Maytag Workers - 15 Years After the Plant Closed

Mar 2, 2020

About 1,600 people lost their jobs when a major western Illinois employer closed, and moved to Mexico in 2004. 15 years later, students in a class at Monmouth College set out to find out what happened to the former Maytag employees.

Herb Trix reports.

The class last year was "Politics and Government in the Midwest," and it looked at the impact of globalization in the midwest, using Maytag as a case study. The teacher, Robin Johnson, says over two semesters his students talked with 65 former employees who used to make refrigerators, in a project called "Voices of Maytag."

Johnson says some workers found other jobs such as with the railroad in Galesburg, while others retired, and some took classes to learn new skills. 

"For every person that came through it okay I think there were others who struggled and made less money. So it was an interesting discussion the students had in how do you define success ? How do you define well-being ? And sometimes some of the folks felt like it wasn't totally defined in money - they were making less money but they achieved happiness from other things, being around their family for example."

He says the eventual success, or happiness, partly depended on whether the former Maytag worker was a man or a woman. 

"Women were more likely to take training and re-invent themselves and move on to new careers, and men didn't.  The students came up with the idea that perhaps men in the traditional bread-winner role just had more difficulty transitioning - not everyone could go into, say, health care careers, things like that."

One of the students, Maggie Bruckner, interviewed a former employee who now works as a custodian at Monmouth College. The woman called Maytag a community where she knew everyone, loved her job, and felt secure. 

"She said if she could go back to Maytag she would. The pay would have been better if she was in that same position now. Actually she would have retired last March, she said."

 And Bruckner calls what the company did to these workers, "heartbreaking and sad."

"From the human perspective and looking at all the lives that were affected by this one company closing their facility in Galesburg, it affected the entire town, and towns next to it. Because once that money stops circulating from people working at Maytag, their businesses in the town ended up failing as well."

Will Stefanisin says the worker he interviewed also missed the camaraderie of the Maytag plant, and workers' sense of community - something she has not experienced at her subsequent jobs. 

"I asked her did you have to cut back and she said, oh yeah, everyone had to cut back after Maytag because the jobs weren't paying as much. She said it's taken her 17 years to get the same pay at Blick that she was getting when she retired at Maytag."

He also points to the difference between where he lives, in the Chicago metro area, and Galesburg where the loss of hundreds of jobs really has an impact. 

"From that I was able to get perspective and to kind of get a better understanding of what the loss of manufacturing jobs has meant to rural areas. Because for me in the suburbs, you hear about it on the news but this was actually really learning about it and learning how it's affecting people."

Johnson says his students at Monmouth College loved this project, interviewing the former Maytag employees. 

"I just think it's a testament to the human spirit - of people that got knocked down and the ability to get back up and my students saw that. That in the old days you could work someplace 30 years like a lot of the former Maytag people did that retired luckily before the plant closed and had a good retirement. That type of economy is no more now. And a lot of students in the class, as I told them, unfortunately will face situations where involuntarily they'll be out of a job - how are they going to face that. Perhaps they'll learn something from these Maytag folks and how they were able to persevere and get up off  the mat."

The Voices of Maytag project is subtitled: "A Look Back at a Factory Closure and Its Impact on People, Communities, and the American  Dream."