The other day, during what would have been first shift at the plant, Rose Ziminsky invited two of her former co-workers over for lunch. Then on the spur of the moment, she called four more. They all came right over.
Lunch took up half the afternoon -- more time than the old friends had spent at lunch on a weekday in years. They could have sat at Ziminsky's table for days, rehashing the loss of their jobs at the Techneglas factory and railing at the politicians for not talking enough about how they plan to fix the economy. But they felt uneasy about not having to watch a clock.
"I don't know what to do with myself," said Paul Beretsky, 54, a widower who lives near Ziminsky in this Wilkes-Barre suburb of white clapboard houses and green back yards. "I've been going to work at the plant for over 35 years."
Techneglas Inc., which made glass for television sets, shut down in August and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. With that announcement, nearly 700 people here who had devoted decades to a factory that consumed their holidays and weekends and babies' growing years were knocked off their footing in the nation's middle class. They made good wages -- as much as $21 an hour -- that are not easy to replace, and the fate of their pensions and health care coverage is in doubt.
Now they are becoming, to their horror, part of the struggling class of Americans that Republicans and Democrats have been arguing over how to help. The fortunes, and the discontent, of that class have intensified the campaign combat in battlegrounds such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, where voters, decided or not, say they want to hear more about how the presidential candidates will create jobs.
Both campaigns, during their frequent forays through Pennsylvania, have stopped in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area in the past several weeks. The Democratic vice presidential nominee, Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), was in Wilkes-Barre in August and in Scranton on Friday. Vice President Cheney visited Wilkes-Barre last month. President Bush held an invitation-only rally in Wilkes-Barre last Wednesday.
Among the laid-off, Edwards won points on his first trip for visiting with three former Techneglas workers, and on his second for repeating a pledge to end tax credits for companies that take jobs overseas and to provide incentives for companies to remain in the United States. But the workers, always scrutinizing the speeches for solutions to their job crisis, have usually been disappointed.
"Get off the war already," said Trina Moss, who, at 47, lost the job she held at Techneglas for 25 years. "The real issue is the economy."
In announcing that it was closing, Techneglas, a unit of Nippon Electric Glass Co. of Japan, said it will open a plant in Taiwan and expand production in South Korea and Japan. It blamed overseas competition and declining demand for closings that threw out of work its 670 employees in northeastern Pennsylvania, plus 382 in Columbus, Ohio.
The closing has politicized the company's former employees in ways they never expected. Like patients with rare cancers, they have become insatiable for information on their condition. They watch the news religiously. They clip newspaper stories, surf the Web, send letters to elected officials, hold meetings for hours. They know the statistics: Unemployment in the Wilkes-Barre area has reached 7.5 percent, compared with 5.4 percent nationally. They note that in nearby Duryea, Schott North America Inc., which makes glass for vision products, laid off 80 employees last month.
Bush sold his tax cuts as a job-creating measure, and on the stump he has vowed, "I'm not going to be satisfied until everybody who wants to work can find a job." His Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), has promised to create 10 million jobs in his first four years. Ziminsky and her friends say they are not satisfied that either candidate has given the jobs crisis here its due. But they also say they do not know a single former Techneglas employee who is planning to vote for Bush.
Like their union leaders, they blame the administration for making it easy for companies to close their doors here and open them overseas. Not that the Democrats did not have an edge here already. Wilkes-Barre (pop. 42,000), the seat of Luzerne County, and Scranton (pop. 76,400), 18 miles north in Lackawanna County, are Democratic strongholds.
Vice President Al Gore beat Bush by 10,000 votes in Luzerne County and more than 22,000 votes in Lackawanna County. But the region, dominated by Irish, Polish and Italian Americans, is also very Catholic and socially conservative -- abortion is a big issue -- and has been considered up for grabs on Nov. 2.
For the former Techneglas workers, who blame outsourcing for the loss of their livelihoods, concerns about national security and opposition to abortion are trumped by their concerns over the economy. They are angry at Bush over the cost of the Iraq war and annoyed at the lack of attention they say he has given to their plight.
"I saw what was happening to this economy, but it didn't really hit me until it happened to me," said Moss, a lifelong Republican who is not only voting for the Democrats but also volunteering at the Wilkes-Barre headquarters of the Kerry-Edwards campaign. On Friday, Moss introduced Edwards at a rally in Scranton.
"I've come a long way from voting Republican for president every time," said Moss, a single mother of a 7-year-old daughter. Last year, she learned she had breast cancer. If she loses her health insurance, she will have to pay $600 every three months for the drugs she needs to keep healing.
Of the six people seated at Ziminsky's table the other day, five are registered Democrats, though several, such as Beretsky, said they voted for the candidate more often than the party. This time, they are voting against a candidate -- the president.
"I've voted for Republicans," Beretsky said. But Bush, he said, "failed the average American. He just favors the rich, the more affluent people. I want to choose someone who I feel has my interests in mind, my survival in mind, until I take the big dirt nap."
Ziminsky said she is also voting against Bush. "I'm not particularly fond of John Kerry," she said. "I like Edwards. And I don't know why I'm not fond of John Kerry. But to me, Bush is anti-union. This country was founded on unions."
The Pennsylvania Bush-Cheney campaign insists that Bush has a shot at the small towns and counties in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton region, if not the cities. "The reason for that is we're heavily up on absentee ballots," said Stuart Bailey, a Lackawanna County Republican Committee member.
As for the area's job losses, Bailey said many people, including himself, have lost jobs but do not blame the president. "We lost a 98-year-old furniture manufacturing business last year in part because of foreign implications," said Bailey, 70. "I not only lost my business, I lost my pension. You can't blame Bush for that. I think it's far more deep than that."
But it would be hard to overstate how devastating the closing of Techneglas is proving to be for former employees, and how bitter that has made them toward a president whose administration has said that outsourcing "makes sense."
Many of the people at Techneglas had worked there for at least 15 years. The shifts and hours were brutal -- 12-hour days, often seven days a week -- but to say you were with Techneglas was to suggest an enviable, comfortable way of life. Even now, the cost of living in Wilkes-Barre is low. A three-bedroom, two-bath house in a good neighborhood costs about $100,000, translating into a manageable mortgage payment for Techneglas workers.
Beretsky, a plant mechanic, recalled how co-workers responded when his wife's cancer was diagnosed 10 years ago. For the 11 months before she died, he said, his bosses told him he could leave work whenever he wanted, co-workers regularly asked how they could help, and one supervisor offered to help rear his daughter, who was then 10. "I worked with a tremendous amount of wonderful people," he said.
Beretsky was one of the last to leave. "My last day was August 29th," he said. "It was depressing, like watching the death of a person I've known and loved for a long time. The plant was empty. The furnaces were shutting down. It was odd not having the heat of the furnace that I had felt for 35 years." He has no idea what he will do next.
Moss, who started working at Techneglas when she was 22, says virtually all her friends are people she met at the plant. "We grew up together," said Moss, who worked as a lab technician, testing chemical formulas to make the glass.
She is one of the luckier ones -- one of nine former employees given part-time, six-month jobs at the Wilkes-Barre office of the state unemployment agency. The jobs, created by a grant authorized by Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D), will track Techneglas employees to help them find jobs or train for a new line of work.
Ziminsky, 61, had planned to retire next year. But with her company pension in doubt -- Techneglas has said it does not have the money to pay employees the pensions they are due -- she says she may never retire. She plans to take advantage of job training offered to Techneglas workers, doing medical data entry.
She realizes she is not the ideal new job candidate. There is her age. And her health. She sleeps no more than two or three hours a night because of a herniated disc in her neck, and she is concerned about how she is going to pay for the medications she takes for breast cancer.
Ziminsky said that with her mortgage nearly paid off, she tries not to worry about the rest. She devotes some of her time volunteering with the Kerry campaign in Wilkes-Barre. But she is weary of the relentless ads from both sides that she sees every night on the local news. "This election shouldn't be 'Vote Democrat' or 'Vote Republican,' " she said. "It should be about what's best for America."