Freeport, Ill., is the site of one of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. On Aug. 27, 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated there in their campaign for Illinois’ seat in the U.S. Senate. Lincoln lost that race, but the Freeport debate set the stage for his eventual defeat of Douglas in the presidential election of 1860, and thus the Civil War. Today, as the African-American president of the United States prepares to debate the candidate from the party of Lincoln, workers in Freeport are staging a protest, hoping to put their plight into the center of the national debate this election season.
A group of workers from Sensata Technologies have set up their tents in a protest encampment across the road from the plant where many of them have spent their adult lives working. Sensata makes high-tech sensors for automobiles, including the sensors that help automatic transmissions run safely. Sensata Technologies recently bought the plant from Honeywell, and promptly told the more than 170 workers there that their jobs and all the plant’s equipment would be shipped to China.
You may never have heard of Sensata Technologies, but in this election season, you’ve probably heard the name of its owner, Bain Capital, the company co-founded and formerly run by Mitt Romney. When they learned this, close to a dozen Sensata employees decided to put up a fight, to challenge Romney to put into practice his very campaign slogans to save American jobs. They traveled to Tampa, Fla., joining in a poor people’s campaign at a temporary camp called Romneyville (after the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression). They organized a petition drive, getting 35,000 people to join their demand for Romney to call on his former colleagues to save their jobs. Since Freeport is close to two swing states, Iowa and Wisconsin, they traveled to a Romney rally and appealed directly to him there (Ironically, for appealing to Romney to save their jobs from being sent to China, the Sensata workers were jeered as communists at the rally, and removed by U.S. Secret Service).
Then the workers established Bainport. Set up at the Stephenson County Fairgrounds, with the full support of the community, the workers have spent more than two weeks camped out, with a dozen tents, a large circus-style tent serving as a covered gathering space and command center, and an outdoor kitchen. They built a stage with a banner reading, “Mitt Romney: Come to Freeport” and signs like “Romney does have a jobs plan ... too bad it’s for China.” Behind the stage they have built a small bridge that carries the workers across a gully to and from their remaining shifts at the plant.
One night last week, we arrived at Bainport at 10:30. A group of workers and their supporters were sitting around the campfire. I talked to them, one by one, before they made their way to their tents. Dot Turner had to be at work at 5 a.m. I asked her how long she’d been at the plant. “For 43 years. I started in 1969. I was 18 at the time,” she told me. Her message to Romney was clear: “If he was really concerned about the American people and if he was concerned about creating jobs, the 12 million jobs that he always uses as his stump speech, he could create this job by leaving it here."
While Romney has yet to visit Freeport, a campaign spokesman addressed the issue of Sensata, turning the issue around onto President Barack Obama: “Despite the president being invested in Sensata through his personal pension fund, and the government owning a major Sensata customer in GM, President Obama has not used his powers to help this situation in any way.”
Obama didn’t respond to the specific charge, but on the campaign trail, he hits Romney hard on Bain outsourcing jobs to China: “When you see these ads he’s running, promising to get tough on China, it feels a lot like that fox saying, “You know, we need more secure chicken coops.”
Freeport Mayor George Gaulrapp visited Bainport on the morning that we broadcast our “Democracy Now!” news hour from the camp. He told me about his hopes for the workers, reflecting on his hometown’s long history: “Freeport is the home of the Lincoln-Douglas debate site. We’ve invited both campaigns, President Obama and Governor Romney, to come to Freeport and debate in an old-style campaign. It would be a perfect opportunity for him, the architect who mastered how to send jobs over offshore, to come back here and reverse the trend. We’re 65 miles from Paul Ryan’s hometown of Janesville. It’s a perfect location to come, have your feet on the ground and meet a cross-section of America.”
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.