Don Kellner, who worked at the plant for 44 years, stressed the role that the decline of dependable, middle-class jobs would have on young people's prospects.
"You can't all work at McDonald's and you can't all be lawyers," Kellner, 74, told the students. "I believe that the only salvation of the American people is the union."
Students said they had given little thought to the role of manufacturing before the class began.
"When I was coming out of high school, you were pushed toward college," said Caitlin Smith, a senior anthropology and ancient studies double major. The prospect of finding solid work with only a high school diploma seemed impossible, she said.
Jennie Williams, a junior American studies major, said the course has opened her eyes to the key role the plant played in shaping nearby neighborhoods.
"It's a company town," she said. "You realize there are all of these families who have been involved for generations."
For the retirees, who chatted over plastic-foam cups of coffee between interviews, the program presents a chance to make sense of the great transition through which they have lived.
"It's a story that needs to be told," said Lewis. "An entire sector of the economy is dying off. It's part of the legacy of this community."