You've no doubt heard of the General Electric Corp.'s plans to shutter its refrigerator plant, located on the far west side of Bloomington. The shutdown would eliminate the remaining 900 or so workers (down from a high of over 3,000 just a few years ago) and mothball the giant factory complex.
It's really no surprise in a community and nation that has seen a steady erosion in its manufacturing base over the past 40 years, and especially since passage of 1994's North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) and the permanent granting of Most Favored Nation status to China in 2000.
And it's a path that Monroe County has been down a number of times before. Our electrical-industry-based manufacturing sector, once a dominant economic force, has withered away with the closings of the RCA/Thomson television plant (the largest in the world at the time of its 1998 move from Bloomington to Mexico); the eliminating of manufacturing at the Otis Elevator plant; the closing of the giant, and wholly contaminated, Westinghouse/ABB plant; and dozens of others from ATR Coil to Sarkes Tarzian.
The victims of Colonial Capitalism, all. What brought those industries to our community in the first place was the promise of cheap and pliant, labor. What made them leave our community was the promise of cheaper, and more pliant, labor. Elsewhere.
A case study in point: RCA/Thomson. Brought here originally from Camden, N.J., to escape militant and unionized male Northeastern labor (replacing it with docile, and largely unorganized, female labor) it lasted half a century until the siren song of passive and cheaper labor sang from across the border.
When the plant closed, local officials wrung their hands. They promised aid to the displaced workers. They promised action. They delivered nothing.
Buy low, sell high
Nothing except the handing over of the old industrial plant site to a group of new landowners who, after buying the factory at a discount, convinced the then-city administration that they'd bought a pig-in-a-poke and that, golly gee, they needed some help to "redevelop" the site.
The help came in the form of a $1 million public grant to the land's new owner, First Capital of Bloomington, to demolish the asbestos and volatile organic compound (VOC) contaminated site, and compensate the new owners for having been dumb enough to pay too much for what RCA/Thomson left behind.
And while the land's new owners made out like bandits, little was done for the displaced workers, who were granted token "retraining credits" from the state and other pathetic measures. Most of them remain either on the dole or perilously close to it at new service-industry employment.
This is a condition that, just a few days ago, the Herald-Times deemed a "success."
And it's a condition that we are perilously close to repeating with the General Electric situation. The mayor of Bloomington has taken the point position in regard to dealing with the situation (which is a curious position to take, given that the factory isn't actually located in the city of Bloomington). And, toward that end, has appointed a dream team to help with the euphemistically titled "transition."
That team consists of representatives from Indiana University, from IVY Tech, from the Bloomington Economic Development Corporation (BEDC), and a handful of state and local political representatives.
Conflict of interest
In other words, people whose interests lie in every direction but preserving the existing jobs at the plant. The BEDC's responsibilities lie with its membership, overwhelmingly dominated by the economy's FIRE sector (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate -- the same business-school geniuses who gave us the subprime economic meltdown) and those responsibilities require doing everything possible to transfer control of the factory land to a BEDC member, for redevelopment as suburban retail and office development. Not the retainment of manufacturing jobs.
Likewise the educational institutions that are responsible, more than anything else, to increasing enrollment and thus tuition dollars. That increase means promoting worker "retraining," not promoting worker retaining.
So here we find ourselves, in a hurricane of helpers-with-a-conflict-of-interest. What do we expect to happen in this scenario, except a replaying of the RCA/Thomson farce?
The answer is nothing, of course. That is, unless we can find a new way. A way congruent with Bloomington's and Monroe County's strengths. A way appropriate to the 21st century.
A week or so ago, I sent the following plan to the officers of the City of Bloomington Common Council, the Monroe County Council, the Monroe County Commissioners and the mayor of the City of Bloomington, as well as members of the Chamber of Commerce and the Bloomington Economic Development Corporation and our state senator and representatives.
The plan was, schematically, as follows:
* That the City of Bloomington annex the existing GE factory site
* That the City of Bloomington exercise the power of eminent domain over the factory site and the factory itself, taking by condemnation the land and building.
* That the existing workers of GE form a non-profit corporation dedicated to the manufacture of refrigerators.
* That that non-profit corporation lease, from the city, the land and factory for $1 a year
* That that non-profit corporation apply to the Monroe County Economic Development Commission, as well as the Bloomington Economic Development Commission, for low-interest, tax-free, Industrial Revenue Bonds sufficient to re-capitalize the factory for the production of current market-demanded refrigerators.
* That those funds be awarded and the factory restarted as a worker-owned nonprofit, manufacturing refrigerators under the marketing rubric of "child-labor free chilling."
So far, a week later, I've received not a single reply from my suggestion, with the exception of from Andy Ruff, vice president of the Bloomington City Council, and Vic Kelson, president of the Monroe County Council. Each expressed interest in learning more.
But the broader community of leaders has been silent. Why? Because they don't believe in a rhetoric of hope, that we can as a community do better and more against what some see as the inevitable burn of the invisible hand.
And because they've acquiesced to a rhetoric of hopelessness that says we have to accept the world as General Electric tells us it must be, because not only will tampering with the invisible hand visit horrors unimaginable, but because there are well-connected local actors drooling over the land where the factory now stands, hoping to turn it into another strip mall.
I've heard the meek objections. "What if the new venture fails?" Well we're not much worse off than we are now, are we? "Who will run it?" I assume the same people who have been running the existing factory, people who understand the supplier relationships and who understand the art of making refrigerators. "But what if we anger GE?" So what?
And I'm not convinced.
Gregory Travis can be reached at .