The War at Home
How is Bush playing in Peoria? They're not stupid: It's still the economy.
On Sunday, March 16, George W. Bush flew home from the Azores Islands for a "last day of diplomacy" before starting his war against Iraq. The next day in Peoria, Illinois, Robert Wood faced a war of his own.
"There are no jobs," complained Wood, a 41-year-old general contractor, as he stood outside the office of the ironically named Illinois Department of Employment Security.
For the last two years, Wood has been a discouraged job seeker. Until recently he pieced together a "decent living." He was so proud of his ingenuity, he painted his name and home phone number on the doors of his Chevy pick-up.
He'd always been handy, but for the past few months his hands have been idle. To make matters worse, his wife is also out of work--she left a part-time job in October to have their third child.
"Now we're both at home and stressed-out," Wood said.
With the bills mounting, they had started to argue about seemingly "everything"--who last did the dishes, and where he left his boots after entering the house. On several occasions his wife had even talked about a trial separation. After more than ten years of marriage, she wanted to move the kids to her mother's in Florida.
When questioned by a stranger standing on Elm Street, four blocks south of downtown Peoria, Wood appeared understandably preoccupied. He related his story with an expression of disbelief--circumstances were increasingly beyond his control. He needed a job, any job--fast.
"I'm not afraid of hard work," he said, sounding a little frightened. "I'll lay cement, pick up trash, you name it."
The afternoon ended disappointingly. Classified as self-employed, Wood wasn't eligible for unemployment compensation. For the foreseeable future, there would be no money coming into his home.
Following a few minutes of conversation, he looked away and started to think out loud, listing everything he could possibly sell: his tools, his truck, exercise equipment he'd never used. He could apply for a state job-placement program, and he was told where to go for food stamps. He'd never been this desperate.
"I don't know," he said, shaking his head. "All I'm asking for is a job. But no one's hiring--everyone's worried.
"If it weren't for this Iraq business, I'm pretty sure I'd be working."
There were once plenty of jobs in Peoria. An industrial giant in the heart of the farm belt, the city's been home to heavy-machine manufacturers, distillers, and stockyards. It grew from a French frontier settlement to the nation's "whiskey capital" (when area companies paid more liquor taxes than any other place in the country). Today it's largely known as the headquarters of Caterpillar, the world's leading manufacturer of heavy mining and earthmoving equipment.
Peorians have often been cited as exemplars of the American disposition. The question "Will it play in Peoria" originated during the days of vaudeville, when it was believed a show would succeed anywhere if it did well before a crowd of no-nonsense central Illinoisans.
The question was revived during the Nixon administration, when White House aide John Ehrlichman used it as a litmus test for national policy. But Richard Nixon didn't care much for domestic issues--his heart was in foreign affairs. According to Richard Reeves' President Nixon: Alone in the White House, Nixon belittled domestic policy as "building outhouses in Peoria."
Like Nixon, George W. Bush has shown a marked preference for foreign policy. While the U.S. has waged two wars in as many years, the American economy has shed more than two million jobs. Experts have been quick to cite various reasons. The conventional wisdom goes like this: first came the recession that followed the '90s boom; then the downturn after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; and, finally, the climate of uncertainty created by the war on Iraq.
Many economists have hoped a quick victory in Iraq would raise consumer confidence and spark economic growth. But in remarks before the Orlando Chamber of Commerce last week, Treasury Secretary John Snow acknowledged, "The problem is not with the concern about the Iraq war. The problem is the underlying weakness with the economy."
Though he currently enjoys an exceedingly high approval rating, President Bush will eventually need to turn his attention to domestic affairs if he doesn't want to meet the same one-term fate of his father. It may already be too late.
Since 1982, Bradley University economist Bernard Goitein has tracked consumer confidence in Peoria and nearby Pekin. When he arrived from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Goitein was attracted to the area's low cost of living. "I could afford a nice Victorian home with all the original woodwork," he says, "and I could walk to work." He was also moving into a disaster area.
Pabst Blue Ribbon closed its brewery in Peoria Heights, leaving about 1,000 people out of work. Then long-term labor problems broke out at Caterpillar, starting with a seven-month strike in 1982. Cat logged record profits in 1981, but then its sales plummeted in the worldwide recession of the early 80s. It laid off workers--jobs dropped from 36,000 to 17,000--and that set off a domino effect in Peoria's economy. During the 1983 recession, the unemployment rate for the three-county metropolitan area was 16.3 percent. Goitein's consumer-confidence measure was used by city officials to predict how many people would move away. Tens of thousands left town.
"People were starting to panic," former mayor Richard Carver recalled in 1998. "Never was the need to diversify more evident."
Peoria pursued a strategy followed by many Rust Belt cities, attempting to spend its way out of the hole with big capital projects. Millions went to riverfront redevelopment, but fear of crime persuaded the city to turn away a riverboat casino, which, to the chagrin of many residents, is now docked just across the river in the neighboring city of East Peoria. It also bribed companies to stay on or relocate.
A visit to the Greater Peoria Regional Airport shows both the pitfalls and benefits of buying friends. On a recent Saturday afternoon, only four people were sitting in the airport's single terminal--and they were all federal security guards. Delta was lured to Peoria by the airport's offer to buy advertising and waive all rent and landing fees. City officials hope this arrangement works out better than a previous deal with another airline three years ago. A $2 million state grant went to AccessAir to purchase a plane for flights to Phoenix. AccessAir spent the cash and promptly went bankrupt without ever flying to Arizona. The airport continues to offer incentives, because its largest carrier, American, may pull out if the company declares bankruptcy. Currently American carries half of all Peoria passengers.
Even with subsidies and other incentives, such as tax breaks, manufacturers often take the money and run. A Maytag refrigeration plant provided jobs to one of every 12 adults in nearby Galesburg. In 1995 the firm invested $180 million into renovating its 52-year-old plant, and it received almost $10 million in municipal and state subsidies. But in October the company announced it will be moving operations to Reynosa, Mexico--across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas--where workers make an estimated $2 per hour.
The closure has had ripple effects. When one of Maytag's vendors, Freedom Plastics, shut down its factory in February, observers were sure others would be forced to follow suit. Freedom plant manager Chuck Eiben told the Peoria Journal Star, "Now it's just a matter of which vendors go first."
While manufacturing has always been the engine driving Peoria's economy, its importance has diminished in the last decade. It still provides 18 percent of the jobs, but it once supplied 36 percent. (Nationally manufacturing jobs account for 14 percent of the workforce.) Caterpillar now has more management positions in Peoria than assembly-line jobs. Most of the growth has been in technology-related tasks.
Goitein says Peoria has a more diversified economy. There are two large medical centers, and the city has become a major product-distribution hub. An effort is currently underway to plant the seeds of a biotech industry. But by and large, the growth has come in services, and the well-paying union jobs are mostly gone. When Goitein arrived, Peoria was the second largest city in Illinois, behind only Chicago. Now it's number five, with a population of 113,000. Its metropolitan area totals more than 340,000, but that's still about 30,000 fewer people than 20 years ago.
Goitein's rating of consumer confidence didn't catch up to the national average until 1997. But today it's at its lowest point since the recession of the early '90s. Confidence normally spikes up in patriotic times: The first Gulf War provided a temporary boost, as did the events of September 11, 2001. The conflict in Iraq may confer another rise, but any increase would have to overcome more than two years of bad news. "The direction has definitely been down," Goitein says.
The annual number of layoffs has increased fourfold, and that shows no signs of abating. Earlier this year Komatsu, the Japanese manufacturer of mining and earthmoving equipment, announced it will eliminate 60 workers and shut its Peoria plant for three months, idling 310 employees. Many wonder whether the facility will ever open again: The company has already laid off more than 200 workers in the last two years. This month Meridian Automotive Systems announced it will close its plant in Centralia, eliminating 360 jobs in three stages. SBC Communications will close its directory assistance operation in Springfield, eliminating 25 jobs. On March 7, Butler Manufacturing in Galesburg laid off 100 employees; about 70 workers were laid off in January. In late March, Harper-Wyman announced it will close its factory in Princeton this summer, eliminating 250 jobs; operations will be moved to a non-union facility in Tennessee. While the unemployment rate hovers at just below 6 percent nationally, it's at more than 7 percent in Peoria.
Last year a budget crisis forced the city to layoff workers and cut back on services. This year it still faces a shortfall of nearly $1 million. The fire department's resources were stretched to the limit by a late January blaze at an industrial cleaning business. Engines were pulled from one end of town to the other, leaving an entire half of the city without fire protection. Three stations had no equipment or firefighters.
The 225-member police department laid off 11 officers last year, and another round of layoffs may be in the offing. Police have gone two years without a contract. What's the sticking point in their negotiations with the city? They don't like a requirement to live in Peoria.
One block away from the unemployment office is O'Brien Field, a new ballpark built for the Peoria Chiefs, a minor league baseball team affiliated with the St. Louis Cardinals. The $16 million privately financed stadium is part of a larger $23 million project just south of downtown. But when Peorians talk about the revitalization of their city, they usually point farther north to the downtown riverfront, which mostly consists of restaurants but in the warmer months hosts outdoor festivals. Caterpillar's seven-story headquarters is a block west on Adams. Currently there's talk of building a $60 million museum on a site that was once occupied by Sears.
Despite all this money being spent on the central city, many locals still call downtown "seedy," a string of bars anchored on Main Street by Big Al's, a strip club. Located next to the Hotel Pere Marquette, the city's best hotel, Big Al's went upscale and turned into a multimillion dollar enterprise when it was taken over in 1985 by Duane Cassano, a former welder laid off from Caterpillar. Cassano then moved on to bigger deals, becoming one of the early investors in the area's riverboat casino. The Par a Dice was sold in the late 1980s to Boyd Gaming, a Las Vegas casino operator. In 2001, the casino generated nearly $10 million in local tax revenue that could have been Peoria's for the asking. Many people are still bitter about it.
A block away from Big Al's is Sullivan's Pub. Owner Mike Sullivan excuses the two shuttered nightclubs next door, saying they're "under reconsideration." Competition among the survivors on Main Street has grown fierce, he says. In the aftermath of the nightclub tragedies in Chicago and Rhode Island, the police and fire department began receiving "concocted complaints" about overcrowding. Sullivan attributes these to jealous rivals, calling the downtown bar business "cutthroat."
On a Friday night, Sullivan's is packed. At the front of the room is a young crowd, mostly office workers from Caterpillar. They talk about their jobs and complain that the local paper lacks national news. The best they can say about Peoria is that there's no traffic. In the back of the pub is the older clientele--they talk of Peoria's comeback. Between them is a table groaning with happy-hour ribs, sandwiches, and hors d'ouvres.
Mark sits on a stool and nurses a bourbon on the rocks. He sells steel and remains "reasonably optimistic" about his business, "considering the economic times that we're dealing with right now.
"This is the toughest period I've lived through," he says. "There isn't anything that compares to it in my 30 years in the industrial market.
"Iraq had something to do with it. Global competition is part of it. But there doesn't appear to be an end in sight. Nobody knows what to do. Everything's in a complete state of flux."
Mark thinks the Iraq war is "probably the right thing to do," though he says it with hesitancy. "My son went to Iraq in 1991 and I'm very sympathetic to all of the families that have children over there."
He supports the Bush administration "for the most part," he says. "I'm disappointed to see so many jobs leaving the United States, but I'm also sympathetic to the costs of the manufacturers."
On the next barstool is Wayne Powell, a real estate agent. Times are good for Wayne's business. "We haven't felt the slump," he says. "I've been in real estate since 1961, and real estate is usually the first thing to fall and the first thing to rebound. But this time everything else is slumping and the real estate market remains strong."
Most of his business is in the suburbs: Germantown, Metamora, Dunlap. North of the city, he says, "they can't get the homes up fast enough."
He's weathered the bad times, and these, he says, are not the same. "It lasted from 1979 until 1987," he says. "There was no work here, no building. Everyone was moving to Texas, Arizona, or somewhere to find work. A lot of people elsewhere in the country, they couldn't understand what we were going through, because they were doing well.
"If you've been out of work for a year, you'd probably say this is the worst time. But it's well known that everything is much better off than back then."
Still, he's sympathetic to the people having a rough time. He had been planning a winter vacation in Brazil, "or at least Florida." Then the war started, and his companion wanted to stay put. "I'm sure we weren't the only ones to change our plans," he says. "And our decision didn't affect just the airlines. It hurt the hotels, the rental car places, restaurants, souvenir shops. Everyone suffers.
"I hope the leaders of our country knew a lot more than we know right now. I would have liked to see a little more evidence--strong, hard evidence--of why we should have attacked Iraq."
When Ida Crall was 13, she'd take a bus every Saturday from Hanna City to downtown Peoria for singing lessons. That was in 1955. "Now you wouldn't see that," she says. "You wouldn't put your 13-year-old girl on a bus to Peoria by herself.
"My aunt lived on Antoinette Street, and we used to walk to a movie theater downtown. Or we'd go shopping at Bergners--they had wonderful displays in the windows at Christmas. Sometimes we'd have lunch at the counter in Walgreen's.
"It's sad because it was beautiful," she says. "I remember we were downtown during the Cuban missile crisis. The sirens went off, and we thought we were being attacked.
"The town was a-boomin'. There were a lot of jobs: Keystone Steel & Wire, LeTourneau, Hiram Walker. The jobs weren't hard to find, so no one crossed a picket line. That changed with the last strike."
The last strike started at Caterpillar in June of 1994 and lasted for 18 months. The United Auto Workers had been fighting for a new contract, but the company wanted concessions. Some would say it wanted to bust the union. Throughout the strike, Caterpillar reported record profits. The company's retooled factories were manned by managers, secretaries, and sales people. Many UAW members became scabs. The union had lost its leverage.
"You used to be able to strike--you can't anymore," Crall says. "Everything changed when there were no jobs. Someone told my husband, 'I would walk over your dead body for a job,' and he was a friend of ours.
"A lot of people crossed the picket lines. My cousin was one--he had to. People lost everything, their homes were foreclosed on, they had to file bankruptcy, or move to another state. What would you do?
"When the jobs started leaving, people went with them. We knew a lot of folks who stayed on and had to take jobs that were paying half as much. People started losing faith and hope--that brings in a lot of bad things.
"I guess I'm a fatalist. They say the future jobs are in medicine, then you look and see those jobs are paying $8 an hour. When you have most of your people making $8 an hour, often with no benefits, no health insurance, who's going to go to the malls anymore? Now Peoria's talking about building a museum when they're laying off police. Now I know we need art, but we also need police and fire protection."
In the old days, Peoria was known as a wide-open river town. Ida Crall's father remembered seeing Al Capone and the Shelton Brothers at a local garage during Prohibition. The Sheltons outlasted Capone to take over Peoria in the 1940s. According to Taylor Pensoneau's book Brothers Notorious, when reform mayor Carl O. Triebel was elected in 1946, he asked Carl Shelton to move on. Carl agreed, but his brother Bernie decided to stay. Within two years, both brothers were killed by rival gangs: Carl in the backyard on his Wayne County home, Bernie in the parking lot of his tavern just outside of Peoria.
"We've always been considered a high-crime area for our population numbers," says Sergeant Jeff Adams, head of the Peoria Police Benevolent Association, the union that's been fighting to allow cops to live out of town. "The city has just hired an interim city manager and he doesn't even live in the state."
Adams has been a Peoria policeman since 1978. The greatest change he's witnessed in that time has been the rise of street gangs, "an entire subculture that doesn't think the rules apply to them." That subculture is financed by a lucrative drug trade. Though "the drug of choice is still crack cocaine," Adams says, methamphetamine has started to make inroads. Two years ago, you'd never see it, but in the last year four meth labs were raided. "The problem is nothing like in rural areas west of here, but it's a bigger headache than crack. The drug causes people to be delusional, violent, and paranoid. People can be up for days. Houses burst into flames, people get asphyxiated. It's just a giant pain in the butt."
It also strengthens the grip of those "street thugs," he says.
"The gang culture may have come from Chicago, but now we have our own gangs--they're very well-entrenched. Even officers in packs of three or four can't do anything to them. They're fearless. That wasn't the case when I started.
"There was once a newspaper article that claimed the gangs had become the town's number-one employer. I don't personally believe that, but that's what the paper said."
In a glass case on the second floor of the Peoria Public Library, the front page of a faded newspaper tells of native son Richard Pryor's return to Peoria to film his autobiographical story, JoJo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling. The paper is the Traveler Weekly, which has been published by Elise F. Allen for the last 37 years. In 1973 Allen became the first African-American woman to run for mayor. The Allen family is also famous in these parts for claiming to be descendents of George Washington.
For more than ten years, a fight had been waged to name a street after Pryor, but city officials were reluctant. After all, the comedian always painted an unflattering portrait of his hometown. His mother was a prostitute, and he was raised by a grandmother who ran brothels on the south side. Then there was the matter of Pryor himself. Noted for his angry comedy routines and inspired use of profanity, he suffered serious burns in 1980 while freebasing cocaine. Two years ago, a section of Sheridan Road was finally named for Pryor.
"He's probably done more for Peoria than anyone," says Millie Hall, as she arranges items in the display case. "He did his JoJo Dancer here--that brought in money. He's given money to Bradley University. Of course, I can't condone his drug use, but now he doesn't either--he's stuck in a wheelchair with a bad case of multiple sclerosis."
Hall is the curator of the Garrett Collection at Bradley University. Romeo B. Garrett was a professor of sociology and the first African-American to receive a master's degree from Bradley. His collection traces black history in America and Peoria.
"Dr. Garrett was the first to write a definitive history of African Americans in Peoria, beginning with Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable, who went on to found the city of Chicago," Hall says. She carefully enunciates every word, placing special emphasis on certain phrases. "I was Dr. Garrett's research assistant."
Hall came to Peoria in 1957 to live with her uncle's family. She grew up in Arkansas, where "things were very segregated," she says. "That was just before the black students attended Little Rock Central High School--now I have a cousin who's a principal there. I remember my mother being concerned about us sitting on the public buses. As teenagers we'd just sit up front, you know. It was understood you were not supposed to, but nobody bothered us, though things sometimes happened.
"My cousins were killed by two men who set their house on fire. I think one of the guys did two years in prison; I don't think anything happened to the other guy. They were gambling, shooting craps on a Sunday, and one of my cousins won the money and wouldn't get back in the game. There were five people in the house when it was set on fire, and afterwards they were able to get their bodies into two coffins.
"My family all began to leave Arkansas. One of my uncles came by my mother's house for money to get out of town and she gave him 50 cents--it was all the money she had. I came up to Peoria, where another uncle had a job at Caterpillar."
Hall introduces a short white woman named Dolores Klein. The two have been friends since meeting at an open-housing protest in the 1960s. Klein is the former president of the local chapter of the National Organization for Women. She notes that NOW founder Betty Friedan is also from Peoria, but Friedan left town in 1964. Klein is proud to be on an enemy's list kept by Matt Hale, the well-known local white supremacist. "He thinks I'm Jewish," she says.
Both women consider these to be particularly trying times. "We may have passed some laws, but just because you see blacks and women taking advantage of opportunities doesn't mean the struggle is over," says Klein. "Right now we have someone in the White House who wants to please the people who elected him. If he gets to nominate two justices to the Supreme Court, an awful lot of things will be rolled back. That's a frightening thought.
"The economy is also getting very scary, and we're fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We can't seem to get along here--I don't know how much time we have to stay over there."
Two weeks before the start of the war, on the first weekend in March, the hotels off the interstate are all booked up. A gas station attendant attributes it to the annual "March Madness" high school basketball tournament. But Chuck says the real reason is the National Guard is in town.
Chuck's on his second stint in the National Guard. The first time he was living in his hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska. That was in 1991, and he went to Iraq in the wake of Operation Desert Storm.
"I was on the body-bag detail," he says, "picking up corpses in the hot sun. There were so many of them, they finally told us to stop.
"It really messed me up. When I came back, I couldn't hold a job. It took a while to get my head together.
"They ended up sending me to Saudi Arabia, about 30 miles from the Death Highway. I became an accountant, tracking the millions of dollars that went into the cleanup. I sat at a computer in an air-conditioned tent."
Now Chuck is married, and he has two kids. He'd spend the next day out at the airport with his unit, preparing to travel by bus to Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Once there most of the troops would receive specific instructions and wait for deployment to Iraq. But this time Chuck wasn't picked to go to war, and he was disappointed.
"I went to the war for my country, then I fought for my buddies. They'll all be over there, and I'll wish I was with them."
On March 24, a Peoria-based Marines Corps Reserve engineering unit was sent on a reconnaissance mission in Southern Iraq. Soldiers had to swim across the 225-foot-wide Saddam Canal, but Sergeant Bradley Korthaus, 28, and Corporal Evan James, 20, wouldn't make it. They both drowned. Their helmets were placed on their rifles, about 10 feet from the water.
Corporal Joel Graves was swimming next to James, not far from the riverbank. "When he started to go down, he could have pulled me down with him," Graves told Detroit Free Press reporter Jeff Seidel. "He knew, if he had grabbed at me, I would have drowned."
Growing up in La Harpe, Illinois, James had been a lifeguard.
Five days after the drownings, two members of a Peoria Air National Guard unit were gunned down by men on motorcycles in southern Afghanistan, about 70 miles west of Kandahar.
At the bottom of Peoria's War Memorial Drive is a second-hand store run by Goodwill Industries. Jake and Betty Leunz, a couple in their late 50s, hold hands as they walk across the parking lot.
"I met Betty while hot rodding down Main Street," Jake says. "That's what everyone did in the early '70s. We were the American Graffiti couple. It was love at first sight."
Betty smiles and rolls her eyes: "He's a very sweet man."
"Things were so much easier back then," Jake says. "After we got married, I worked at jobs where I made $5 to $7 an hour, but our rent on a nice little place was $65 a month. Now the kids today--how much are they getting paid? $5 to $7 an hour."
"I don't see how young people can make it," Betty says.
The couple had two kids, and Jake started a business. For 11 years he owned an auto body shop. Then after Betty had a brush with cancer, they decided to cash in their chips. Six years ago they paid off their house, and Jake sold his business. This was all part of a larger plan to live cheaper and more fully.
"The first thing we did was get rid of our $35,000 cars," Jake says. "We had two of them. We sold our Isuzu with the leather interior and got this here 1990 van." The van's dented on the passenger side. "We hear the economy's bad, but it no longer makes a difference to us."
Now Jake sells abstract paintings on e-bay. Since he's self-taught, he markets them as "outsider art."
"People around here don't want to buy a painting unless it shows a barn," he explains.
Betty says they've learned to get by with less, but the downside is they're currently without health insurance. If Betty has any beef with the federal government, it's that the health care system is so reliant on insurance. "My sister had Lupus, and she spent eight days in the hospital. The bill was $66,000! Jake just got two pairs of glasses at Sam's Club for $90. I asked why it was so cheap, and they told me, 'We don't take insurance.'"
But don't expect Leunzes to pick up the cause, much less write a letter to their Congressman--they've dropped out.
"What can you do about it?" Betty asks. "We just have to rely on more powerful men to make the right decisions."
"You know who I liked?" Jake chimes in. "Jesse Jackson--I listened to him for two hours and I thought, if someone ever did this, it would be great! But it could never happen."
Two blocks north of Caterpillar's headquarters is a five-story brick building constructed in 1925. It's just across the highway but it might as well be in another world.
White paint flakes off the walls of the Peoria Labor Temple, which houses various union locals belonging to the AFL-CIO. Steve Capitelli sits behind a desk in room 12. Of all the union locals in the building, his is the burgeoning one.
The Service Employees International Union Local 880 represents 14,000 home health care employees. In the last two years, its ranks have swelled by more than 4,000.
"The folks we represent are employed through the state agencies," Capitelli says. "Either the Department of Human Services or by private companies employed by the Department on Aging.
"Even though they're providing health care to others, they don't have health insurance themselves. They also get paid between $5.50 and $7 an hour."
The 49-year-old Capitelli first joined a union when he was on the assembly line at Fleming-Potter, a Peoria printer of labels and packaging. "It was a good company," he says, "but it was mismanaged for many years--now they're hanging on."
When Capitelli got caught in company downsizing--"me and a lot of other people"--he decided to pursue labor organizing full-time. "Basically it freed me up to do the things I would have rather been doing."
The SEIU was founded in 1920, but Local 880 started in 1983. It's been in Peoria since 1995. "Working with this type of socio-economic workforce is what labor is all about," says Capitelli. "We're fighting for basic human-dignity issues. It comes down to the workers recognizing they have strength in numbers."
Just this year, Illinois' new governor, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, handed the union a major victory, granting collective- bargaining rights to its members. "That's the first time this has ever happened," says Capitelli. "We've won raises along the way, but now we're in a position to sit down together at the table."
While Peoria has always been a strong labor town, it's also favored Republicans. Capitelli attributes that to a "heavy rural influence." But now he's noticed a larger shift taking place. "Peoria County and the city have been going heavily Democratic--the majority of office holders are Democrats."
SEIU has already come out in favor of Blagojevich's bid to raise the state's minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $6.50. The median age of a minimum-wage earner in Illinois is 31, and 41 percent have two or more children.
The union also opposes the war in Iraq. "And most of the labor folks I've talked to have some very serious questions about the wisdom of it," Capitelli says. "Personally I think it's a huge waste of our resources. And for the first time in our history, we're an aggressor nation. Yes, Saddam is a bad guy, but who appointed us God to go after the bad guys? When does that end? The administration has never answered the most basic question: Why now? After keeping Saddam in a box for 12 years, why now? We couldn't get Osama bin Laden, so we're going after Saddam?
"Now that we're doing it, I want it to be successful, but I think it was a mistake. Bush will spend $75 billion as a first installment, and he still wants to give his friends tax breaks. The irony is the veterans will return home to find their benefits cut back.
"I'm just very suspicious of the administration's motives. There's another agenda Bush and his friends have got, and it's not a good one."
In early February, Mike Bailey, an associate editor at the Peoria Journal Star, took an unscientific poll of what his readers thought about the coming war in Iraq. The 41 respondents were unanimously against a "pre-emptive strike" without U.N. backing.
A retired Naval officer--and "member of the so-called Greatest Generation"--wrote, "Bush's obsession with Iraq makes no sense to me. . . . It will be the first time in history that we will have attacked a sovereign nation without provocation."
A man in Dunlap declared, "Americans don't start wars; we finish them." A Peoria lawyer called it morally "indefensible." Someone signed Thank You for the Soapbox opined, "Iraq is not worth one ounce of blood spilled by our boys." A "55-year-old voting" Peorian asked, "Where is the evidence?" Then he added that he's voted Republican "85 percent of the time."
"Maybe not," Bailey wrote, "next time."
Ida Crall's husband, Willard, came to Peoria from Lake in the Ozarks, Missouri, in June 1967. He was 17 years old, fresh out of high school.
"My dad wanted me to wait until I was 18, but the girl I was dating had moved to Peoria," he says. "Her mother had just remarried, and the new husband worked in the tool room at Cat."
Crall stayed with his girlfriend's family, and then rented a room for $8 a week in the house of an elderly woman on Lincoln Avenue, close to downtown.
"She had six of us in her home," he says. "There was one room left, and I had to share it with an older guy who would only work the third shift," 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.
Since no one would hire Crall until he turned 18 in July, his first month in Peoria turned into an idyll--he walked the streets, and the city became his own.
"I liked downtown," he recalls. "They had a lot of beautiful theaters. The Palace, the Madison. Men dressed up in suits to go to the movies. Being from the South, I'd never seen that. They had shoeshine people on every corner."
He applied for jobs at Pabst, Caterpillar, and Keystone. By July all three had called him back. "Everybody said I should take the job at Caterpillar, so I did, even though they paid the least. Thank God I did, because it wasn't long before Pabst went out of business."
He made $2.87 an hour, which at the time was considered a good wage. "Life wasn't too bad--I had money all the time."
Crall started in reclamation, cleaning out oil drums with a chistle gun. "It was hard, dirty work," he says. In 1969, he was promoted to a forklift operator in tool and supplies, then truck repair. With each new position came a pay increase. Finally he was picked for the boiler room, and that brought not only a raise but all the overtime he could handle--two out of three weekends, and every holiday. There were 160 boiler-room operators in Crall's UAW local. Now there are only three union guys left in the boiler room: Crall and his friends, Buck and Len. "We watched our kids grow up, and now we have grandkids."
During the 1980s, Crall was transferred from the East Peoria factory to the Morton plant, and his pay was cut. "For a while," Ida recalls, "we had a rough go of it."
In 1987, while pulling ashes out of a boiler, Crall was hit by a stray piece of coal slag. "It hit me and ruptured my tendons," he says. "I had to get a bone graph in my right wrist." During the long period of labor strife--1991 to '97--Crall kept his job because the plant was still working under the old contract. "All my neighbors were out on strike," he says. "Some crossed the picket line. It was not a good time; it was brother against brother.
"Once all the guys went back to work, it was tense."
Plants were closed, and boiler rooms were updated to natural gas. Crall ended up back at East Peoria, the last remaining union boiler room. "I was asked once a week, 'Would you have crossed the line?'" Crall says. "I didn't know. There was a lot of friction and backstabbing. People who'd been friends for years weren't talking. People would eat lunch by themselves. There was a lot of stress."
In March 2001, Caterpillar hired Kroeschell, a nonunion contractor out of Chicago, to take-over the boiler room in East Peoria. For the last two years, Crall has been training Kroeschell employees to take over his job.
At the age of 54, Crall will be officially retired this summer. "But I'll have to find something to do," he says. "All I've ever done is work."
He's already sent his resume to Kroeschell, but the company "likes to hire people just out of the military."
For years Crall guessed this day was coming. The company was outsourcing more and shifting operations. Every week he's watched semi trucks filled with blades coming up from Mexico. "My union local once had 23,000 members; now it has 5,000."
He's worried about his two sons. At one time he advised them to get into the apprentice program at Caterpillar. "They both said, 'No way in Hell. Why would I want to save for three years to survive for six or seven months while I'm out of work.' The point of the union was you sacrificed for the good of the next guy. Today people don't really care about the next guy."
His son Michael has become a vocal political conservative. "I call him 'Little Rush Limbaugh," Crall says with a chuckle. "I really don't think that Michael is mine."
Michael recently quit his job as a car salesman to go to school. He's moved back into his parent's house.
"Somewhere something went wrong," Crall says. "People are working two jobs, and their wives also have to work just to make ends meet.
"Bush is now finishing what his daddy started. I have no problem with that, but I'm not impressed. Sooner or later somebody's going to have to put a foot down to keep jobs in this country. Our government needs to help families and create jobs at decent pay."