Some economists say the recession that began in the United States late in 2007 appears to be over. But that's cold comfort for the millions of American workers who lost jobs. The U.S. auto industry was especially hard hit. General Motors, alone, eventually will close or idle a third of its 47 manufacturing plants and more than a thousand auto dealerships. The job losses are devastating, not only for workers and their families, but also for the communities they live in.
A familiar story in Norwood
Norwood, Ohio, suffered through the closing of a General Motors plant in 1987. For more than six decades, the auto assembly plant was the city's heart. The plant sprawled over 20 hectares of land in the heart of the city. It employed more than 4000 workers and represented 35 percent of Norwood's tax revenue. Jobs in the plant were hot, dirty and dangerous. But they also paid well, pushing many poor workers firmly into America's middle class.
Current mayor and life-long Norwood resident, Tom Williams, says that while the plant prospered, so did the city. "You know, on the weekends you couldn't walk down Montgomery Road. It was all crowded with people shopping," he recalls, adding that financially, the city was in great shape. "They did everything for you. At one time, you didn't even have to set out your garbage cans. They would have someone come around in the middle of the night and set 'em out!"
The good times came to an end in 1987 when GM closed the 64-year-old plant.
Could the city survive without GM?
Ron Rankin was president of the local chapter of the United Auto Workers union at the time. He remembers watching the last car built at Norwood as it moved through the plant. "We followed it off the line. Of course, there was a big crowd there; a lot of people just milling around talking with each other. Because when they close a plant like that, a lot of those guys, you never see again." Rankin says the workers were understandably worried about the future.
They weren't the only ones. Steve Kemme is a veteran reporter for the Enquirer, the area's largest newspaper. Norwood is part of his regular beat. He recalls people in surrounding communities speculating about Norwood's future the day the plant closed. "A lot of people wondered if Norwood could survive as a city. A lot of people wondered if Norwood could continue with any level of services," Kemme says.
It turns out that Norwood did eventually thrive again. All of the land once occupied by GM has been redeveloped. Property values in town stalled briefly, but have risen steadily in the years since.
A plan to diversify businesses in town
Kemme attributes much of Norwood's success to strong leadership. The reporter notes that while politics are usually adversarial, when GM pulled out, local political parties buried their differences and worked together. "That unity of purpose certainly is very important and they were fortunate enough to have leaders at that time who had a plan, a strong vision and stuck with it," Kemme says.
[mayor] The plan was to develop a more diverse business community and that's just what Norwood did. From the top of a downtown office building, Mayor Williams looks out over a community that's bustling in spite of the current economic slowdown.
"We geared ourselves to go mixed use with medical, financial institutions, different types of businesses so we don't depend on one industry. So right now, sure, the economy is affecting a lot of businesses, but just think where we'd be if we just had the General Motors plant. Where would we be?" Mayor Williams asks.
He also notes that Norwood survived largely on its own. Two decades later, he still gets angry talking about the lack of outside assistance from GM, the union and the government.
Not a smooth economic road
Norwood has made some mistakes during its recovery. It got into financial trouble all over again in the mid-1990s. Kemme says the city started spending tax revenues based on growth projections that were a bit too optimistic.
"They hadn't spent money for a long time and so there were things that needed their attention. You know, sidewalks and streets and other basic things. Problem is they spent money, a lot of times, based on these future commercial developments," Kemme recalls.
Many of those developments were put on hold as the U.S. economy began to slow.
When he heard that GM had filed for bankruptcy, Ron Rankin, a former union official remembered watching the demolition of the Norwood plant. "It was a little tough to watch them at first when they started knocking it down. I even took some bricks that was in the old plant," he admits with a grin. He has advice for workers and their communities facing the current round of closings. "Progress moves on and you gotta go with it," he says.
In late September, General Motors announced that a plan to sell its Saturn car brand had fallen through, meaning still more workers and their communities will be forced to deal with mass layoffs and plant closings. Perhaps some of those workers will take heart from Norwood's experience.