About 15 years ago, I helped get rid of my dad’s job in the auto business.
I wasn’t a negotiator for GATT or NAFTA. I wasn’t an economist at Harvard or Stanford. I didn’t work any deals between foreign companies and General Motors — nor was I an executive for GM, which announced plans this week to cut 15 percent of its workforce and close four U.S. plants.
Instead, I packed and shipped the manufacturing lines that were part of the Delphi Automotive plant in Vandalia, Ohio, and sent them to India during the spring of 2003.
These were among the many manufacturing lines we shipped from the Dayton, Ohio, area to other parts of the globe. My warehouse specialized in shipping heavy industrial equipment, and once we shipped all the equipment out, we began shipping out the lines that made the equipment.
My father was the supervisor in charge of one of those lines. He didn’t lose his job right away, but it was apparent that the large companies that were home to the manufacturing jobs that built the American middle class were leaving, and his was going with the rest.
So he left Delphi as it went bankrupt, to help run a company that built wooden pallets, about an hour and a half from home. Six months later, he was at his next job in Phoenix; he would fly back once a month to see my mom. He held, by his estimate, six to seven jobs in four different states from 2006, when Delphi went under, until his forced retirement in 2013. Because of Delphi’s bankruptcy negotiations with automakers and the federal government, he lost most of his pension. My parents drained their savings and 401(k) funds during the long stretches in between jobs or layoffs. These days, my mom continues to work, and my dad is on Social Security.
The end of his career began the day I started packing the lines from the Delphi plant, and it also marked the start of the last days of my own warehouse: With no parts in town left to ship overseas, the logistics company I worked for shut down even before Delphi closed.
Together, our résumés are like a microcosm of the economic history of the Rust Belt. My father and his fellow baby boomers grew up during decades of prosperity, making good money in manufacturing — until the bottom fell out. But my generation? We never had the good times at all.
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In the late 1960s and early ’70s, the future was bright. My mom and dad moved out of their parents’ houses at 18, when they graduated from high school in a small town in Appalachia. My father was a supervisor at my grandfather’s window company at 19, and vice president by 26 at another company when he went off on his own. He didn’t like the travel and time away from his family, so he settled on supervisory and management roles and landed at Delphi in the late 1990s.
My own outlook was much different. At 19, I worked for minimum wage while trying to pay for college at the same time. Between school, side jobs and my full-time job, I often put in 80 hours a week. My goal was to make $10 an hour, and if I was lucky, $12. By the early 1990s, when the United States had its first recession in a decade, workers were facing the reality of the productivity-pay gap. According to the Economic Policy Institute, worker productivity and wages had risen equally from 1950 to 1973, the year that path diverged. When I entered the job market in the mid-1990s, worker productivity was up more than 50 percent from 1973, while workers were making just 80 percent of what they did 20 years prior. From 1973 to 2017, worker productivity has outgrown pay by 5.9 percent.
I lived at home until my mid-20s — I couldn’t afford college and an apartment at the same time, despite the dangerous work I performed daily at the warehouse. For my parents’ generation, a high school graduate in Southwest Ohio could have gotten a job in manufacturing and bought a house within two years. There was no way I could become a supervisor in a manufacturing plant when I was 19. That kind of move came more easily for my dad because he worked for his father, but he wasn’t the only one in his class to jump from high school to management in two years.
I hated shipping manufacturing equipment out of Dayton. To say I felt I was committing betrayal was an understatement. I grew up in a suburb just south of the city. Half the people on my street had moved to the area from Kentucky to work at General Motors, Delphi and the other manufacturers. The fathers and mothers of my friends worked there; my great uncle and grandfather worked there. My friends planned to work there when they turned 18, too.
A few managed to get jobs at the plants before they closed, but they knew when they started it wasn’t going to be a career, and they weren’t making the middle-class wage workers had started at a generation before. By then, wages were tiered — if you were starting out, you made $8 an hour, but the guy next to you was making four times as much.
I had friends who graduated with master’s degrees but were working at Waffle House. I watched friends and co-workers saw off fingers, nail toes together, blast fingertips off with nail guns and crash forklifts unloading trucks when the driver didn’t set the brake. I liked physical labor; I liked working with my hands. I didn’t like the danger of it. I had a short stint at an office job for the company, but it didn’t work out. I went back to the warehouse the next day, building a large pallet made of 12-by-12-inch logs, around 10 feet long, weighing several hundred pounds. We set braces under the logs to keep them upright, but one slipped and flipped like a trebuchet. Time stood still, and I somehow scrambled back far enough. It barely missed me, and it crushed a nearby beat-up office chair flat.
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So for Ohio’s manufacturing sector, this week’s GM announcement was just more of the same.
My dad always knew what loomed for Dayton and he wasn’t happy about it. He has almost preternatural foresight when it came to his job, and he saw for years that large-scale manufacturing was leaving Dayton. He knew he was in a dying industry, but even he didn’t see the way it would all play out for him. The worst insult was when the auto industry bailout plan after the financial collapse left his retirement plan gutted while it saved pensions for union members and, worse, corporate big shots. Salaried middle-managers like my dad can’t join unions, and they were hardly a priority for those running GM and Delphi when they went bankrupt.
He never blamed me, like many older workers did when younger, cheaper workers came in. He wasn’t happy about losing his Delphi pension and everything that came next, even though he had saved these companies millions in the time he spent with them. He would get his inevitable layoff, a plane ticket home or a phone call to report to the office when he got there. Each job had more pressure, more abuse from bosses, more deadlines and budgets that were impossible to meet. He’d call my mom and say in a calm voice, “Hey, I’m free once again.” I guess when the ax so often hangs over your head, you find relief when it falls — or you become desensitized to it.
My dad was at peace with his career and how it ended. I’m not sure he thought he would ever be able to retire, so he considers himself ahead of peers who are working at McDonald’s or Walmart. As for the future, he doesn’t see it getting better, and he’d cite GM’s announcement this week as evidence. Me? I’m hopeful that somewhere, something will end this hollowing-out of the middle class. Or maybe it won’t. Either way, I’m resigned to whatever lies ahead. When you don’t expect much, it’s harder to be disappointed.