By BERRY CRAIG
MAYFIELD, Ky. - The parking lots at the big Continental-General Tire plant near Mayfield had surrendered to cracks and patches of tough, stubby grass.
The north lot is jammed again, but not with workers’ vehicles. The weather-worn asphalt is stacked with tree branches, debris from one of Kentucky 's worst ice storms.
The symbolism isn't lost on Wayne Chambers, last vice president of United Steelworkers Local 665, the factory union. "I parked on the north lot day after day, supporting my family with good pay and benefits the union provided me," he said. "Now it's a debris holding area.
"It's just another nail in the coffin. It really tugs at your heart."
German-based Continental Tire shut the deep western Kentucky plant in 2007 after several months of drawing down production and laying off workers. The company claimed the facility was losing money. Continental said the plant was outdated and had the highest production costs of any of its North American factories.
American-owned General Tire opened the plant in 1960. Employees made car and truck tires.
Continental bought General Tire in 1987.
Chambers, 59, said his union tried to help keep the Mayfield plant open. "We made concessions in 1994, 1997 and 2001," he said. "We offered to extend our labor agreement and commit to workforce restructuring, if the company would make an equal commitment to invest in the plant and this community.
"Continental wasn't interested. They told us they were a global company, and they were going to build their tires wherever they wanted and as cheaply as they could."
Tires that were made in Mayfield are being produced in low-wage Mexican and Brazilian factories, said Chambers, a Mayfield plant worker for 38 years. "The tires they're shipping to this country aren't any cheaper to the consumer. Sometimes, they cost even more."
Chambers cited a recent newspaper advertisement for a tire store in nearby Paducah . "It was in the Paducah paper. There were five different brands in the ad. Size for size, Continentals were the most expensive."
Chambers won't buy Continental tires. Neither will many other plant employees who belonged to Local 665, he added.
"It's sickening what Continental did, not just to Mayfield but to the whole region," he said. "At one time, the plant had over 2,200 bargaining unit employees and about 400 salaried employees.
"They came from all over western Kentucky and even Tennessee . Now all those good jobs are gone. It's just like in the Depression."
Six years before the tire plant closed, Mayfield lost a large Ingersoll-Rand plant that produced air compressors. Workers belonged to the International Association of Machinists.
Before Ingersoll Rand and General Tire came to town, Mayfield was home to three clothing factories, two of them with Amalgamated Clothing Workers locals. All three were long gone before General Tire and Ingersoll Rand shut.
Chambers said most jobs left in Mayfield, a county seat town of about 10,000 residents, are in retail sales. "Retail stores are touted when they come into a community. But most of them are low-paying, non-union jobs with little or nothing in the way of benefits."
Chambers knows Mayfield is not the only town that is minus yet another big plant. "All across the country, people are in the same bad shape," he said. "It's all because of corporate greed. These big companies just want to make all the money they can. They ship our jobs out of the country and don't care who gets hurt."
After Continental idled the Mayfield plant, Chambers was able to stay on with the union. He works out of the Local 665 hall, which is for sale.
Chambers helps former plant workers get their insurance benefits. He is also vice president of the new Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees chapter based in Mayfield. He helped found the group.
"We passed the torch from active to retired," he said. "Terry Beane, our last union president, is president of our SOAR chapter. Every time we meet, our numbers grow. We've got about 65 members so far."
KenTex Development LLC purchased the plant where the SOAR members worked. KenTex’s parent firm, Houston-based Plant Recovery Company, is an industrial demolition business. A blue and white "for sale or lease (will subdivide)" sign stands next to the plant's front fence.
Chambers doubts another factory comparable to Continental-General Tire will relocate inside the plant’s tall, gray concrete walls, which he said encompass “55-acres, all under one roof."
He said the north parking lot probably takes in 10 more acres. "There's brush piled on it 10 or 20 feet high. People bring it from all over.
"When I started seeing that all that debris, I decided I wouldn't carry any brush down there, even though I live two miles from the plant.
"Then I changed my mind. But when I pulled in there, I thought of all those times I had pulled in that lot to go to work. You tended to park in the same place, walk into work with the same people and come out with the same people.
"I started at the plant right after I graduated from Mayfield High School in 1968. I got married and raised kids.
"Now I've got grandkids. Now I worry where they're going to find the kind of good union job I had."
-- Berry Craig is a professor of history at the West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance journalist. He belongs to the American Federation of Teachers and the Kentucky Education Association-National Education Association.