America after the American Dream Dies


Bristol, Connecticut -- "Each truck pulling away from the 106-year-old General Motors plant carries more than cold steel. It takes part of the soul of Bristol and the generations of families who worked there."

That was the lead last Sunday of a story by Susan Houriet and Michael Kodas in the Hartford Courant on the closing of the GM plant called "New Departures" around here, a factory that employed as many as 11,000 people once upon a time and turned farms into an industrial town of 60,000 in the middle of one of the richest of the United States.

It will shut down completely at the end of December.

It happens every day in post-industrial, post-Cold War, maybe even post-American Dream U.S.A. Connecticut has 285,000 industrial jobs now, the lowest figure in more than 60 years, equal to the number during the Great Depression.

In the end there were 530 employees at New Departures -- named for the company owned by inventor Albert Rockwell, who manufactured doorbells here in 1888 and then ball bearings after 1908 -- most of them middle-aged white men. (GM bought the plant in 1918, and the people there made bearings for the jeeps, tanks and planes of World War II when employment here reached its peak.)

The Courant, in a very nice piece of journalism, recorded the immediate fate of the last 530:

Of the 460 hourly employees (average age: 42), 235 are retiring on full (30 years service) or partial pensions; 25 are taking offers of up to $100,000 to end their eligibility for company benefits; 70 are transferring to Sandusky, Ohio, where the trucks and work are going; 40 are transferring to other GM plants in Indiana and Tennessee; 75 are looking for other work, and 15 are undecided.

Of the 70 salaried workers, 20 are retiring, 10 are going to Sandusky, 20 are transferring to other plants and 20 are undecided.

Most of the Bristol workers, whose union pay averaged $18 an hour, were offered the Sandusky option. But there is a catch. GM promises to keep the Ohio plant open for just three years. After that, who knows?

People in Bristol know the realities of world auto markets and the severances seem fair to most. The 27-acre New Departures complex was built in the late 1960s with enormous grants, loans and tax breaks from state and city to keep jobs here for what turned out to be more than 25 years. The federal government has provided a $1.3 million grant for worker retraining, which will be run by Local 626 of the United Auto Workers.

For those who have moved to the newer plants in Sandusky and Franklin, Tennessee, where Saturns are made, there was real surprise about the pace of the work. Bobby Valentine, who is 47, told his wife, Nancy, a nurse at Bristol Hospital, that he lost 10 pounds the first week in Sandusky. "You just go from buzzer to buzzer," he said.

Those buzzers toll for Bristol, too. Even at the end, the local GM payroll was $28.7 million, and the company spent almost $20 million a year locally on supplies and equipment. The tax assessment on plant and equipment totaled $32.9 million.

There is not great anger here at GM, which used to be called "Generous Motors" because of the number of workers' children being educated as engineers at company expense. The company baseball team, The Bearing Makers, beat the world champion Pittsburgh Pirates in an exhibition game here at Muzzy Field in 1925.

Well, that was a long time ago in a different Bristol and a different America, when fathers and mothers thought for sure that they would be able to pass their jobs and lives on to their children. And, if they were smart and lucky, the kids would end up bosses instead of workers.

But it's not working out that way in Bristol.

9- Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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