NORTH CAROLINA — Kudos to the scrappy little Salisbury Post in Salisbury, North Carolina, for its story Sunday detailing the hard realities for some manufacturing workers in the nearby town of Cleveland (population almost 900).
The Post story, by Emily Ford, came seven months after a press conference in Cleveland, where Gov. Beverly Perdue and Roger Nielsen, the COO of Daimler Trucks North America, plugged a promised 1,100 new jobs at Cleveland’s Freightliner Truck Manufacturing Plant by the end of 2012 “as evidence,” as the Post wrote at the time, “of an economy on the rebound.” Wrote the Post in January:
The majority of positions on the reestablished second shift will be filled with recalled workers who were laid off in 2009. The recalls will begin in early February, maybe earlier, and the new shift is scheduled to be at full strength by September.
The Post on Sunday checked in on that time table and found that “despite the pomp and circumstance” of the January announcement, “only half of the 1,100 new jobs planned have materialized.” (A Daimler HR manager is quoted pointing to lower volume and demand than when staffing plans were made.)
By focusing on two specific former Daimler workers, the Post put a face on the continuing struggles of North Carolinians facing a persistently high state unemployment rate (currently 9.6 percent in July, seasonally adjusted). Mark Peoples, laid off from the Cleveland plant in 2008, earned a community-college business degree while job-hunting, but is still unemployed and living, with his wife who has multiple sclerosis, on savings and her disability check. Gerry Adams, also laid off in 2008, reinvented himself, gathering 60 lawn service clients. In April, Adams received a recall letter from Daimler and, the Post wrote, “responded immediately— yes, he wanted to return.”
He took a day off from his lawn care business to complete a physical and paperwork.
Then he waited. A week went by, and Adams heard nothing. Rumors swirled about a hiring freeze.
A summer went by, and on Aug. 5, Adams finally heard from Freightliner, but the news was not good. The letter stated his recall rights had been terminated. [Meaning, if he ever returns to the company, he would have no seniority and would start at beginning pay].
“I’m over the anger part,” Adams said last week.
What hurt the most, Adams said, was going through the motions and then not hearing anything for months.
“It’s hard when someone else is in such control over your life, even though you’re not working there,” he said.
In March, President Barack Obama visited Daimler’s Mount Holly plant—about 50 miles from Cleveland—to push his message of economic rebound, citing the 1,000 people hired (many, rehired) at that plant in 2011. The visit became part of the official White House narrative on YouTube, gaining more than 13,000 views. Obama’s stop received
triple-byline coverage from the Charlotte Observer, shared with its sister publication in Raleigh. The Fox TV affiliate in Charlotte used the “road to recovery” narrative in its coverage, and the Charlotte Business Journal presented the president as seizing on “a good-news story for a recovering economy.”
But for some in Cleveland, the good-news story didn’t materialize.
Many of North Carolina’s manufacturing jobs exist in tiny towns in a Bermuda Triangle beyond the coverage area of larger news organizations. The Cleveland plant is 13 miles from Salisbury, and 13 miles from Statesville, which has the (pay-walled) Statesville Record & Landmark, one of the Media General papers bought by Berkshire Hathaway. The Charlotte Observer is 50 miles from Cleveland, and the Winston-Salem News Journal is 43 miles away. As papers have purposefully reduced their circulation in North Carolina in recent years, towns like Cleveland may fall off journalists’ radars.
But not at the Salisbury Post this time. (The Post is owned by a small Carolina publishing company, the Post Publishing Company, Inc., which also owns South Carolina’s Charleston Post and Courier—using a pay fence these days —and about a dozen small-town papers). The Post’s Ford deserves praise for her work following up on a promise made months ago, a local story that has state and national implications.
Here’s hoping Ford keeps on the story—I see Daimler is hiring in Cleveland for a supervisor of production, asking for proficiency with Microsoft Office and some college education, skills and credentials that auto workers didn’t necessarily need in the past—and that other reporters, too, pursue the human stories behind persistent unemployment in North Carolina amid the political narratives of a recovery.