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Monmouth class shines spotlight on 'Voices of Maytag'

Barry McNamara
05/16/2019
MONMOUTH, Ill. – Fifteen years ago, this region lost one of its leading employers when Maytag closed its Galesburg, Ill., factory, throwing 1,600 people out of work.

Monmouth College students spent the spring semester exploring how the loss of those 1,600 jobs affected the region, and they also learned valuable lessons about what it takes for a person to recover from that kind of economic setback.

Members of political science professor Robin Johnson’s “Politics and Government in the Midwest” class, the students reached out to more than 40 former Maytag employees. Each student was assigned a minimum of two former employees to interview, and nearly all of the interviews were conducted face-to-face.

Lindsey Dewitt ’19
of Williamsfield, Ill., said some of the stories students heard were “heartbreaking.”

“While this happened 15 years ago, the closing of Maytag still has a huge effect on people,” said Dewitt, who had a personal tie to Maytag through a family member. “These employees were moms, dads, aunts, uncles and grandparents. Most of them were providing for a significant other or another family member. The closing of Maytag changed the course of their entire life.”

The students collected their interviews into an 87-page document titled Voices of Maytag: A Look Back at a Factory Closure and Its Impact on People, Communities and the American Dream. (Read Voices of Maytag here.) The average Maytag work tenure of the 42 people the class interviewed was 26 years, ranging from eight to 46 years.

“It was an incredible learning experience for the students about an important time in our country’s history and the strength of the human spirit,” said Johnson.

Reinvention was a common theme the students encountered.

“The project ultimately allowed the class to witness how these people reacted and reinvented themselves in the face of an adversarial globalized world,” the students wrote in the report’s introduction. “We were able to identify a variety of different responses to the closure. Some people used this as an opportunity to retire and focus on their families or to move on to a new field of work. Most took advantage of retraining programs to accomplish the latter, providing some people with better jobs than they had at the Galesburg facility.”

Perseverance and empathy

Johnson and his students learned a lesson in perseverance from the people they interviewed.

“Overall, the ex-employees appeared to be a group of strong, resilient people that worked through the pain caused by the closure in pursuit of actualizing their own version of the American Dream,” the students wrote. “We learned the importance of persistence in facing adversity and empathy towards those facing sudden economic dislocations, because we may face such scenarios in our lifetimes.”

Beatrix Thornton ’19 of Mount Vernon, Iowa, said she was impressed with the employees’ deep sense of gratitude.

“Perhaps most surprising to me was the sense of gratefulness they had,” said Thornton. “For every person I interviewed, they would mention that they were one of the lucky ones – whatever their situation. I do not know if this points to the human spirit of moving forward, or just to the great amount of empathy that former Maytag workers continue to have for one another. Whether they were in management or in the factory, they had a sense of respect and community for each other that they all seemed to miss in their new jobs.”

Most of the people the students interviewed were union members (32), and a similar number (29) worked in the factory at the time of the closure.

“This project allowed me personally to place myself in the shoes of former Maytag employees and better understand their struggle when the factory shut down,” said Dewitt. “It was also very encouraging to hear how some people stayed positive through the entire process and utilized the help that Maytag provided them.”

Johnson said the interviews took a lot of the former Maytag employees back to the early years of this century.

“Doing the interviews, it was like they were right back in the plant, even after 15 years,” he said. “For most people, it was still really close to them emotionally.”

Johnson’s course was part of the College’s Integrated Studies curriculum. The fourth year of the curriculum focuses on the concept of citizenship, giving students the opportunity to increase their understanding of important social issues.

The New York Times connection

Many of Johnson’s citizenship classes have participated in projects with an eye toward providing useful data for local government officials. He came up with the Maytag project through discussions with New York Times reporter Campbell Robertson. Last year, Johnson connected with Robertson as the reporter researched and wrote an article about how Galesburg and Knox County residents felt about the economy two years after the election of President Donald Trump.

On the semester’s final day, Robertson joined the class via Skype, telling the students he was impressed by their work.

“I read all the interviews, and it’s totally fascinating,” he told them. “If there had been one of those ‘word clouds’ created from your collection of interviews, one of the biggest words would be ‘family.’ There was definitely a sense of ‘I have a better job now, but I’d go back to Maytag in a second’ – a sense of community vs. good pay and good benefits.”

Robertson said it could also be described as “material vs. intangible.”

“The sense of many employees seemed to be a higher paying job isn’t worth it if you’re not sure it’ll be there the next week,” he said. “That sense that everyone was being looked out for was one reason why the closing was seen as such a deep betrayal – that greed had taken the place of loyalty and obligation to the workforce.”

Johnson agreed that was one of the major takeaways from the project.

“I feel we lost something bigger than wages and benefits,” he said. “We lost that sense of community – something that’s so valuable. ... The lack of the human element is part of what we see with globalization – a lot of neglect of the human aspect.”