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Iowa city’s jobless ‘Wall of Shame’

NBC’s Tom Brokaw reports from eastern Iowa where when folks there talk about the economy they’re talking about jobs: exactly how many have been lost under the Bush administration - and the effect on their communities.
/ Source: NBC News

In the heartland of America you hear a lot of talk about who’s working and who’s not. Economists say the reason is the manufacturing sector has been struggling — but in Iowa, that clinical explanation is replaced by human stories. And while there are hopeful signs of an overall economic recovery in America, for many here, the losses have hit home — and hit hard.

On the windswept prairie of eastern Iowa, when folks talk about the economy, they’re talking about one word: jobs.

“You had a good income, and you had good, steady employment,” said Fred Thompson. For 34 years, the union machinist was fiercely proud of his job. But two years ago, he and 700 of his co-workers at the Goss Printing Co. found themselves out of luck and out of work. “They gathered us together and told us that our jobs were finished,” Thompson said.

Gone, his $30-an-hour job as Goss closed its last U.S. plant. The locals put up what they call the Wall of Shame. There, the names of 1,014 Cedar Rapids union workers who have lost their jobs since President Bush took office.

“I am right here,” said 50-year-old Darwin Behning who worked at Goss for 27 years. He’s back to school learning a new trade, but he’s had only one part-time job in two years: “It’s called American greed to me.”

“Not only are those names back there on the wall — but, it’s families,” added Thompson.

Cedar Rapids Mayor Paul Pate grapples with his city’s changing economy as local companies export jobs overseas. “Get them retrained and back out where they can be productive again and feel good about themselves and get their salaries back up to a respectable level,” Pate said.

“The state is spending a boatload of money — more than $500 million to try to gin up some new industries, biotech and the sort. But, nobody knows how it’s going to turn out,” said longtime Associated Press reporter Mike Glover.

Politically, this town is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, but they’re united in their concerns about the economy.

Iowa has always been a state of great hope. Does Glover think it is going to become a bitter state as a result of all that it is going through?

“We’re losing these manufacturing jobs that were the base of the middle-class economy. This is where people get their health care. This is where people made money to buy their house. That’s going away, and there’s a tinge of bitterness,” Glover said.

Ironically, in a state that has reservations about Iraq, the war is helping the Iowa economy.

The war is bringing some work to town, but the jobs are low-paying. Government contracts are keeping Rockwell Collins busy. Its 8,000 employees will build new communications systems for troops overseas.

But that’s no help to Thompson and his friends on the Wall of Shame. They’re listening closely as politicians make their case and wondering when and if jobs will return.