Note: I am reposting this diary that was originally posted on Sept 30th. It didn't go very far at the time. People are now paying attention to the Sensata story. Bainport is major national news, and the workers' "tent city" needs to be understood in the context of tactical-media truth-telling. Romney, of course, tries to dodge all responsibility by claiming he no longer has anything to do with it, and it is, after all, Obama's fault. Romney holds $8 million of Bain funds that hold 51% of Sensata shares . He stands to make lots of money twice - in the "harvest" and then in the tax havens. Meanwhile, American workers are once again expected to retrain for jobs at Arby's.
Hunkered down in the gentle rolling hills between Rockford, IL and the Mississippi River sits Sensata, a factory soon-to-be shuttered. Freeport, a lovely mid-sized Midwestern town, wears its hard times with the dignity of the dispossessed, houses shuttered, lovely churches of brown sandstone still seeming strong, but the central core of the city already long gone. Strip malls centrifugal to town pledged their promises of salt, grease, new-used Tundras and bridal bliss, as we made our way out to the County Fair Grounds. Our destination was an unlikely encampment set smack-dab across from the high-tech factory that used to offer hundreds of locals skilled jobs until Bain Capitol bought the business and began its dismantling. It is all but over, leaving nothing but a guttered factory, a gutted town, and a couple hundred unemployed workers in its implacable wake.
Welcome to Bainport, where tent-city tenacity takes a last stand against private equity out-sorcery… where plants are closed and shipped to China, American workers are laid off, and men like Mitt Romney stand to make piles of money.
When the lead organizer of Bainport, Caleb, contacted me last week to see if the Overpass Light Brigade could join them for a lighted letter show, I (feeling a bit cocky) made a few demands. "Can we have a big bonfire?" I asked. "Sure, you got it!" was Caleb's reply. "Can we have a puppet show?" I requested, referring to a massive Romney puppet I had seen on the web. "No problem, we'll be sure that the Romney puppet is present," was his reply. "Can we have a marching band?" I asked. "Yes. I'm working with a high school band, and we can try to get them there!" I was out of requests by that point, so I pretty much had to concede to arrive after the 2.5 hour drive.
As we pulled into the fairgrounds, the full harvest moon was rising over eastern hills glowing with autumn red and golden. The evening was clear and warm, a bonfire already lit. A man in an ultralight sputtered across the sky, made a few passes, seemed to hang suspended, and landed. He must have smelled the barbecue from far away and wanted to get there before it was all gone. The high school marching band never showed - I guess their priorities got mixed up and they played at their Homecoming instead - but OLB is full of talent and a couple of our favorite Milwaukee musicians arrived and hit the funky Bainport stage.
Other OLB volunteers from Milwaukee and Madison pulled in - photographers, live-streamers, activists. Everyone mingled as the daylight darkened. We had decided to bring every letter sign that we had, and lined them all up on the fence facing Sensata. We've never before done this, but figured that residents of Bainport would have a lot to say.
I spoke with some of the workers who had been camping there for almost a month now. One guy, Tom, described in detail his job assembling complex circuit boards. It was pretty technical and obviously very specialized work. This clearly wasn't your old tool-and-die operation! He had worked there for his adult life, and next month will be his last paycheck. A woman I spoke with said that she had to train one of her replacements. One of the new replacement worker's responses was how they will take off all of the safety constraints once in China so that the machines will be able to operate faster. My mind conjured Mickey Mouse with the nightmare broomsticks in that scene from the The Sorcerer's Apprentice, sloshing the water everywhere, unable to keep up in the unregulated work environment of Sorcery dot com. Poor Mickey: never understood that the narrative isn't about him, but about the increased efficiencies of broomstick production.
Darkness fell slowly, the bonfire crackled and the pile of newly split oak logs nearby smelled of tannin and deep woods darkness. A chill breeze swept over us. The Harvest Moon had lifted into the sky as we brought out the first message. MITTS OFF OUR JOBS. We invited all the locals to be Holders of the Lights. We stood in front of their big tent which was backlit by the gentle glow from the lights inside. It was magical. We marched to the perimeter of the fenceline, and replaced some letters with MITT'S HARVEST, and faced the factory across the county highway. Denny punched up his bagpipes. They blurred and honked and then spoke. Bagpipes are the loudest noise in the world on a dark night in the middle of the heart of the country. Denny took position at the front of the line, and the pipes echoed across the sloping valley. Someone grabbed a Chinese flag. A Chinese flag. We marched to the front of the factory, and stood for photographs. We stood there a long time, the Chinese flag unfurled underneath Old Glory. This land is your land... but vulture capital doesn't give a shit where it lands. All lands are their lands... We marched out, circling around the huge parking lot, bagpipes leading the parade. Back to tent city, where the massive Romney puppet lumbered out from the big tent. Three men to hold, three to light it, looming there under the full moon, awkward as the real model, standing, smiling, saying nothing of substance. Standing behind our next new message, ROMNEY = VULTURE.
A few stayed behind at the factory to chalk on the deep black oily asphalt of the parking lot. They got as far as "Harvest crops, not jobs" when security came out with bluff and bluster threatening arrest. "You can't take our pictures!" they shouted to everyone with cameras aimed at them. The cameras, full of internal contradiction, hold a lot of evidence to the contrary. The chalkers left peaceably, though I marveled that security missed our large cotillion when we were full-decible bagpiping with a Chinese flag and lighted letters standing directly in front of the main entrance. We were as stealthy as 40 people chanting "harvest crops, not jobs..." can be while carrying large lighted letters behind a man with a bagpipe blasting Scottish music into the crisp Illinois night.
We placed all the lighted letters against the fence line, inviting everyone to make messages. There were lots of takers, lots of talkers around the fire pit, lots of friendships forged. More guitar from Robert… "a working class hero is something to be…" More messages to the moon as she slowly arced across the velvet sky. Bonfire talk and marshmallows, sadness and hope intermixed. Life changes, everyone knows that. Jobs come and jobs go. Yet we all now know through repeated proof that they do not care about you or your community. Sadness and hope. What's left when it is all gone?
And that's it. We packed up and made our weary way home across the state. I still have my job. Those guys don't. Workers at Bainport feel that Romney is the only person who could stop the move, since he has perfected the whole notion of "harvest." But the harvest, it seems to me, is the harvest of the surplus value of the workers. It is extraction. Human fracking. Fracture the bedrock, the community, the family, the man, the woman, the children. Workers feel that if only Romney could see the devastating impact that the plant closure has on the community, there might be a change of heart. Of course, that implies a heart to change.
"Harvest" is an interesting word. As a noun, it suggests the "gathering of a ripened crop, the yield from plants in a growing season." Fecundity, natural cycles, a rich and embedded quality of sustainable action for the good of a community... As a verb, "harvest" suggest the "removal of something concrete, as by lifting, pushing, taking off, or to remove something abstract…"
To the town of Freeport, Bain's "harvest" is very concrete. To Romney, such notions are clearly sentimental claptrap. A Harvest is there for the taking, the lifting, the pushing. It is all abstract. It is not qualified but quantified. To this way of thinking, there is nothing embedded. All capital is free-floating, and can land wherever labor is surplus and profit is temporarily ensured. Thus, the power of abstraction and out-sourcery lies in deft disappearances. Such harvests are not based upon any cycle of return, or any concern about the nourishment of community. They are a one-time and one-way disappearance, a trick where the lovely assistant in the box has vanished, but is also known to not come back. It is The Sorcerer's Apprentice updated to the Out-Sourcerer's Apprentice. In this story, you, my friend, are the person who trains the new apprentice, and through the magic of sorcery, you are the object that disappears.
Bainport is an action waving itself goodbye. OLB spent a memorable evening helping it wave.