JUDY WOODRUFF: Today’s announcement by Whirlpool that it’s closing a plant in Arkansas and eliminating 5,000 jobs was eerily familiar news for the people of Evansville, Ind. Two years ago, the company shuttered its factory there and transferred production to Mexico.
It was one of many manufacturers who moved south of the border after the implementation of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, signed in 1993.
What’s happened in Evansville since then is the subject of tonight’s edition of “Need to Know.”
Here’s an excerpt, narrated by correspondent Rick Karr.
RICK KARR: At an appliance store near Evansville, we up with economist Mohammed Khayum. He says it’s consumers who have been the big winners under NAFTA.
MOHAMMED KHAYUM, University of Southern Indiana: We benefit because of range of things that happen, including more products, greater quality, lower prices. This suit, for instance, is a product of Mexico.
RICK KARR: Khayum is dean of the business school at Evansville’s University of Southern Indiana. He says the fridges and other appliances in this store are better than they would have been without free trade smarter, more durable, more energy-efficient and cheaper.
MOHAMMED KHAYUM: When we buy TVs, we may buy two, instead of one.
RICK KARR: Khayum says one reason why NAFTA has a bad reputation is because it’s easy to put a face on the workers who lost jobs to lower-paid labor in Mexico. But the winners of the trade pact, he says, are everywhere.
MOHAMMED KHAYUM: It’s very difficult to organize us and to express to people, here are the gains from trade.
RICK KARR: There’s no…
MOHAMMED KHAYUM: But they happen
RICK KARR: There’s no national union of consumers saying, we win, we win.
MOHAMMED KHAYUM: No, because we — we know that and we don’t need to express it. The individuals who are impacted negatively have a reason to organize. And they have a reason to get us who are benefiting to want to do something to address their circumstance.
RICK KARR: Khayum says the theory is that consumers’ gains should offset the pain felt by laid-off workers.
MOHAMMED KHAYUM: The practice is that that has not happened in a realistic way.
RICK KARR: Evansville workers have been feeling the effects of foreign trade since even before NAFTA. Back in the late ’80s, Zenith Electronics laid off 1,000 employees. More recently, a packaging manufacturer cut 100 jobs.
And the Whirlpool plant closure erased nearly 200 positions at a firm that made refrigerator shelves.
Former Whirlpool employee Natalie Ford’s experience has been typical of workers displaced by foreign trade. Since the plant closed, her family’s finances have taken a big hit. Her husband used to work at Whirlpool, too. Now he earns about 20 percent less at an automotive plant. She’s bringing home about half as much, between unemployment benefits and what she earns working part-time at a restaurant.
But she says that’s not as bad as the uncertainty that’s gripped her and her husband since the day management announced that the plant was closing.
What was what was the conversation like in the car on the way home?
NATALIE FORD, former Whirlpool employee: I cried a lot. The first thing I did was when they said Mexico, I mean, everybody was saying a few choice words, you know. And the first thing I did was get on my phone and call my dad and tell my dad.
And then we was, like, how are we going to make it? You know, are we going to lose everything we worked for all of our lives? Because it was gone. They just took all that away. I had no idea. I had no idea. And I still don’t to this day.
JEFFREY BROWN: “Need to Know” airs on most PBS stations this evening. Please check your local listings for the time.