The moral of Maytag

by Mike Kroll

Like many people in Galesburg, I had heard many disconcerting rumors about Maytag. Those rumors have long run the gamut from further layoffs due to outsourcing subassembly and component work to what seemed outrageous--closure of the entire plant. On the eve of Friday's announcement the rumor was that the company would sell this plant but when the reality became clear I was both shocked and dumbfounded. It has long been my believe that total closure of this plant was an outrageous proposition and just because it happened doesn't make it less so.

The Maytag employees had given up just about everything demanded of them by management; Galesburg and other local taxing bodies had served up just about every available ''incentive'' and the state had pitched in millions of dollars-- all to no avail. In the end it became clear that none of that really mattered. Maytag management played us all for suckers with no more real commitment to this community than fugitive Brazilian con-woman Carmen Viana.

Just before the start of this school-year, I purchased a Maytag refrigerator in the mistaken notion that I was doing my best to be a responsible citizen. Our kitchen also boasts a Maytag range and our basement is home to a Maytag washer and dryer set. I have no doubt that this is representative of many an area household. Recognizing the importance of this plant most of us wanted to do whatever we could to help keep it successful.

For its part, mighty Maytag has continually extorted tax concessions and other ''favors'' from the citizens of this community and state promoting the ''close relationship'' between the company and Galesburg. Just this year the company sought to have much of its Galesburg properties revalued to a fraction of the currently assessed property value so the company could avoid paying property taxes. While Maytag liked to talk the talk they seldom walked the walk. Sure they made contributions to local causes, but proportionately far less than numerous other area businesses. When you get down to it, Maytag has never invested in this community to the extent we have invested in Maytag.

When Maytag spokesperson Karen Lynn answered media questions Friday, she made it abundantly clear that this is an irrevocable decision on the part of Maytag. No matter how much community leaders and politicians may demean themselves vainly attempting to entice Maytag to stay in Galesburg, the die has been cast and only further embarrassment will be the outcome of such efforts. As a community we need to begin looking beyond the Maytag debacle immediately and take stock of the lessons this experience has taught us.

This has been an extremely painful lesson in the futility of the traditional notions of economic development. Let us be very clear that Maytag isn't leaving because of us -- rather despite us. The product manufactured at the Galesburg plant is high quality and a success in the marketplace. The plant is profitable. When Maytag management says that manufacturing refrigerators in Galesburg is no longer ''competitively viable'' what they are really saying is that obscene profits can be harvested elsewhere (Mexico) without the need to even pretend to be a good corporate citizen.

A Galesburg worker is every bit as good a worker as can be found anywhere in the Midwest. Beginning in the middle of next year hundreds of these skilled manufacturing workers will be ''available'' but what sorts of jobs will await them? It is unreasonable to expect that economic development efforts will replace, even partially, the lost high quality jobs that some 1,600-2,400 of our neighbors once held at Maytag. Large corporate manufacturing opportunities haven't presented themselves this last decade because they just are not available. The transformation of the American economy over the past 20-some years has seen to this sad fact.

If Galesburg and the surrounding area are to keep these Maytag employees we will need to invent viable new local businesses and retrain the Maytag workforce. Contrary to the statements made by so many local politicians this community is not really better prepared for this calamity than the loss of OMC and the State Research Hospital. Do you really think that the ETC or the CME are more than window dressing? As currently configured, neither has lived up to its promise yet they are touted as such assets to placate us. Training a small subset of former Maytag workers for jobs that will likely never be available in this area is both immoral and a waste of limited resources.

Today this area needs vision like never before. We need persons with capital to invest it locally in creating real jobs and real businesses -- businesses that can profitably succeed for the long term while paying a living wage and offering fair benefits to employees. In the beginning any such business will of necessity be small but with time, good management, a productive quality workforce and more than a little luck, these new businesses should grow and benefit us all. In this way we will diversify the local economy and just maybe create a few reasons for our sons and daughters to choose to stay and raise their own families in the Galesburg community.

All of those well-meaning local business people that contributed to the beginning of Galesburg 2000 need to put their fortunes and reputations into the direct creation of new business and new jobs in this community. We need to stop counting on enticing outside companies to Galesburg and nurture new ones of our own. There is sizable risk involved in this course of action but failure of the local economy is a virtual certainty in the absence of such risk taking.

Likewise, local politicians need to begin emphasizing those quality of life aspects of the community that have so often been overlooked in the past. Rather than offering incentives to lure businesses here let's begin removing obstacles to the creation of new local businesses. We need to reprioritize limited local funds and recognize that things such as tourism will not keep the Galesburg economy afloat.

My wife has been making noises about replacing our washer and drier and as we complete the remodeling of our kitchen the plans call for the purchase of a new dishwasher. Let me assure both the management and displaced workers of Maytag that we plan to make 'ol lonely a little bit lonelier. No more Maytag or affiliated appliances will find their way into this household

Uploaded to The Zephyr website October 19, 2002

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