Being told to train his replacement was humiliating and surreal, but Tom Gaulrapp said the worst part was when the plant's U.S. flag was taken down before the Chinese engineers arrived.
Gaulrapp decided it was time to take a stand against outsourcing and the man he blames for the loss of his job: Republican White House hopeful Mitt Romney, who founded the private equity firm that owns the Freeport, Illinois auto parts plant.
Gaulrapp thinks it would only take a phone call from the candidate who's vowed to create 12 million jobs in the United States to save the 170 jobs at Sensata Technologies that are about to leave this already economically depressed town of 26,000.
"What we'd like is a miracle," Gaulrapp, who has worked at the plant for 33 years, said with a sigh that acknowledged how unlikely it is that his wish will be granted. "We'd like Mitt Romney to come to Freeport, see what this is doing to this community, and contact his friends that run Bain Capital and say 'this is absolutely the wrong thing to do' and save our jobs."
The Romney campaign declined to comment on the situation at Sensata, but a spokeswoman noted that the former Massachusetts governor retired from Bain in 1999 and his investments there are controlled by a blind trust, effectively nullifying his links to the firm.
Sensata, which is majority-owned by Bain Capital, purchased the automotive sensors unit from Honeywell for $140 million in cash in January 2011.
With annual revenues of $130 million and valuable patents, the unit was a good buy. But with 75% of the revenue generated in Asia, it made sense to ship production to Sensata's facilities in China, the Netherlands-based company said.
"It's better to be closer to one's customers," Sensata spokesman Jacob Sayer said, citing transportation and other logistical advantages.
Sayer acknowledged that the decision to shift production to China is "an unfortunately event" for Freeport and said he understands why it could be "difficult" for the workers to train their replacements.
He has no idea why -- or if -- the U.S. flag was removed before the Chinese engineers and technicians arrived. "We didn't request it. I can tell you that," Sayer said, adding that the company has been leasing the facility from Honeywell and has no involvement in grounds maintenance.
Preparing for Plant Closure
The workers have had nearly two years to prepare for the plant closure. Some have found new jobs and those who remained were given retention bonuses to help keep operations going until the last pieces of equipment are shipped elsewhere.
They got riled up in June when Romney visited nearby Janesville, Wisconsin and talked about how jobs were his top priority -- at the same time they were being told to train their Chinese replacements.
After months of pursuing Romney's campaign with protests and petitions, the Sensata workers set up camp in the fairgrounds across the road from the plant on September 12 in hopes of drawing more attention to their cause.
In a nod to both the "Hoovervilles" of unemployed workers that sprung up during the Great Depression and the Occupy Wall Street movement, about a dozen people have since been sleeping in tents staked into the cold, hard ground.
The situation in Freeport is a classic example of how what's best for a company is not always what's best for American workers, said Freeport Mayor George Gaulrapp, who is no relation to Tom.
"You can't keep sending your jobs offshore and still have a middle class," said the mayor.
Plant worker Pam Lampros, 53, is worried she's going to lose her home so investors like Romney can make a bigger profit.
"It just hurts after so many years of hard work and dedication," said Lampros, a 34-year veteran at the non-unionized plant who had hoped to retire from there.
"It's for corporate greed, more or less."
Mark Schreck, 36, a registered Republican, even brought his children a couple of times. "This isn't a Republican issue or a Democrat issue, this is an American issue," he said, noting it is the second time his job has been outsourced to China, despite both operations being profitable -- just not profitable enough.
"We're in trouble. I'm not that old and when I grew up American industry and technology was huge. My folks and my uncles all worked in good jobs and retired from them," Schreck said as he sat by a smoking campfire on the windy fairgrounds.
"It's hard to grasp how bleak it is out there. I've been looking for work since last January and I'm not finding any."
- Mira Oberman , AFP
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2012
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