If you know me in real life, you probably know that I worked in a factory during school breaks to help pay for college. It felt very meaningful for me to accept my first job after graduation: when the Corning plant shut down in State College, PA, I was hired to help the displaced factory workers write resumes and cover letters to hopefully transition to new employment.
These workers, over 1,000 of them, worked on the factory floor for decades with multiple generations of their family. They were paid good wages and lived a comfortable life. They sweated and heaved and toiled making glass tube televisions. As I’m typing this on a flat-screen computer across the room from my flat screen television, I think you all know why this factory shut down.
They lost their jobs not just to Asia, but due to automation in the manufacturing process and changing technology. It simply takes fewer people to make flat screen televisions than it took to make the glass tube ones. And Corning was moving those few jobs to a plant overseas.
When I started at this job, they took me on a tour so I could see what each worker did to help him or her articulate these tasks on a resume. With a practiced hand, I slid on steel-toed boots and rolled in my foam ear plugs. I saw the men working with the molten glass, their arms singed hairless in the unthinkable heat. There were no women in the molten glass section…maybe they had already been laid off.
Some of these workers found new jobs in other manufacturing companies close by. Some found work in an industrial laundry. Most of them competed with each other for hourly jobs at Home Depot or Lowes, the leftover ones turning to Wal-Mart. That’s what was left.
I remember working with a man named Kermit, who was in his late 50s and had worked in the furnace for 40 years. He was still a ways from retirement, but had done the same task at the factory for longer than twice the time I’d been alive.
Because of this experience, I feel like I understand what has happened in recent days with our presidential election. I can’t understand why my own father voted against the recommendations of the union that supported him through his own 45+ years of hard, physical work, because I believe unions always have in mind the best interest of those people who depend on them to be their voice. But I understand a crumbling blue collar landscape that no longer offers jobs that will support families.
I don’t know what the answer is, but I’m agonizingly sad that the newly elected leader drew on these voters with promises paired with racism, misogyny, and hatred. How can his impulsive spews of hate speech be excused in light of his promises to restore job security to the working class? We aren’t so far removed from an era where good jobs were denied to Irish or Italian immigrants, let alone anyone with brown skin or a uterus.
To keep from feeling hopeless, I’ve decided to focus on one issue where I can feel effective, where I can enact change. For me, it’s public education. If I can help improve schools such that every student graduates with the skills to pass a civil service test or pass the written exam to join the military, then I will have helped. It starts for me locally, as I read more and find organizations collectively working to make change. This is a whole new furnace I’m touring, and I’m learning now how this one operates.