As for Jim and Patty Hoisington, they now live in a modest house near the end of a dusty road in neighboring Stanton, Michigan, where they just manage to get by, even after drawing pensions and having their health insurance paid for by Electrolux.
Like many former plant workers, both took community college classes after the plant shuttered through a federal worker re-training program created as a part of NAFTA but it did them little good in the midst of a raging recession.
Patty complains of the scarce hours she gets at a local gas station, where she earns minimum wage one day a week. Jim drives a school bus for handicapped children and runs a lawn care business on the side. He says he averages about $4 less an hour than he was making at Electrolux.
“I can’t even begin to put away money like I did with Electrolux in the 2000s,” he said. “The majority of the workers, I would say they’re making less.”
“I can’t buy myself a pair of shoes,” Patty lamented. “At least we’re getting our bills paid.”
Jim, in particular, is strident in his distaste for trade agreements. While the pacts may help the bottom lines of corporations, he said the profits have never been passed down to the paychecks of the average worker.
“Every trade agreement I’ve seen so far has never had a good result for us. It’s all geared for corporations,” he said. “They make money off of it and we don’t.”
Ray Jensen, 59, who worked at the plant for 29 years and now owns a convenience store in town, too said the livelihood he scrapes together can’t compare to his former wages and benefits. “The good years of my life were there,” he said. “Have I adapted? Yes. Is it a better living? No.”
Jensen nevertheless said he believes trade agreements are important for the American economy but that today’s negotiators should learn from the mistakes made by NAFTA two decades ago.
“How the hell can you compete when you’re making $16 an hour, how can you compete with Mexico at $1 an hour? You can’t,” Jensen said. “I can’t really blame them for doing it, I can blame our government … The lesson could’ve been learned, hopefully.”
Robert E. Scott, an economist with the liberal Economic Policy Institute who opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership, said the experiences of former Electrolux employees making lower wages is widespread among manufacturing workers displaced by trade.
“The problem is downward pressure on wages and widespread job losses,” he said. “All these trade agreements and investment agreements have been responsible for that job loss and when workers are moved out of those industries, we’re not creating new industries for them to move into. Even when they do get a job, they earn 20 percent to 30 percent less than their old jobs.”
Montcalm County used to support 6,000 manufacturing jobs in 2004, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Now the number is down to 2,400.
Beth Brinkley, a longtime bartender at Amber Waves, a downtown Greenville pub that’s been open since 1989, has seen the ripple effects of that phenomenon play out before her eyes.
She observes that the majority of the new business activity in Greenville is centered on retail chains like a Super Wal-mart, the Meijer, and Applebee’s — places where former Electrolux workers took jobs for lower hourly wages, if they didn’t move out of state to look for other work. Residents subsequently have less money to spend at establishments like hers, which were once popular among the factory crowd.
“It’s definitely hurt this town, still to this day,” she said. “It killed the downtown, where people used to eat out at restaurants, drink, cash their checks.”
Others, however, insist that Greenville is slowly but surely making a comeback. Many have been buoyed by the news that China-based Dicastal North America Inc., the world’s largest aluminum wheel manufacturer, is opening an operation in Greenville, which will employ 300.
Kathy Jo VanderLaan, the former executive director of the Greenville Chamber of Commerce and now an economic development specialist for Montcalm County, said the Electrolux catastrophe forced Greenville to reckon with what cities and towns around the country are grappling with: the need to diversify. VanderLaan said that advanced manufacturing and the medical field are all strong areas of growth in the county.
“We as a community learned never to put all our eggs in one basket again,” she said.
Indeed, even in a place once eviscerated by the consequences of free trade, many residents in Greenville take a nuanced view. Barry Thornton, 41, the owner of the Winter Inn in downtown Greenville, offers the perspective of a small business owner, a decade after many of his customers and friends lost their jobs.
“A lot of the bar talk was mad at NAFTA, mad at free trade. But the bottom line is it’s just an unfortunate thing that happens. I don’t know that their jobs could’ve been saved,” he said. “As a friend to some people that lost their jobs, I wish it didn’t happen, but as a businessman I believe in free trade and in free markets. As a business owner you got to do what you got to do to make money.”