Time Marches on in Kenosha

Chrysler Main GateKenosha, Wisconsin has been a car town for the past one hundred years. Somehow, despite all the upheaval in the auto industry, its factories have kept working. But that finally comes to an end this week, when the Chrysler Engine plant closes, leaving more than 500 people jobless.

Kenosha has worked hard to change its image, and Changing Gears reporter Niala Boodhoo will be following that reinvention story over the coming months. To begin, she looks at the final days of the factory.

Download the audio here

Around 2:30 p.m., there’s a steady flow of Dodge Caravans, Ram Pickup trucks and Jeep Grand Cherokees streaming in and out of the factory gates at the Chrysler Engine plant in Kenosha.

Early afternoon marks the end of first shift and the start of the second.

A brown historical marker just outside the gate details a short history of Kenosha’s auto production. The sign’s location is a clear nod to the central role this plant has played since the turn of the last century – turning out Motor Trend Cars of the year like the Nash Rambler and the Renault Alliance.

Now, that’s all ending.

“I never thought I’d be retiring at age 53,” said Mike Underhill, who has worked at the Chrysler plant and been a member of the UAW for 23 years. “I really liked my job. I worked with a lot of good people.” Mike Underhill

Underhill’s brother worked at the plant, too. It’s common for many in Kenosha to have had entire families, and multiple generations, work there, like the Starks, who have had three generations employed there.

“My father was here, I’m here, I have a son and a nephew working in the plant right now,” said Glenn Stark, UAW Local 72 president.

Local 72“We had 15,000 people working here back in 1959,” said Stark, as he walked around a near-emtpy union hall, where rows of chairs are neatly lined up.  “Today, around 500. If we have a membership meeting we have three, four hundred members.

Normally, union sits on the other side of the table in opposition to management. But union members worked alongside local Chrysler managers and politicians to keep the plant here. It’s easy to understand why – the factory contributed $50 million a year to the local economy. And those manufacturing paid far more service jobs like at the local Wal-Mart.

Several union members said they gave up a lot in concessions to Chrysler, hoping to keep work here. That was before the company filed for bankruptcy last year. Since then, workers like Underhill say they can’t help but feel the plant’s location in Wisconsin has worked against them.

“Here in the Kenosha, the auto industry, it seems like we’ve always gotten the short stick,” said Underhill. “It seems like it’s always been everything for Michigan and you guys are from Wisconsin, nah, we don’t need ya.”

Chrysler wouldn’t comment on this story. And Underhill and other union members are clear they wish the company well. In fact, their retirement money hinges on Chrysler’s success.

Keith Bosman is Kenosha’s Mayor. He says his first thought when he heard about the plant closing was: “Here we go again”.

Thousands lost jobs twenty years ago, when Chrysler stopped building cars here. That’s when many people in Kenosha feel auto making really ended.

When he was in college, Bosman spent his summers working on the docks of Lake Michigan loading “Kenosha Cadillacs”, what people here called the Ramblers, onto ships.

The mayor’s office is right across the street from those docks where the lakefront factory used to be. The entire area has been redeveloped into parks and condos – many owned by Chicago residents who keep their boats in Kenosha, and come up for the weekend.

“Time marches on, the economy changes, I think people think this is finally the end,” said Bosman.

Kenosha’s changed from being just a car town to having lots of small, new manufacturers, like a medical device company that just moved in. And the city has also worked hard to take advantage of its location between Chicago and Milwaukee and become a transportation and warehouse hub.

But the Chysler plant closing still hurts. The city stands to lose about $500,000 just from property taxes from the factory. Unemployment in Kenosha is already the third highest in the state – it’s 10.1 percent.
Just before he starts job on the second shift, I met up with Glenn Stark’s son, Andrew, at a local Starbucks. He’s 21.

“Everything that my family’s had – going back to my grandpa, to my uncles, my dad – has been provided by that plant,” said Andrew, who has his father’s eyes. “So now that it’s closing it’s odd – it’s rough.” Andy Stark

Andrew’s just worked at the factory for a few months.

He said one of the first things he noticed when he walked in were rows and rows of empty lockers.

Chrysler gave workers about a year’s notice that the plant would close, and many people left. That’s when Andrew started working there. At about $15 a hour, it’s less than half of what veterans make, but Andrew said it beats his old job bartending.

Andrew is studying business administration at the University of Wisconsin’s Parkside campus. He said he worries not just about the workers, but also the effect on other businesses in Kenosha and nearby Racine.

“Especially small businesses — little delis, little bakeries that used to cater to the employees,” he said. “Even the taverns – people would get out of work, they used to go. Well, that’s gone now. What are those people going to do as far as paying their bills?”

It used to be that most of the people in the bar came from the plant. These days, many people work elsewhere around town. But bar patrons still collected 500 signatures for a letter they sent President Obama asking him to keep the plant open.

“You’re taking a big business out of town, a big factory,” said bartender Lea Agazzi, who helped organized the petition. “I mean, it does employ a lot of Kenosha people. You’re taking a lot from our city.”

Mayor Bosman is hoping that another manufacturer, or maybe a group of them, will take over the Chrysler plant. If not, it may be torn down. Either way, Kenosha has to figure out what comes next. And that’s a journey Changing Gears will be watching.

Here’s a great video the Kenosha News did about the history of auto making in Kenosha:

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