From Under the Bus to a Turn at the Wheel
Working or jobless, Ohioans eye help from president on tough road to recovery
For some Ohio workers, Obama’s responsive leadership is a sign of their influence. They need more of both.
One morning last winter, I woke up to an unusual text message. “Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” read the bulletin. “Workers rehired. Wages and benefits restored.” The area code revealed a sender in central Ohio. The importance of these glad tidings registered immediately.
With the Obama administration passing its first anniversary, and the early primaries of 2010 fast approaching, the impact of the past election has subsided for most Americans. But for some workers shaken by factory re-locations and layoffs, like thousands across the battleground state of Ohio, the 2008 election was the start of a still-developing turnaround.
Overdue national media coverage of their plight and the grassroots traction of the Obama campaign both signaled hope. Seeing hours of volunteer labor, on doorsteps and in phone banks at union halls or storefront offices, pay off with victory was a much-needed reminder for working people: Every now and then, they can overcome obstacles and claim power.
Obama’s win had special resonance in the ranks of Ohioans who made one of the Midwest’s signature brand of baked goods: Archway cookies. In October 2008, Archway declared bankruptcy and suddenly barred workers from entering their factory in Ashland, Ohio. The plant closure idled nearly 300 workers in one of the state’s most conservative counties.
Even on such deep-red turf where the authority of the Bible and free enterprise go all but unquestioned, the shutdown prompted public soul-searching. A pregnant worker, hoping to give birth while still covered by insurance, underwent induced labor. The move appeared to backfire, however, when reports emerged that Archway may have skipped premium payments on its policy to save costs. Months of workers’ healthcare claims remained in limbo, sticking several with huge bills.
Jeff Austen, one of the Archway workers rocked by the shutdown, came to see political implications in the ordeal. Austen recalls that he e-mailed and twice phoned a local Republican lawmaker, state Senate President Bill Harris, who owned a car dealership near the Archway plant. Austen says he never heard back. Yet he did get a call from U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, whose staff he credits for following up on his questions and staying in touch throughout the past 15 months.
He also got a call from the local Democratic candidate for the U.S. House, an Iraq war veteran named John Boccieri, who impressed him with a keen ear for working people and a fighting spirit. Austen kicked into high gear, appearing with Boccieri and urging friends and family to turn out and vote for him as well as Obama.
Election night marked a breakthrough that, even in hindsight, Austen describes as the beginning of a rebound. “It was a reminder that we could win for a change.”
Obama carried Ohio with 52 percent of the vote. Boccieri, in a seat held by Republicans since the Truman administration, won with 54 percent. Like others in the coalition that swept Obama into the White House and widened Democrats’ majorities in Congress, Austen experienced the victories of 2008 not merely as electoral, but also as a moral vindication. “For me, it meant the deck wasn’t always stacked against us. Working folks didn’t have to wind up on the bottom of the heap.”
The weeks following the election brought another positive sign. Lance Inc., a snack food maker based in North Carolina, purchased the Archway plant and announced plans to reopen it in 2009. One trigger for the joyous text message I received was the decision by Lance in December to make a goodwill gesture toward Archway workers: a $1,500 debit card to help them pay for holiday expenses.
But rehiring at the Ashland plant has proved slow. A total of about 160 workers now file in and out of the Lance gate. Austen estimates a little more than half of them are rehires from the Archway days. The factory was fenced, Austen observes, about the time that Lance bought the New York plant that made Stella D’Oro cookies, whose union jobs were axed when operations were transferred to Ohio.
While Austen didn’t get his job back, he has found a helping hand for retraining from Washington. The federal stimulus bill, signed by President Obama in February, expanded the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), making workers whose job losses are traceable to imported goods or exported factories eligible for job training, income support, and tax credits. Austen moved into his parents’ house while making do on unemployment. He is trying to take advantage of the TAA provisions by going back to school.
Austen praises case workers at the Department of Labor (DOL), in both Washington and Columbus, for responsiveness. “They’ve helped me walk this difficult road as best I could,” he says. And he singles out the staff of Senator Brown – again, Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, not the newcomer from Massachusetts – for listening to him and crafting policies aimed at restoring good jobs to the state.
Brown joined with Ohio Governor Ted Strickland in late January to highlight a new batch of DOL grants for job retraining that will reach half of Ohio’s 88 counties. Obama returned on January 21 to highlight job creation efforts in Lorain that are converting old manufacturing facilities geared toward auto parts to conservation-related and other clean-energy products.
Austen shares their focus on jobs while striving for one of his own. But he worries about emerging economic standards. “I see the firms hiring temps, for $8 or $9 an hour. That’s often without benefits,” he says. “You can’t raise a family on that.”
Policy planks like those Obama won on, such as the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it less onerous for workers to form unions, remain tangible in their absence. “If the boss thinks anyone is griping, all he has to say is there’s a line of replacements forming outside. He’s in no mood to hire or put up with a worker who stands up.”
One year after Obama took office, workers like Austen are finding the values that motivated their votes less than prized by employers and still awaiting further translation into law.