Electrolux Revisited

In a Mexican boom town, appliance plant stirs hope

Associated Press

Saturday, September 2, 2006

By Hugo Kugiya, AP National Writer

JUAREZ, MEXICO - Just a year ago, this was wild, open desert, home to nothing more than scattered shrubs and the occasional funnel clouds that kick up blinding dust storms.

Now, a $100 million factory rises from deep black asphalt. A young tree is planted near the entrance, and Teresa Rios waits anxiously under  the sliver of shade it casts.

Rios, 27, is late for a court hearing. She is in the middle of a custody dispute with her ex-​​husband; for now, she and her two children live in a shelter for battered women.

Still, there is hope. She is two weeks into a job that pays her about $10 a day. Like the tree against the sun, she is rail thin, her life a modest but full effort. And she sees the Electrolux refrigerator factory as a path to a far better future.

My dream is to be a top executive,” said Rios, who did not earn a high school diploma. “I don’t know if I’ll make it, but this is one of my dreams. Really just to be free.”

The Electrolux plant has done many things: It has sucked jobs from Greenville, Mich., where Electrolux closed a plant before moving here. It and others like it have transformed Juarez and the Chihuahuan desert into a bustling crucible of capitalism.

But more than anything else, the Planta Electrolux has transformed the lives of people like Teresa Rios and Andres Lozano.

Lozano, 27, was hired in December at Electrolux, employee No. 2319. Already the plant employs slightly more than the Greenville operation and promises to be twice as large. Based on an exchange rate of about 11.5 pesos to the dollar, workers in Juarez make in a day what workers in Greenville made in an hour or less. For corporate numbers crunchers, the math was easy.

Lozano supports his wife Alma, who does not work outside the home, and two young children, Iban, 4, and Evelyn, 6 months. His pay, which has risen quickly to 100 pesos a day, is enough to support the entire family. In another month he will earn 130 pesos a day.

In his old job, as a meat wholesaler, he made about the same amount of money but worked twice as much, usually 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. He sold and delivered processed meats, ham, bologna, franks, mostly to large grocery chains, working on commission.

Because he works less now, he has fewer problems at home. He has time to shop, see friends, see movies, go to flea markets, repair things around the house. He is a man more at ease, his posture relaxed, with a smile that comes more easily. With his salary, and with help from a government loan program, he was able to purchase a two-​​bedroom home for about $20,000.

My kids will have what I didn’t have,” he said. “They’ll have more of everything. They’ll go out more. They’ll have more things.

I had the chance to go to college, but I had to work. I want my kids to go to college. I don’t want them to be operators.”

Electrolux and the other factories, known as maquiladoras, are a magnet for workers. Since 1990 the population of Juarez has grown from about 800,000, to 1.3 million, and about a third of its residents came from outside its state of Chihuahua.

With a growth rate that is almost three times the Mexican average, Juarez is now Mexico’s fourth largest city, growing much faster than the American city across the bridge, El Paso.

And there is no reason to believe the growth will end soon. Juarez is bound to the north and east by the U.S. border, and bound to the west by mountains. But the south, where Electrolux lies, presents no barriers, and land there is plentiful. It is expected that Electrolux’s many suppliers of foam, plastic, electrical parts, will build their own plants nearby.

Once, Juarez was a small farming town; the growth of industry began in the 1960s, and increased steadily until the turn of the century, when competition from China cost the city tens of thousands of jobs.

Items like clothing and luggage are made more cheaply in China. But certain goods, refrigerators among them, benefit from being manufactured across the border.

The construction of the Electrolux plant (the company is building a second factory nearby to assemble washers and dryers) was a landmark, economic victory for Juarez, the return of good times and plentiful jobs. The near-​​term forecast is a shortage of workers, not jobs.

Angelica Espinoza was one of about 100 people hired by Electrolux in June. She is 33, a single mother of two teenage boys, her hair already graying at the edges. Hers was a difficult and lean childhood spent caring for her frail grandmother and doing chores for neighbors for coins to buy milk.

Her job at Electrolux is to wipe clean finished refrigerators coming off the line. By the end of the summer, she expected to make about 100 pesos a day.

As it is, when she gets home from work at 4 p.m., she cooks dinner, takes a 30-​​minute nap and cleans the house. Her washing machine has been broken for a few months, so every day she does a little laundry by hand in the back of the house, in an outdoor, concrete sink with a built-​​in washboard. It is a small, dirt backyard, strewn with bicycle parts.

Extras come hard. Unable to afford a dress for her son’s graduation party, she didn’t go.

I had a very hard life,” she said. “I hope God helps me to have a better life.”

Like most who took jobs there, she has the equivalent of a middle-​​school education. And like the others, she said she was drawn to the better-​​than-​​average pay and the possibility of quick advancement. By the end of the year, Electrolux will hire almost 1,000 more people, giving employees like Espinoza quick seniority.

With earnings from his new job working in the repair department at Electrolux, Leonel Soto, 26, bought a new refrigerator, and a used, big-​​screen television, christened during a family viewing of Mexico’s World Cup match against Angola.

He and his wife Yasmin’s home has just one bedroom, which the couple shares with their two young children. A bed in the living room doubles as a sofa and guest bed and takes up nearly the entire room which Leonel painted light pink. The floor is still bare concrete, but he’d like to tile it soon. Within five years, he hopes to have a second floor added to their townhouse in the newest neighborhood in Juarez. Soto is ambitious and always volunteers to work overtime.

I want to give my kids the best and I think I’ll get it here,” he said.

The boulevards that these workers traverse on their way to work the Paseo de la Victoria, the Avenue de Las Torres are lined with the signs of development and commerce and chaos.

Once planted fields of cotton and tomatoes are now Los Angeles-​​styled blocks of giant supermarkets and shopping malls. The Missiones mall houses a multiplex equipped with a VIP room where customers can order sushi while watching the latest, subtitled Hollywood blockbuster.

On one side of the boulevard is a gated neighborhood of domed, stucco homes painted soft desert hues of saffron and tan. On the other side is a graffiti-​​covered, cinderblock slum of two-​​room shacks.

American brands like Home Depot, Wal-​​Mart, Wendy’s, Costco and KFC are so generously represented that stretches of Juarez look more like America than Mexico. One of the city’s oldest landmarks is the Plaza de Toros, an old arena that still hosts bull fights as well as concerts and wedding banquets. It will soon be torn down to make way for a new Wal-​​Mart.

Gloria Lopez, 55, came of age during the ascension of the maquiladoras. A teacher, she taught English in the factories. Her husband, an engineer, also worked in the maquila all his life.

We have more money and there is more what you’d call progress, and I’m not against it,” Lopez said. “It’s good for all the people who come for the jobs.”

But she can’t help but long for the Juarez of her childhood, a place of smaller streets, shorter walks. Chinese immigrants grew fruits and vegetables and cotton on rented land. Juarez was a city of trees back then.

As the city grew, wealth and literacy grew, as well; Juarez now has one of Mexico’s best colleges.

At the same time, Juarez also grew as a center for the trade of illegal drugs. Drug-​​related shootings are common. And it became famous for the unsolved murders of hundreds of women, factory workers, their bodies left by roadsides.

In her circle of friends, she said, only one or two out of every 10 people are from Juarez and she wonders if they can care about the city the way she does.

Andres Lozano wonders, too.

His father used to pull leaves off the eucalyptus tree in the park, the same one young Andres loved to climb, and make them into a tea as a cough remedy. It always seemed to work.

The tree is still there, although Lozano hardly recognizes it. The rims on the basketball court are bent. The grounds are marked by litter and graffiti.

Kids don’t care about the park anymore,” Lozano said. “Parents have to teach their kids, ‘This is yours; don’t destroy it.’ ”

Maybe, Lozano suggests, it’s because “a lot of people are not from here and this is not their city anymore. They just come here to see what they can get, they don’t care. I’d like to go back to my old times. I’ve thought about trying to move to El Paso. But I prefer to visit. Juarez is my city.”

When one plant closes, many doors open

Associated Press

Saturday, September 2, 2006

By Hugo Kugiya, AP National Writer

GREENVILLE, MICH. — Close to the end, when there was only a little bit of light and movement left in the town factory, the small herd of cattle at the Becks’ farm grew by a few head a winter surprise. The novice farmers had failed to notice the pregnancy and could not account for the calves’ conception.

The bull, left unroped the past spring, must have wandered. A rookie mistake.

The Becks, who between them put in about 70 years at the Electrolux refrigerator factory in Greenville before it closed, had prepared for its closure over the past several months fishing for odd jobs, adding the animals, cutting down trees by the hilly lakeshore where they live, installing an outdoor, wood-​​burning furnace so they could more fully live off their land.

For decades, the Becks and families like them lived off Electrolux, one of the world’s largest makers of home appliances, with a large, yellow plant by the Flat River in central Michigan. The jobs built homes, made marriages, fed children, kept all their lives in motion.

That responsibility now rested in their own hands.

Shutting down the Greenville plant and building a new one from scratch in Juarez, Mexico, made corporate sense. The infrastructure would be state of the art, labor costs slashed tenfold, the room for physical growth nearly unlimited.

So despite generous financial incentives by the county and state to stay in Greenville, Electrolux like so many other companies retooling themselves in the global economy looked southwards. The Swedish conglomerate set up a new center of manufacturing for North America, just across the border, minutes from El Paso, Texas.

The Greenville plant made side-​​by-​​side and top-​​mount Frigidaire models, more than a million a year. It was once the biggest refrigerator plant in North America.

Even in a state that has lost 200,000 manufacturing jobs since 1999 78,000 last year the loss of the Electrolux plant was like a nuclear explosion, said Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

Last September, the plant began to shed workers. In March, the plant closed for good, giving about 2,700 employees their freedom, for which some had plans and some did not.

Months after she lost her job, Keitha Harris, 49, still had very few answers. Born and raised in Greenville, she was among three generations of her family to work at Electrolux.

But her relative few years of service did not give her much at the end, just severance pay of $1,500, most of which she used to buy a laptop computer. She receives $632 every two weeks in unemployment compensation. Her daughter Jessie, 29, born with cerebral palsy, receives about the same every month from the government because of her disability.

Diagnosed herself with fibromyalgia, which causes chronic muscle pain, Keitha Harris has had a tough life a home in constant disrepair, destructive relationships, overwhelming debt, a daughter in need of constant care.

The job, she said, “was my escape. I felt like I knew what was going on in the world. I loved it. I really loved going to work. It pretty much destroyed me to quit.”

Harris is not alone many among her former co-​​workers are still suffering in the wake of the plant’s shutdown. But others have turned the page. Mostly, people who were struggling before the closure, like Harris, continue to struggle; those who had planned well, those with resources, talents and interests outside the factory, seemed to land comfortably.

Like Jim Hoisington, who had held just about every job at Electrolux in his 27 years there, starting as a janitor, moving on to repair, foam operator and finally union representative. His last post represented his toughest years, constantly negotiating and renegotiating and always finishing with disappointment. “Nightmare,” was the word he kept using to describe it.

Today he runs the club house at Glenkerry golf course in Greenville. He tends the bar, dispenses soda, serves sandwiches and hot dogs, takes money for greens fees and carts. He makes much less money but feels like he has been given back his life.

There’s 110,000 times less stress working here,” he said.

Hoisington took up golf several years ago. After a divorce, he looked for a way to pick up extra money and got a job working weekends at Glenkerry for minimum wage. He had no idea it would someday become his full-​​time job.

His second wife, another Electrolux refugee, was old enough and worked there long enough to retain health benefits for both of them.

That’s huge,” Jim said. “You don’t realize how much it’s worth until you lose them.”

Larry and Debbie Ralph are doing OK, too. Their homestead on nine acres near Crystal Lake is the product of two lives spent at Electrolux. Just before the company announced the plant was closing, the couple took out a $70,000 home improvement loan to add a family room, garage and dining room. The new house has cathedral ceilings, a grand fireplace and an updated kitchen.

Debbie and Larry, 52 and 46, still need to find work. But they’re in good shape. The couple has no children to support (Debbie has two grown daughters from a previous marriage). They have retirement funds, own their trucks free and clear and their mortgage is nearly paid off.

They have most of the next two years to figure out the rest of their lives. Larry recently passed his GED exam. Debbie bought her first computer and discovered the Internet. For now they live comfortably off the two unemployment checks they receive.

They have talents beyond the assembly line. Both are good bakers. Debbie is an expert cake decorator. They can install siding, butcher meat. Debbie’s brothers own a local chain of grocery stores called the Village Market. “If worst comes to worst,” Debbie said, “we can work for them. We’ll be OK. I’m not too worried.”

Like the Ralphs, many of their fellow townspeople are handy with most things, sqeamish about few, able to fix their own cars, grow and hunt some of their own food. One neighbor performed a home autopsy on his dog.

Their town began in the mid 1800s with a sawmill. Trees covered the gentle hillsides; once cleared, the land was farmed by Danish immigrants.

But for the last 100 years, refrigerators kept Greenville on the map.

After Electrolux … what?

We’re not dying,” said Kathy Jo VanderLaan, head of the chamber of commerce. “Electrolux doesn’t define Greenville. The sidewalks are not rolling up. We are going to be fine.”

Greenville will likely become a bedroom community for Grand Rapids, about 30 miles away. An aging population means growth for the regional hospital. Wal-​​Mart recently constructed a store west of the town. A company that makes solar panels is plotting to set up operations nearby.

Sandy Beck once considered leaving, following the plant and her job to Juarez. Management offered her the chance to work there for two years as a supervisor during the transition.

She wondered how she might thrive in the strange climate and strange surroundings. She pictured brown, arid land and garbage floating in the Rio Grande a vision not so distant from reality.

The more I heard, the more I wanted to stay here,” she said. “The longer you’re out, the less interested you are in that world.”

When the factory closed she quickly found work. She had been working for a local restaurant on weekends while a supervisor at Electrolux. About the time she lost her job, the restaurant owners opened a small deli next to a gas station and motel they also owned. They wanted her to manage the deli.

The work is more relaxed and pleasant. The smells are not of plastic fumes but of pizza, fried perch, and brownies made from scratch.

She went from earning $22 an hour to $7 an hour, although her pay has gone up a bit over the last several months. Under a federal program, the government will cover half the difference in her pay for two years, or until she has received $10,000, whichever comes first.

Her husband, Bruce, has a pension and is only seven years from collecting Social Security. And they have the farm, part of the 60 acres her grandfather first purchased in 1917 with money he made running a street car in Detroit.

Before the plant closed, Sandy Beck had started to lose interest in the life she had built around it. She had received, as a gift, a one-​​year subscription to a magazine called Country Woman. She began to view the land she had grown up on differently.

Overtime pay went toward the purchase of animals and farm equipment like the stock trailer. She began to grow vegetables for the kitchen at Maxfield’s restaurant. She began foraging for mushrooms in the forest of maples, oak and cherry behind her home. Every spring she made gifts of them to her friends.

I never thought of selling them for money,” she said. “It just made people so happy.”

The Becks have 15 head of Belted Galloway cattle, or Belties, a number they hope to double within a few years. Every head represents about $1,000 in yearly income. They plan to slaughter and sell the beef locally, branding it as grass-​​fed, drug-​​free beef.

The arrival of the unexpected calves was the first trial of their new jobs as ranchers. To keep the newborns alive, the Becks surrounded them with space heaters and set upon them with hairdryers, one in each hand.

By dint of ingenuity and electricity, the Beck herd welcomed its first new members evidence that though Electrolux is gone, there are signs of renewal in the vacuum it left behind.