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Whirlpool withdrawal in Fort Smith: Careers shattered 

The Whirlpool plant was the cornerstone of the Fort Smith economy, once employing thousands. In June, that all swirled away.

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"People come in here all the time trying to sell me stuff that you know came out of their homes," she said. "They're just hurting for money. I'm not saying that Whirlpool is the whole cause, but it knocked a lot of other plants out of business."

A few blocks from the plant, Danny Flippen runs TSC Digital Entertainment Systems, a commercial satellite TV system installer. Loud and unashamedly Democrat — prone to going on tears about how American industry dodged a bullet when the voters rejected Mitt Romney — Flippen said he sees the outsourcing of jobs as one of the most unpatriotic things a company can do. As a kid, he went on the picket lines with his father, who worked for the city of Fort Smith. He said that although blaming unions for plant closures has been popular in the past, it wasn't union demands that closed Whirlpool.  

"They say it's the union's fault," Flippen said. "Keep telling yourself that. It wasn't the unions that did it. If it wasn't for the unions, we would be working Sundays for two bucks an hour, and we will go back to that if we let it."

While your local economist might scoff, Flippen said he believes Americans would pay more for a U.S.-made refrigerator, not only because of a sense of helping out their fellow citizens and American industry, but because of quality. It's a sentiment shared by most of the people we talked to in Fort Smith. Putting American workers back to work, Flippen said, could help people get enough money in their pocket to choose quality over price.

"You get people making a little money," Flippen said, "they'll say: 'Well, why would I want to buy that cheap piece of shit when I can buy this one, made in the United States, with twice the warranty, made down the road in Alabama, or up in Missouri or over in Kansas?' "

The workers in those plants would spend money with local businesses, Flippen said, and the economy would lift.

"The only way we're going to get industry back is to get off the high horse of thinking that the God Almighty Dollar has to be made no matter who sacrifices to get it," Flippen said. "It's sad. I think about all the kids that went to college, all the homes that were built, all the dreams that were accomplished by that factory out there. Now they won't be. It's lost." 

At 12:30 p.m. on a Thursday, the classrooms at the Crawford County Adult Education Center in Van Buren are full, and the people filling the seats are almost all ex-Whirlpool. While they're officially here because they're being retrained through the government's Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which pays for some education for workers laid off due to production being shifted to NAFTA partners Canada and Mexico, this is really something more like a half-way house — a rest stop between the repetitive, regimented life of a factory worker and what they all hope will be life as a successful college or trade school student, with a well-paying job beyond.

Most are in their mid-50s, some of them squinting at computer screens through reading glasses. Many of them worked at Whirlpool since they were 18 or 19. Now they sit shoulder-to-shoulder with people they built refrigerators with for 20 years and try to learn their way back to the lives they knew. While most are getting ready for college courses or nursing school, a few of them dropped out of high school to start at the plant, confident they'd retire from Whirlpool and thus never need a diploma. Now, at an age when most people are worried about what to buy the grandkids for Christmas, those people find themselves scrambling after GEDs so they can qualify for even the lowest-paying of jobs, much less the middle-class wages they were making before.

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