My old Cambridge buddy Rob reminded me this morning in an e-mail about a PBS FRONTLINE program called “Is Wal-Mart Good For America?” in which my hometown is profiled. You can watch it online for free.
In Circleville, Ohio, population 13,000, the local RCA television-manufacturing plant was once a source of good jobs with good pay and benefits. But in late 2003, RCA’s owner, Thomson Consumer Electronics, lost a sizeable portion of its production orders and six months later shut the plant down, throwing 1,000 people out of work. Thomson’s jobs have moved to China, where cheap labor manufactures what the American consumer desires — from clothing to electronics — and can buy at “everyday low prices” at the local Wal-Mart…
Steve Ratcliff, a long-time worker at the Thomson plant puts it simply: “If you want these low prices, then you go buy your products from Wal-Mart. But what does that actually do for this country? It’s putting people out of work. And it’s lowering our standard of living. That’s the bottom line.”
Ironically, for Ratcliff and his former colleagues, there are new jobs coming to town. In a patch of farmland right next to the vacant Thomson plant, Wal-Mart has broken ground on one of its new Supercenters. But the Wal-Mart jobs will represent a steep cut in pay from the $15 to $16 an hour workers made at Thomson, and a far cry from the pension, health care, and job security benefits that have long been the norm in manufacturing.
A lot of the kids I went to school with grew up in Logan Elm Village, a housing division right behind the Thompson plant, where pretty much everyone’s parents worked. It was kind of the place to go if you were looking to score pot or get in a fight or something. (I don’t know if it’s still like that.) They had this store in the back of the plant, and all the kids whose parents worked there had the cool new electronics, except they’d be refurbished in some way (missing a battery bay door or a remote or something…) My uncle got me a really nice VCR, except the buttons were busted so you had to use a pencil to punch the fast-forward/rewind buttons…
(I always wanted to set a story there, but George Saunders pretty much hits it all with “Sea Oak“: “At Sea Oak there’s no sea and no oak, just a hundred subsidized apartments and a rear view of the FedEx.” As the man says, “You can’t do Hemingway in the Wal-Mart.”)
Why are all the communities of my past dying? Circleville…Western…everywhere I spent my young life seems to be in dire straits.
The corporatization of America, folks: get used to it.