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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The Arkansas Times spoke to more than a dozen former Whirlpool workers taking classes at the Adult Ed Center. In the center's assembly hall, they were loud and boisterous as they waited on their interviews, laughing over inside jokes from the old days, or commiserating over what's been visited upon them. Every hand shaken in that room was hard, solid, callused — hands that know work. The other thing that united them was a clouded, universal look of worry, even when they smiled.

Even though Carruth, the 43-year employee and former vice president of the local Steelworkers Union, is not a union leader anymore, he's still a leader. It was Carruth who gathered the former workers together to chat with Arkansas Times. He told us to bring doughnuts — even specified where the doughnuts should come from to best please the former Whirlpoolers — and so we did. He's that kind of guy.

Like a lot of former Whirlpool employees, Carruth said the workers did everything they could to save the plant, working with management to trim costs and even helping decide which of their fellow co-workers to lay off in recent years. He pointed out that Whirlpool Fort Smith was first in quality among all Whirlpool factories in North America right up until it closed. He admits that he's bitter about the decision to close the plant, which he called "a shitty deal."

"Moving things to Mexico is a big mistake," Carruth said. "Who is going to buy these refrigerators from Mexico when we don't have jobs? I'm an honest believer in that. We're going to a service-type nation, selling hamburgers."

For many of his fellow students, Carruth said, going to school is a way to survive. He's better situated than most given how close he is to retirement, but he's still clearly concerned about his former co-workers. To many, he said, the retraining assistance they're receiving from the government feels like a handout.

"We'd gladly accept our jobs back and give them this money back that we're drawing right now," he said. "There's not a person out there who says they don't want to work and have a job. We're going through something that most of us have never been through in our lives."

Everyone in the room seems to be living the truth of that. It shows in their eyes, and you can hear it in their voices:

Former press operator Palmer said she has trouble with school due to a learning disability. "I'm 57 now, and it's hard to find a job. I don't know what to do. Who is going to hire someone at my age? I tried to get on at the airport. I tried to get on at the school. It's hard to get a job right now. ... I don't want to work at McDonald's. I don't want to work at Subway or Sonic. I want something better. I had a better job, and it's gone."

Theresa Soucy, 58, who started at Whirlpool when she was 20 and shares some of Palmer's concerns, said she's heard rumors that many local employers won't consider ex-Whirlpoolers because the factory was unionized. "I looked at a job that paid 40 percent less than I made at Whirlpool," Soucy said. "Should I take that big of a cut? I've got to go back and get an education just to make the money I made at Whirlpool, and by that time, I'm going to be old. Who is going to want to hire me?"  

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