the appliance maker’s refrigerator operation to northern Mexico.

The reasons, at least from the Newton, Iowa-based corporation’s viewpoint, were obvious. Maytag can get the same production from citizens south of the border for roughly $2 per hour, or a whopping $13 per hour savings.

Certainly the logic here is crystal clear. Isn’t it the American way for an employer to want to maximize the revenue by minimizing the expense required in producing his product and/or service?

And no doubt Galesburg isn’t the first and won’t be the last community gutted in such a manner. But it could well be the last time it happens in this particular corner of the state of Illinois.

You see, it’s not the first time such a catastrophe has struck the birthplace of Carl Sandburg.

In the early 1980s, Outboard Marine Corp., the outgrowth of Gale Products, and a manufacturer of boat motor parts and lawnmowers, closed its doors to more than 1,000 pretty good paying jobs.

Shortly thereafter the state closed up the Galesburg Mental Health Center and cut loose another couple of hundred positions.

There was a brief glimmer of hope on the OMC front when a foreign operation toyed with local emotions with the offer of putting in a light manufacturing plant in the old Gale structure. However, after the city opened its arms and some of its purse strings that ended in a late night skip out and more than just a few unpaid bills.

In the past 20 years or more, the town’s other once-major employer, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, starting carting off many — if not most — of its jobs as they established headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas.

The latest Maytag blow was actually a long time coming for Galesburg, which seemed to have learned nothing from its many failed attempts at sweetening the pot for businesses with financial incentives.

The town’s last major employer started grumbling about things like "profitability" and "competitiveness" in the early 1990s. In 1994 the city and state bent over backwards with tax deals to keep the plant open.

A year or two later, local officials pushed and eventually passed a quarter-cent city sales tax to give the poor folks at Maytag a little help. The local union also chipped in with some contract appeasements.

Then the company started talking about "out-sourcing" some of its office chores, which led to another round of state, city and union sweetening.

That brings us to last fall and the final thud.

Galesburg should be the poster child for all those cities and towns along the rust belt who have been lured by the song and dance about incentives offered to major employers old or new.

And if that’s not enough, how about Maytag’s final Dear John letter to G’burg?

Seems the boys from Newton, soon to be Reynosa, Mexico, believe that they were over-taxed by local jurisdictions. That means that as the appliance giant exits with its 1,400 jobs and a goodly amount of the community’s tax base, it wants to take a couple of hundred thousand extra as sort of a going away present.

It’s really amazing to me that major corporations believe that it makes sense to move their manufacturing operations out of this country in an effort to capitalize on gigantic wage savings and never consider the eventual consequences.

In these days of flag-waving patriotic fervor and war cheerleading, it certainly seems to be something less than un-American to do to a crossroads of this nation’s heartland.

While they might accomplish lowering their prices to compete in the market, just who’s left to purchase these bargains? Certainly not all the unemployed and underemployed burger flippers they’ve left behind in the United States.

And just how many $2-per-hour residents of Reynosa do you suppose can afford these products?

Oh yeah, getting back to my restroom scrawling.

The latest wit being left on walls all over Galesburg and Knox County these days is "Will the last one to leave please turn out the lights?"

But it isn’t nearly as funny a bit of restroom humor as I remember from my childhood.