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New Ghost Towns: Industrial Communities Teeter on the Edge

Rick Hampson

One-horse towns such as Ravenswood, whose downtown is seen here, are "one plant shutdown from oblivion," says Tom Juravich, who co-wrote a history of the 1990 lockout at the local aluminum plant. (photo By Jeff Gentner for USA TODAY)

RAVENSWOOD, W.Va. — When Henry Kaiser arrived 55 years ago, this place was no place — "a rural problem area," the government called it, so poor and isolated that the population had dropped 15% since 1940.

That all changed after Kaiser, the industrialist who'd turned out ships and planes at a record pace in World War II, built the nation's largest consolidated aluminum works here on the banks of the Ohio River.

The plant paid Tim Shumaker his first living wage, and he won the right to keep it two decades ago after his union was locked out for 19 months.

Today, that victory seems hollow. Shumaker, 49, has been laid off. Part of the vast aluminum complex is closed, and the rest is for sale — its orders down, its workforce reduced, its future uncertain. Shumaker stands at the locked plant gate and, after a year without work, worries what's next for him and his community. "The way things are going," he says, "there's not going to be anything here."

Ravenswood, with 4,000 people and one big factory, is like many towns in the USA where things still are made: caught in a winter between recession and recovery, hoping the latter will arrive before the former kills the last decent blue-collar job.

If the rest of the aluminum works closed, "would this become a ghost town?" muses Jim Frazier, principal of the Henry J. Kaiser Elementary School.

Whether it's textiles in the Carolinas, paper in New England or steel in the Midwest, most industrial cities and mill towns "are on pins and needles," says Donald Schunk, an economist at Coastal Carolina University. "Day to day, week to week, any manufacturing facility seems vulnerable. People don't know if they'll be there."

That's true in:

• Georgetown, S.C. (pop. 9,000), where the closing of the local steel mill last year left International Paper as the last major private employer.

• Madawaska, Maine (pop. 4,000), where workers voted last month to take an 8.5% wage cut to keep the financially strapped paper mill going.

• Glenwood, Wash. (pop. 500), where flat lumber prices and rising land prices are crippling the forest products industry.

Anxiety over possible layoffs or closings can disturb workers as much as the real thing, experts say. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert says it's uncertainty that really bothers people: They feel worse when they think something bad might happen than they do when they know it will happen.

Ravenswood knows the feeling. It's waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The aluminum works south of town has two parts: a reduction plant (or smelter), where ore is heated to 1,800 degrees to make aluminum; and a fabrication plant, where aluminum is rolled or stretched into sheets or plates. Since 1999, the plants have been separately owned.

A year ago last month, Century Aluminum closed the reduction plant, laying off Shumaker and about 650 other workers. The fabrication plant, owned by Rio Tinto Alcan, still employs more than 1,000.

What if the Alcan plant, which bought its raw aluminum from Century, also were to close?

That worries almost everyone, including Frazier at Kaiser Elementary. Of the school's 160 families, 37 have parents who worked at Century; many others have breadwinners at Alcan.

Kate Bronfenbrenner, a Cornell labor relations professor who studied the 1990 Ravenswood lockout, says that if the second plant closes "that town would die." Other communities sustained by manufacturing face a similar fate, she adds: "We had ghost towns in the past. We could have them again."

The difference is that people could leave a ghost town — miners to work new veins, farmers to till fresh land, merchants to move closer to road or rail.

Today, Tim Shumaker sees no such options. In past layoffs, he always found work somewhere; now there seems to be none anywhere.

So, like almost everyone else here, he's staying put, wondering whether Ravenswood could become a new kind of ghost town: a place where people stay, because they have nowhere else to go.

Rise and fall

Kaiser's Ravenswood plant created a middle class where there was none. When the United Steelworkers Union was voted in after the plant opened in 1957, the hourly wage jumped from $1.78 to $3.25.

Three decades later, the aluminum works was sold to a group that secretly included Marc Rich, an American commodities trader who was living in Switzerland to avoid charges of violating the U.S. trade ban with Iran.

According to a history by Bronfenbrenner and Tom Juravich, working conditions at the plant deteriorated. The company forced workers into double shifts — sometimes for several days in a row — in the 100-degree heat of the "pot rooms," where molten aluminum is made.

When the union contract expired, the company locked the workers out.

Organized labor had been losing such battles, but at Ravenswood the Steelworkers launched an innovative "corporate campaign" that went beyond the picket line.

The union mobilized pressure from foreign unions and governments, persuaded beer companies to stop buying Ravenswood aluminum and lobbied the state Legislature to investigate the company. In 1992, the company settled, agreeing to a new contract with higher pay and limits on mandatory overtime.

By the end of 2008, though, energy prices had risen, foreign competition had increased, and the price of aluminum had dropped 50% in a few months. On Feb. 4, 2009, the smelter closed.

Workers gathered in the high school gym. Gov. Joe Manchin, a pro-union Democrat, came up from Charleston. "The world's changing," he said.

In the America where things are made, the recession has been a depression. According to a new Northeastern University study, one in every six blue-collar industrial jobs have disappeared since 2007, matching the drop in overall employment in the Great Depression.

Last year, about 1.3 million factory jobs vanished, including Shumaker's. For the first time, the government announced in January, most union members are government employees, not private-sector workers.

One-horse towns such as Ravenswood risk losing their reason for being, says Juravich, who teaches about labor at the University of Massachusetts. Without a hospital or university campus or county seat, "they're one plant shutdown from oblivion."

Sometimes oblivion is a ghost town with tumbleweed blowing down Main Street and the doors of the Last Chance Saloon swinging in the desert wind. But most 21st-century ghost towns will not be deserted.

People, many unemployed or underemployed, will fill the bars, stoops, corners, clinics, jails and social welfare offices.

An industrial town makes products that bring wealth into a community; a post-industrial ghost town has a zero-sum economy — people in marginal jobs, "serving and paying each other," Bronfenbrenner says.

At best, the new industrial ghost towns become places for low-rent homes for long-distance commuters. At worst, they slowly empty out.

Uncertainty and anxiety

At first, some Century workers — who as a group averaged $51,000 in pay per year — regarded the layoff as a vacation. Besides unemployment compensation, 20-year veterans such as Shumaker got two years of layoff pay (about $400 a month) and continued health coverage (no premiums, no deductible and a $10 co-pay for office visits).

A year later, some benefits are expiring, savings are running low, and people are beginning to hurt. The local food bank's caseload has tripled. The pawn shop's business has doubled. "I'm warm and dry," Shumaker says, "but I don't have a dime to my name." He's behind in the payments on the three-bedroom house he shares with his wife and teenage son.

He has pawned some tools. Instead of stopping for a burger at lunchtime, he goes home and fixes a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich. He drinks less milk, eats less meat, buys less gasoline. He drives a dented Ford pickup with 150,000 miles on it.

What's most striking about Ravenswood, however, is not the material deprivation but the psychological distress, an anxiety about the future that tests faith itself. "I try to explain that God has not abandoned us," says Scott Mapes, pastor of the Church of the Nazarene, where yearly giving has dropped from $180,000 to $150,000.

Shumaker does not lack daily sustenance; he lacks a future and a purpose. "I'm not depressed or anything, but I can't seem to get started in the morning," he says. "I didn't get out of bed today until 9 a.m."

He's wearing a black T-shirt with pictures of a U.S. flag and a buffalo and the words "Roam Free." Problem is, he can't. The old rule — go where the work is — no longer applies, unless maybe you're a nurse or a teacher.

There's constant speculation that Century might reopen. Shumaker's not optimistic.

Others aren't waiting for a call back to work. Hundreds are taking advantage of a federal program that pays $20,000 for education or training for workers who lose jobs because of foreign competition.

Dave Guthrie, 51, says he's glad he was laid off because now he has the time, money and motivation to go to college. He wants to be a traveling nurse, working short-term contracts around the country, far from what he calls the plant's "us-vs.-them" labor-management dynamic.

He sees Ravenswood as a nascent ghost town: "Industrial workers are dinosaurs. In the future, it's going to be service jobs and electronics. … Eventually, people will start leaving here. It's that or a minimum-wage job at Wal-Mart."

Tim Shumaker is not going anywhere. On another slow, jobless day, he sits in the union hall, which is a sort of shrine to the great lockout. There's a picture of a worker who died on the job in 1990; a union-issued Marc Rich "wanted" poster; a photo collage of members' children, under the words "Why We Fight" and "Labor's Future."

There's also an aerial photo of the sprawling colossus that sucked up more power than a city and pumped out 500 tons of metal a day. For a half-century, the hottest place in West Virginia; now, stone cold.

"It's disheartening," he says. "I enjoyed working there — even the pot rooms. I miss it."

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