Small Towns, Washing Machines, and Corporate Greed: A Bernie Sanders Press Conference
NEWTON, Iowa – Mature trees frame quiet streets with ranch-style homes as I drive through the middle of the county seat of Jasper County, about forty-five minutes from the center of Des Moines. Newton was once a thriving center of arts and prosperity, its riches sourced from the lucrative washing machine industry. Maytag Corporation had made its home a century ago in this small town surrounded by cornfields, building the “Washing Machine Capital of the World.” Fifteen years ago, things began to change for Newton manufacturing, and the formerly picturesque town’s American Dream would be shattered.
Senator Bernie Sanders [I-VT] hosted his “End Corporate Greed” press conference on October 25, 2019, in the former headquarters of Maytag, now occupied by DMACC. This location was not just convenient but an intentional display of the devastating impacts of an evolving global economy on small towns governed by factories, just like Newton.
The Maytag brand is all about dependability. The recognizable “Maytag Man” commercials call their washers the “most dependable relationship” in a customer’s life. The address of the former headquarters in Newton was Dependability Square. However, Maytag announced its acquisition by Whirlpool in 2006, and soon after, they began to close down the manufacturing plant that had once employed 1 in 5 Newton residents. Newton residents could no longer depend on the company that was the heart of its history.
“Power to the People” by John Lennon played as Senator Sanders entered the small room of approximately 100 people. He began his press conference by focusing on the plight of working families due to what he labeled as corporate greed. “What we are saying is enough is enough,” Sanders said, in the typical tone of passion and anger. In this press conference, Sanders chose to introduce three Newton residents to uplift their stories of economic distress and fear.
“Being in a union kept my dad and grandfather safe,” said Chris Simmons, a current Iowa State University student from Newtown. In 2006, Simmons’s father was fired on the factory floor. “[Maytag] took no thought to the effect it had on the entire community. Whole communities have been destroyed by corporate greed.”
Judi Mulbrook was a former UAW employee at Maytag who retired before the acquisition. When Whirlpool made the decision to move Maytag from Newton, they refused to uphold the healthcare and retirement plans negotiated by the union. “Even now, after the plant has been closed for 12 years, Newton is still recovering,” Mulbrook, who now works at Newton Public Schools, said. Retirees depended on the income from Maytag. Instead, many of them had to go back to work to sustain themselves and their families.
“TPI and the renewable energy industry revived this town and created a new wave of opportunity,” said Eric Lemons[SB1], a current employee for General Electric who could not afford to attend college. Newton needs something new. Maytag isn’t coming back, so investment in something like wind energy is the answer.
After the three Newton residents shared their experiences and the Senator finished his remarks, it was striking how the media’s questions focused instead on his health and his disagreements with other Democratic nominees in the field. Senator Sanders had chosen to use his major press conference to focus on the real issues that local Iowans were facing, exemplifying his motto of “Not Me, Us.” The Washington Post headline read, “Bernie Sanders, 78, declares his age an asset.”
No matter who wins the nomination, the plight of towns like Newton will continue. Corporations leave, leaving behind desolation and devastation. Workers will continue to suffer until there is an advocate that will take a multi-faceted approach to protect them. Senator Sanders, by focusing on real stories rather than himself, makes a meaningful pitch for his leadership in the Oval Office.
“All over the country, people have given up hope,” said Sanders, concluding the press conference. “Brothers and sisters, it is time to create a government that works for us, not just for them.”