After Factory Plant Closures, Job Loss, A Small N.Y. Town Struggles To Bounce Back
Ahead of Tuesday's primary in New York, the presidential candidates have been clocking time upstate, where a lot of small towns have been gutted by the loss of manufacturing jobs in recent years. On this issue, the candidates are united.
Hillary Clinton has vowed to "fight for more help" in upstate New York if she wins the nomination, and Ted Cruz has called to bring manufacturing jobs "back from China and Mexico."
One of those towns is Massena, where big plant closures have meant residents either reinvent themselves, or move.
Located on the St. Lawrence River in the northernmost part of the state, Massena used to be a big factory town. It was home to Alcoa, Reynolds and GM plants. But almost a decade ago, when aluminum operations downsized, GM closed its powertrain plant and 500 jobs were lost.
This week on For the Record: Making it work in Massena, N.Y.
Growing up in Massena, Robert Cunningham had a comfortable childhood, thanks to the "good union benefits and security" his father's GM job brought.
"If you didn't work there, you wanted to work there," Cunningham says.
A couple of years out of college, Cunningham found his way to GM, too.
"They were looking for pipe fitters and I put my application in and I got an interview and I got hired," he recalls. "It was like winning the lottery. For pay and security for your family, by far the best job."
Max Pelifian also secured a job at the company shortly after college. He has since retired from GM after working there for 31 years.
"I just kept going out there every day hounding them to give me a shot and they hired me," Pelifian says. "I made pistons for the 350-cubic-inch V-8 motor."
The overnight hours suited him.
"[I] got done at 7 o'clock in the morning. During the summers I would actually ride my bicycle to work, which is about a 10-mile ride each way. But I'd get to work half-hour, 45 minutes early just to socialize over coffee with the guys."
You could say Cunningham expanded his social life at the plant, too.
"I met my wife at the plant. She was a lost foam technician," he says. "We look back on that with some fond memories. ... As you get off from work at 7 o'clock in the morning — most people are going out to a dinner date — we're going to breakfast."
Not only did Cunningham find the love of his life, but he was also making good money. His first year's salary was $101,000, or $157,000 with overtime. Pelifian was cashing in, too.
"We worked hard. But we worked a lot of overtime, too, made a lot of money," Pelifian says. "Especially after I got my first year in and then I go, 'This is a good life.' I bought really nice cars and toys and houses and stuff. It worked out good."
There was love, money and a sense of belonging. Co-workers were like a second family. Everyone in town turned out for the company picnics.
"It made you feel really good," Pelifian says. "We had a couple of guys who ran the Olympic torch one year. They were all sponsored, they had GM stuff on when they did it. We had cars following them. It gave you a little pride in what you were doing."
Then in 2007, the news came out of the blue: GM was shutting down.
When the announcement came that Monday, Cunningham says, "Most people were in shock, they couldn't believe it. There was a lot of anger. ... And being in the position that I was in, you know, working closely with our local union leadership in the international union, we tried — and then it was over."
"No one quite understood the impact that it was going to have down the road," Cunningham says. "When you take, we'll call it $60 million, out of the local economy every year — that's what GM put into the local economy between payroll and taxes, contractors that they hired. What that ripple effect would actually do. And it was devastating."
Cunningham was out of work for four years. His wife immediately went back to school to become a nurse. While they had been saving money all along and investing it well so they had a buffer, they still had five kids to support.
Meanwhile, the town itself started to change. A lot of families moved away to take transfers with GM or to find new jobs. Schools closed down, and department stores shuttered.
GM tells NPR that the majority of the jobs lost in Massena were moved to a plant in Saginaw, Mich., and some of the work went to a facility in Mexico.
That's where the politics comes in. Presidential candidates from both parties — mainly Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders — are pointing to these plant closures and blaming globalization and free trade agreements.
That in turn, is getting families in Massena talking.
"I just had this conversation with my dad ... we just had the same conversation over NAFTA," Cunningham says. "I said, Dad, we're half to blame for that too, because companies need profits. We want big wages because we want to make the most money we can, but when it comes to products and services, we don't want to have to pay a lot of money. ... We go down and we want to buy a truck. And what do we do? 'Well I can't believe that truck is $45,000, that truck should be [$35,000].' Well, it's $45,000, you know. We want to get it as cheap as we can."
Cunningham has been working at Massena Electric for the past year. But neither he nor Pelifian thinks this is a place where their kids or grandkids will be able to build careers. It was hard enough when GM closed down, but now the last big employer in town, the aluminum manufacturing company Alcoa, is considering leaving too.
Since Alcoa had already downsized its operations in Massena, the news didn't come as a major shock. Alhough on top of the GM closure it was too much for this one town to absorb. So the state government stepped in and gave Alcoa a bailout of sorts: It paid the company $70 million to stay open.
"The Alcoa jobs are saved and they're going to stay right here in Massena. And this plant is going to keep operating the way it's been operating for over 100 years," Gov. Andrew Cuomo told an audience of factory employees after the deal was reached in November.
That's the dream scenario, but the deal actually says Alcoa only has to stay in Massena for 3 1/2 more years — which means Massena, in that time, has to come up with a plan to replace those jobs.
There are some ideas floating around about how to diversify the economy: building an interstate to bring in business from Canada, building up a tourist industry around the St. Lawrence River.
Cunningham doesn't place much confidence in that possibility, though.
"I think there is tourism obviously, bringing fishing up to the area, but do I see it generating $60 million a year? I hope it does. I don't think it's gonna," he says. "What are they going to come to Massena to see? The seaway? The dam?"
Other job opportunities have opened up since GM closed. There's a new casino outside town that created some jobs, and some people went to work for the border patrol near the Canadian line, just a few miles from Massena. Other residents have started new businesses that are growing.
Even so, Cunningham can't help but look backward.
"Massena is not going to recover to its former glory in my opinion," he says. "We're going to survive and get through it as North Country people always do. But to try to get us back to that time when we were the shining star throughout northern New York — with the huge employers and all the income."
That, he says, is just not going to happen.
North Country Public Radio helped in the reporting of this story.
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