COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Writers trying to capture the atmosphere at the State House that January day in 1986 had their pick of adjectives -- elated, excited, ecstatic. Most of all, it felt like a win.
Mack Trucks Inc. had chosen 153 acres in Winnsboro for its $80 million truck plant. South Carolina had beat out several other states, including rival North Carolina. There would be 1,200 jobs, a boost to the tax base and entry into the truckmaking industry with America's best-known truckmaker.
For Mack, closing a Pennsylvania plant and moving to Winnsboro promised an escape from its troublesome labor union, a new plant where wages would be half the Mack norm and $17 million in tax breaks and other incentives from state and local government.
However, less than five years later, the unionized Winnsboro plant employs about 700 people and runs at 45 percent of capacity. Mack, saved from bankruptcy earlier this year by the buyout by French automaker Renault, is too occupied surviving the present to talk about the future. And in South Carolina, while Mack still has defenders, sentiment toward one of the state's industrial recruiting coups includes disillusionment and hostility.
Does it still feel like a win?
"It proved to be a mistake," said Courtney Roberts, director of industrial relations for the Carolinas Associated General Contractors. "Mack is an economic catastrophe."
Interviews with people who helped recruit Mack, with workers and with trucking industry analysts provided some lessons:
Announcements of jobs and investment from recruiting triumphs are inexact, colored by the eagerness of politicians and the vagaries of modern business. Details can change considerably from the day of the announcement to the day a plant opens.
Labor unions remain loathsome organizations to many in South Carolina. That sentiment is now outlined in state economic development policy in large part because of Mack.
Economic development recruiters play the site-selection game. For them, the Winnsboro plant was a victory. But for the workers, who stand to lose the most, the outcome is not yet decided.
To understand the elation over Mack's recruitment, it helps to understand the South Carolina economy in the mid-1980s. Military contracts were not being landed, despite South Carolina's many military bases. The state's most important industry, textiles, was hemorrhaging. From 1980 to 1985, about 34,500 workers were laid off from South Carolina textile and apparel plants as the industries struggled through modernization and against imports.
"We had feelers out that we were really interested in a major manufacturing involvement," said Dick Riley, who during the recruitment of Mack was finishing his second term as governor.
Meanwhile, Mack was ready to replace an 1,800-worker plant built in 1926 near its corporate headquarters in Allentown, Pa. The company demanded wage and benefits cuts from the United Auto Workers labor union, which represented Mack workers at the plant, and threatened to build its new plant elsewhere.
Mack executives called Riley as the governor was preparing his State of the State speech and told him Winnsboro had been chosen. The announcement became a part of Riley's last State of the State address. But if recruiting Mack was an exclamation point for the Riley administration, the company itself represented a question mark.
Mack in 1986 had expensive and high-quality trucks, but it operated in an industry marked by overcapacity -- too many trucks for too few customers. Winnsboro, in the center of the state with the nation's second-lowest percentage of unionized workers, seemed to offer an escape from the UAW and a chance to build a truck plant for the 21st century.
For a time, Mack's strategy seemed to be working. The company made money in 1987 and 1988, after being in the red in 1985 and 1986. As recently as 1988, the executive editor of Heavy Duty Trucking magazine said, "Everything is going Mack's way right now."
But between then and July 1990, Mack was to lose a union battle, lose an opportunity to get its new truck to market and lose $282.7 million. It also lost its independence as Renault, which already owned 44 percent of Mack, paid $103 million for the rest.
Should South Carolina have seen it coming?
Riley is pragmatic. In business, he said, there are no guarantees. "For the time we were in, it was a good decision for us," he said.
Richard E. Greer, State Development Board chairman, said he understands the enthusiasm that accompanied Mack. "The key thing is, the project does take place," Greer said. "You need to recognize there may be times down the road where a project won't succeed."
Frank Prezelski, a truck industry analyst with Rothschild Inc. in New York, said Mack's move to Winnsboro speaks volumes about how Mack itself was responsible for getting the company in trouble. "They didn't go down there because it was a great strategy to do that," he said. "They did it because they were mad at the union ... "
Mack's motives regarding the UAW were made clear by the move to Winnsboro. But Mack couldn't prevent transfers to Winnsboro, and about 300 workers laid off from plants in Pennsylvania and Maryland followed Mack. Those transferees helped unionize the Winnsboro plant.
With the contract signed by the company and UAW last February, workers at the Winnsboro plant who started in August 1987 at $7 an hour would make $17 an hour by 1992, on a par with wages at other Mack plants.
Don't blame the union, Prezelski said: "I think the UAW did exactly what the UAW was supposed to do. They ... got the best contract they could get."
But in August 1989, Mack laid off 212 workers. All the layoffs were South Carolinians, as determined by seniority rules in the labor contract. That move seemed to solidify opposition to the union and Mack, as some believed Mack gave in to the union.
State government doesn't want it to happen again. As part of its economic development policy under Gov. Carroll Campbell, the state will not recruit industries with labor union contracts that include transfer clauses.
Roberts of the contractors group said he would be pleased if Mack and the UAW returned to Pennsylvania. "Certainly the people in business and industry would be overjoyed," Roberts said.
It is difficult to gauge the pervasiveness of anti-Mack sentiments. Whether Mack will remain in South Carolina over the long term also is difficult to gauge.
Prezelski and other analysts won't predict what Renault will do with Winnsboro or any of the plants. As the newest of Mack's plants, Winnsboro can be either its most sellable commodity or the centerpiece of the future Mack.