Editorial: From Under the Bus to a Turn at the Wheel

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Editorial: From Under the Bus to a Turn at the Wheel

In These Times – For some Ohio workers, Obama’s responsive leadership is a sign of their influence. They need more of both.

One morning last winter, I woke up to an unusual text message. “Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” read the bulletin. “Workers rehired. Wages and benefits restored.” The area code revealed a sender in central Ohio. The importance of these glad tidings registered immediately.

With the Obama administration passing its first anniversary, and the early primaries of 2010 fast approaching, the impact of the past election has subsided for most Americans. But for some workers shaken by factory re-locations and layoffs, like thousands across the battleground state of Ohio, the 2008 election was the start of a still-developing turnaround.

Overdue national media coverage of their plight and the grassroots traction of the Obama campaign both signaled hope. Seeing hours of volunteer labor, on doorsteps and in phone banks at union halls or storefront offices, pay off with victory was a much-needed reminder for working people: Every now and then, they can overcome obstacles and claim power.

Obama’s win had special resonance in the ranks of Ohioans who made one of the Midwest’s signature brand of baked goods: Archway cookies. In October 2008, Archway declared bankruptcy and suddenly barred workers from entering their factory in Ashland, Ohio. The plant closure idled nearly 300 workers in one of the state’s most conservative counties.

Jeff Austen, one of the Archway workers rocked by the shutdown, came to see political implications in the ordeal. Austen recalls that he e-mailed and twice phoned a local Republican lawmaker, state Senate President Bill Harris, who owned a car dealership near the Archway plant. Austen says he never heard back. Yet he did get a call from U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, whose staff he credits for following up on his questions and staying in touch throughout the past 15 months.

He also got a call from the local Democratic candidate for the U.S. House, an Iraq war veteran named John Boccieri, who impressed him with a keen ear for working people and a fighting spirit. Austen kicked into high gear, appearing with Boccieri and urging friends and family to turn out and vote for him as well as Obama.

Election night marked a breakthrough that, even in hindsight, Austen describes as the beginning of a rebound. “It was a reminder that we could win for a change.”

But rehiring at the Ashland plant has proved slow. A total of about 160 workers now file in and out of the Lance gate. Austen estimates a little more than half of them are rehires from the Archway days. The factory was fenced, Austen observes, about the time that Lance bought the New York plant that made Stella D’Oro cookies, whose union jobs were axed when operations were transferred to Ohio.

While Austen didn’t get his job back, he has found a helping hand for retraining from Washington. The federal stimulus bill, signed by President Obama in February, expanded the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), making workers whose job losses are traceable to imported goods or exported factories eligible for job training, income support, and tax credits. Austen moved into his parents’ house while making do on unemployment. He is trying to take advantage of the TAA provisions by going back to school.

Austen praises case workers at the Department of Labor (DOL), in both Washington and Columbus, for responsiveness. “They’ve helped me walk this difficult road as best I could,” he says. And he singles out the staff of Senator Brown—again, Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, not the newcomer from Massachusetts—for listening to him and crafting policies aimed at restoring good jobs to the state.

Brown joined with Ohio Governor Ted Strickland in late January to highlight a new batch of DOL grants for job retraining that will reach half of Ohio’s 88 counties. Obama returned on January 21 to highlight job creation efforts in Lorain that are converting old manufacturing facilities geared toward auto parts to conservation-related and other clean-energy products.

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