The Viasystems Inc. circuit board factory was once known as "Richmond Works," and it provided good pay for people who didn't get past high school -- like Scott Clark. He was also among the 2,350 people who lost their jobs in 2001, when the plant shut for good.
Today Clark is a driver-for-hire, willing to work virtually any schedule, and drive any route for less than anyone else. His old factory job was outsourced to workers in China, Canada or Mexico. But now he benefits from outsourcing, doing work that once might have been someone else's full-time job with benefits. A former proud union man, he has become part of the steady exodus from the labor movement, which now represents just under 13 percent of the workforce. Instead, he's part of another nearly 13 percent of the workforce that has grown, not shrunk -- those who do jobs that are temporary, contract or on-call.
Chuck Moore plays with his son, Chase, 3, before bedtime. This past weekend, Moore accepted a job as a veterinary assistant for half what he had been making in his old job.
(Jay Paul For The Washington Post)
Transcript: Washington Post staff writer Griff Witte was online to field questions and comments about this article.
Video: The Washington Post's Griff Witte discusses the shift in the workforce.
About This Series|
This is the first in an occasional series about the changes roiling the middle of the American workforce -- the disappearance of many jobs that pay near the national average of $17 per hour, with benefits such as health care and pensions. Other stories in the series will address how companies are moving work to temporary employees and people in other countries, and will look at the prospects for new types of jobs to take the place of those lost.
At least the work's not going anywhere. A real person in America, he reasons, has to drive American roads to get things from one place to another. There's security in that.
Clark used to feel the same security about work at the factory. When he started there in the mid-1970s, it was a new Western Electric plant, part of the Ma Bell family. When managers called him for an interview and he got the job, he could hardly believe it: "I said, 'It's funny you called me. My girlfriend's got college, and you ain't called her.' They said, 'What kind of college?' I said, 'She's taking biology and chemistry and all that stuff.' Before I got home, they called her and I had to turn around and bring her back up."
His girlfriend, Kathy, dropped out of school immediately. They started work the same day in 1976, making less than $10 an hour between them. Marriage followed.
Clark, a big, profane man, makes his way through Virginia yelling at other drivers, yelling at talk radio, and, occasionally, singing along to a sweet, sad bluegrass tune.
He doesn't have much patience for politicians. When Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the Democratic presidential nominee, comes on the radio to talk about the economy, proclaiming, "I believe in building up our great middle class," Clark sneers, "Yeah, right." When President Bush's voice echoes through the cab a little later, Clark dubs him "a liar."
Clark has few nice things to say about corporations, either, but he concedes that the factory -- for most of his years there -- was run pretty well. He enjoyed the work, putting copper plating on circuit boards that would power phones, computers and even a few submarines for the Navy. Working in the chemical division was a dirty job. But because it was dirty, managers stayed away. Amidst the fumes, working long into the night on the second shift, the workers forged deep friendships. Clark and three buddies played the lottery religiously, with a vow that if one hit the jackpot, they would split the winnings and all retire on the spot.
"It was a real close-knit group of people," said Kathy Clark, who also worked the second shift for years. "We grew up there. We had our families there."
'You Could Work for Nothing'
But in 1996, the plant was sold by Lucent Technologies Inc., which had inherited it from AT&T Corp. Although the union made a bid, the victor was a start-up called Viasystems.
Many of the workers, Scott Clark included, had a feeling Viasystems was not invested in the plant for the long term. The reality was hard to ignore: By 2001, few companies still made circuit boards in the United States. They could earn a bigger profit producing them where business costs were lower, and where the workers would not demand overtime or sick leave. Scott Clark was not surprised on the day Viasystems announced the factory would shut down.
"They point-blank told us. . . . 'You could work for nothing and we would still close this plant,' " Kathy Clark said.
On the plant's final day, the workers were told to throw their ID passes and beepers into a box in the auditorium. Scott Clark wouldn't do it. Instead he broke into a meeting of managers, and placed his pass on the table. "When I walked into this plant, they handed me that pass," he told them. "They were proud to give it to me, and I was proud to take it." Now he was giving it back. He turned, and left the plant for the last time.
A handful of employees stayed behind to remove the machines so they could either be shipped overseas or sold for scrap. In the end, Richmond Works was just a shell. The building still sits vacant off the side of Interstate 64 just outside Richmond, a 700,000-square-foot tan tombstone in a weedy field.
Kathy Clark was unemployed for a year after the plant closed. Scott Clark lost time to training as he began his second career on the road. With their savings all but evaporated, the Clarks have spent the past two years starting over.