In the winter of 2006, the Electrolux Corporation closed the largest refrigerator factory in the U.S. and moved it to Juarez, Mexico, for cheaper labor. The move turned the lives of nearly 3,000 workers in Greenville, Michigan, upside down.
Before the plant closed, Electrolux workers led a middle class life -- owning homes, buying new cars and taking vacations. Now most are scraping by on severance pay, unemployment benefits and a health plan that will end in a year. As personal finances spiral downward, health follows.
In the year after the plant closure, the local hospital’s caseload tripled because of depression, alcoholism and domestic abuse. Experts say that heart disease and mortality are also predicted to rise – totaling 134 "excess" deaths in this area alone over the next 10 years. And the lay-offs not only affect workers but their families and the entire community as well.
Psychologist Rick Price, who has studied the effects of job loss on health, explains, "These external life events do get under the skin. They create changes in the way our physiological system operates. They create elevated stressors -- stress responses that ultimately lead to both acute and chronic health problems."
High levels of the stress hormone cortisol, for example, can trigger increases in blood pressure, blood sugar, and even inflammation -- all risk factors for disease. When stresses just won’t stop -- as bills keep coming and there’s no hope for good paid work -- the high level of stress hormones puts strain on the body's organs, eventually wearing them out. Stress also increases the risk of health problems such as alcohol abuse, suicide, homicide, and accidents.
As middle-class Americans find their health and way of life increasingly threatened by globalization and corporate profit-seeking, those in the top income brackets are reaping the spoils of our winner-take-all society. The typical CEO now earns more than 250 times the salary of the average worker. Today, the top 1% of the population has more wealth than the bottom 90% combined. Economic inequality is greater now than at any time since the 1920s.
In other countries, the situation is vastly different. When Electrolux shut down one of its plants in Vastervick, Sweden, it caused hardly a ripple. Laid-off workers received 80% of their salary in unemployment benefits as well as education and training for new jobs. Electrolux also paid $3 million to stimulate the creation of start-up businesses in Vastervick after pressure from the union and government. The town of Greenville, Michigan, received nothing.
Sweden also guarantees its citizens a college education, health care, five weeks of paid vacation, 16 months of paid leave for new parents, and much more. Swedish social policies assume an ethos of shared responsibility and provide a safety net for citizens. Swedes pay more in taxes to support these programs, but they live, on average, three years longer than we do.
In America, at least for the time being, workers are left to fend for themselves, and we all pay the price in both health and wealth.
Unnatural Causes is the acclaimed documentary series broadcast by PBS and now used by thousands of organizations around the country to tackle the root causes of our alarming socio-economic and racial inequities in health.
The four-hour series crisscrosses the nation uncovering startling new findings that suggest there is much more to our health than bad habits, health care, or unlucky genes. The social circumstances in which we are born, live, and work can actually get under our skin and disrupt our physiology as much as germs and viruses.
Extent of continuing physical, emotional, mental, and social ability to cope with one's environment. Good health is harder to define than bad health (which can be equated with presence of disease) because it must convey a more positive concept than mere absence of disease, and there is a variable area between health and disease. A person may be in good physical condition but have a cold or be mentally ill. Someone may appear healthy but have a serious condition (e.g., cancer) that is detectable only by physical examination or diagnostic tests or not even by these.
Science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting health through organized community efforts. These include sanitation, control of contagious infections, hygiene education, early diagnosis and preventive treatment, and adequate living standards. It requires understanding not only of epidemiology, nutrition, and antiseptic practices but also of social science. Historical public health measures included quarantine of leprosy victims in the Middle Ages and efforts to improve sanitation following the 14th-century plague epidemics. Population increases in Europe brought with them increased awareness of infant deaths and a proliferation of hospitals. Britain's Public Health Act of 1848 established a special public health ministry. In the U.S., public health is studied and coordinated on a national level by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; internationally, the World Health Organization plays an equivalent role.
MITCH EVANS: Well when they said the big wigs from corporation were there, and they were gonna have a powwow with us, orsomething, and everybody wondered what they were going to talk about SANDY BECK: You could hear a pin drop in the crowd,and people were gasping It was a funny feeling, just kind of like, you were on up on a ride that drops down real fast,makes your stomach feel queasy, thats how I felt. JERRY JONES: It was once the largest refrigerator manufacturer in theentire world. Now moved away. And what sits is an enormous building that covers the acreage of a small farm. And its soempty that if a family of rats wanted to move from one end of the building to the other, theyd have to pack their ownpeanut butter and jelly sandwich. DON PELLOW (Former Vice President, UAW LOCAL #137): They called the bargainingcommittee in, and they told us that they was closing the plant, so when I walked out on the floor, everybodys looking atyour face, you know NARRATOR: In the winter of 2006, the Electrolux Corporation closed its refrigerator manufacturingplant in Greenville, Michigan and moved it to Juarez, Mexico. The Greenville workers earned $15.00 an hour, with about$5.00 an hour in health and pension benefits. The Mexican workers made $1.57 an hourplus bus fare and lunch. JOHNHERNANDER (Stock Analyst, Sweden): Electroluxs decision to move the plant from Greenville to Mexico is basically just theresult of them facing a very competitive environment. It is a disaster for many people when theyve been laid off. But ourview is more to look at the company. And, unfortunately, to say that sometimes the stock market creates the pressure onthe companies to act in that respect. NARRATOR: In a global economy, corporations move capital at breathtaking speed tomaximize profit for shareholders. Electrolux is a multinational corporation based in Sweden. The company has also movedplants from western to eastern Europe, in pursuit of the cheapest labor. Moving the Greenville plant to Mexico will add81 million dollars a year to the corporate bottom line. Good news for shareholders, many of whom are already in the upperincome brackets. But the 2700 people who once worked here lost a union job, a decent wage--and ultimately much more. RICKPRICE (Psychologist, University of Michigan): A lot of people are left behind. And when theyre left behind, theyre leftbehind with really diminished lives and with a whole array of health problems and stresses that they didnt havebeforehand.DVD Chapter 2: Effects of Job Loss NARRATOR: Rick Price is a psychologist whos researched the impact of plant closings inMichigan for decades. Hes studied the consequences of job loss for workers health. PRICE: Involuntary job loss isnt justsomething that affects a particular individual who suddenly has got to find a new job, because it ripples through wholefamilies and communities and becomes a major challenge and a major life event and one that lots of them simply dontrecover from. NARRATOR: Its not just happening in Greenville. All across the U.S., the transfer of work to low wagecountries undermines the kind of job security and benefits that made the American dream a reality for millions.Electrolux workers led a middle class lifeowning homes, buying new cars and taking vacations. Now most are scraping by onseverance pay, unemployment benefits and a health plan that will end in a year. As personal finances spiral downward,health follows. Two months after the closing, some of the laid-off workers meet at a local restaurant. BRENDA BISSEL(Machine Operator, 27 years at plant, Husband also lost job): When you gotta go to unemployment, I dont know if thatsanxiety or what, but I didnt really think about it until Marcella said today, like my jaws been hurting, like Imclenching my teeth or something when Im sleeping. MITCH EVANS (Torch Operator, 29 years at plant): I get nauseatedIll belaying there, and Ill just get my stomach will be nerved, and Ill be just nauseatedsome nights Ill wake up, and Ill beup at one oclock in the morning, I got up, was sitting in the chair and was watching TV until four oclock, went and laiddown, and tossed and turned until six oclock and got up, and I dont think I got two hours sleep all night. MARCELLA ORT(General Assembler, 38 years at plant, Husband also lost job): And Ive started thinking more about needing a drink, whichI dont need, and Ive stayed away from that, so then I go and eat. But, I have never weighed this much in my life PRICE:There are a lot of adaptive things we do in response to stress that long term produce liabilities for us. Its not justpeople self-medicating for alcohol. Its even chronic eating. Theyre really treating themselves for anxiety and distress.MARCELLA ORT: I think its adding to Richardhis depressionbecause hes having health problems, and hes old enough to drawsocial security and his pension, so hes fortunate there, but I do think that hes feeling like he needs to do more, wedont have anything coming in and he isnt able to do more, so I think hes getting more and more depressed. DAN ELLISON(Clinical Social Worker, Spectrum Health United Memorial Hospital): Ive been doing some thinking about some of the thingsthat you were saying with regard to, I guess the best way I can say it is, depression. A little bit of ambivalence.Taking your medicines here or there. RICHARD ORT (General Assembler, 38 years at plant, Hospitalized for kidney problem):I dont miss it too often DAN ELLISON: Not too often. RICHARD ORT: Its just that some days, I just forget, its not that Ido it intentionally. DAN ELLISON: OK. Your wife was laid off after almost 38 years. Your daughter was working there also,is that correct? And she moved to Minnesota?RICHARD ORT: Her husband and two of the kids already moved to Minnesota because he had a line-up on a job, cause therewasnt any around here. DAN ELLISON: How big a financial impact is that for you? I mean, is it a stress? RICHARD ORT: Ivegot a set amount of money thats coming in. She gets a pension, but the unemployment, shes in order to keep it, shesgotta go to school, and shes been out of school sincewell weve been married 40 years, so shes been out of school for 40years. ELLISON: We are seeing a lot of walk-ins to the ER, just coming in and saying they just dont know how to cope witheverything thats going on in their life anymore. MARCELLA ORT (entering ER room): Nice to meet you ELLISON: Medicalissues are also increasing, cardiac or gastrointestinal issues that are related to stress and anxiety. DAN ELLISON (toMarcella): We were talking about some of the finances, the impact its had on him, on you, and how those stressors impacthim. And my thought was, Im seeing a lot more ambivalence of just: whatever happens, happens. MARCELLA ORT: Right now westill have a little money there, but when its gone theres no way to replace it. ELLISON: Theres worry about losing theirhome, losing some of their belongings, having things repossessed, not being able to meet the bills, not being able toafford their medication. They stop their medicines and I would think that, usually the first one I see that gets stoppedis the antidepressant That just spins and cycles and becomes worse when they dont have any hope. DVD Chapter 3: Stressunder the Skin NARRATOR: In 2004 this local hospital treated 80 cases of depression, attempted suicide and domesticabuse. In the year following the Electrolux closing, that caseload nearly tripled. PRICE: These external life events doget under the skin. They do create changes in the way our psychophysiological system operates. They create elevatedstressors stresses responses that ultimately lead to both acute and chronic health problems. NARRATOR: How do thesestressors get under the skin? Thats one of the questions Sir Michael Marmot explored for over more than thirty years inthe Whitehall studies of British civil servants. MICHAEL MARMOT (Epidemiologist, University College): The two pathwaysthat have most been studied (and we ourselves have also studied them) is the pathway that goes from the brain toaffecting cortisol, and the pathway that goes from the brain to affecting adrenaline, epinephrine, the acute stressresponse. NARRATOR: When stresses just wont stop--as bills keep coming, and theres no hope for work--the level of thesestress hormones can remain high. MARMOT: When you stress people in a prolonged way, you get changes to that cortisolpathway, and that seems in turn to lead to a whole set of metabolic biochemical disturbances in the body. NARRATOR: Highlevels of cortisol can trigger increases in blood pressure, blood sugar and even inflammation all risk factors fordisease. HARVEY BRENNER (Epidemiologist, Univ. North Texas; Johns Hopkins Univ.):The types of illnesses that are associated with higher rates of unemployment are, first of all, the cardiovascular groupof illnesses, and these are heart disease, stroke, kidney diseasemany other illnesses involving alcohol, suicide,homicide, accidents and the like. NARRATOR: For forty years, Harvey Brenner has studied the relationship betweenunemployment and death rates. In reports for the US Congress and the European Commission, he developed models to predictwhat epidemiologists call excess deaths - deaths that are over and above what would be expected under ordinaryconditions. BRENNER: Our research has shown over the years that there is a reasonably direct relationship betweenunemployment changes and mortality changes. These changes in mortality occur over about a ten year period but are heavilyconcentrated within the first five or six years. NARRATOR: At the time of the Electrolux closing, unemployment rates inGreenvilles Montcalm County jumped to 14%, nearly double that of the previous year. Among the twenty-two thousandhouseholds here, Brenner predicts that this surge in unemployment will result in 134 excess deaths over the next tenyears. GARY WHITE (Machine Operator, 32 years at plant): After my last day of work, I just thought, well, I havent had avacation in thirty-two years I think Ill take a vacation. And, um The vacation got to the point where I started lookingfor jobs, started doing everything to find a job and there arent any jobs anyway. You cant even find a job at a third ofwhat I was making before. I used to run around feeling like a 25 year-old when I was working. Im starting to feel my agenow because Im just sitting around not doing anything. DVD Chapter 4: Loss of U.S. Jobs NARRATOR: The free marketenvironment that allows Electrolux to prosper comes at a price. 3 million American manufacturing jobs have been lost inthe last ten years. Here, in Montcalm County, the decline started in the late 1980s with the closing of the Ore-Idapotato processing plant, the rise of corporate agribusiness and the demise of small family farms. JERRY JONES (Pastor,First Congregational Church): Many of those farmers already had been feeling some economic pinch. And their spouses oftenwent to work for industry to have health insurance, or just to add to the family income. When they lost the manufacturingsector, then it kind of put a double-whammy on those families. TEXT ON SCREEN: Hitachi Magnetics: Closed 2005, 600 jobslost Greenville Wire: Closed 2005, 150 jobs lost Northland Corporation: Currently employs 115, down from 240 in the late1980s. Tower Automotive: Closed in 2006, 350 jobs lost MEIZHU LUI (Executive Director, United for a Fair Economy): In1965, 1/3 of workers in the US had manufacturing jobs. Now it is under 13%. We used to make airplanes, we used to makesteel, we used to make cars. Now we make beds; we make pizza; we make hamburgers. Its quite a shift. NARRATOR: And apainful shift in wages. When Sandy Beck was a supervisor at Electrolux, she earned over 21 dollars an hour. AfterElectrolux, she made 7 dollars an hour, with no benefits and no job security. For the first nine months after her layoff,Sandy received compensation from a federal program tied to the North American Free Trade Agreement. And Electroluxprovided a severance package for her.But now these supports have run out. Her future is anyones guess. SANDY BECK (Plastics Facilitator, 31 years at plant):Im a little concerned that we can meet our budget, and have enough money for taxes and emergency funds. Right now werebusy paying bills off and cutting down our monthly budget. NARRATOR: Sandy is better off than most. Her husband Bruce wasalso laid off by Electrolux, but he has a pension of about one half his former salary. And they live on a farm thats beenin Sandys family for three generations. Its their safety net. SANDY BECK: My grandfather bought this beautiful farm onthe lake back in 1917. Then my dad took over the farming. And that was when the small farmers couldnt make it, so he hadto get a job at Electrolux to help make things meet. NARRATOR: Sandys farm sits on Clifford Lake, a tranquil spot thatmiddle class families long called home. But many are leaving, their houses leveled to make way for high end second homes- creating higher assessments and higher property taxes. SANDY BECK: Were part of the eroding middle class thats seen ourincome recede. Its not good every year to see your tax report and know that next year its going to be more than it wasthis year. First I didnt like seeing big houses in our hay fieldbut its part of life, and Ive come to accept my neighborsnow as OK people (laughs). DVD Chapter 5: Haves and Have Nots JERRY JONES: Theres something unfolding here in Greenvilleand all of Montcalm County that might have been what Dickens was talking about when he said the best of times, the worstof times. Because we are having an economic boom in some sectors: there are new houses being built here that makes itinto a bedroom community for some of the larger areas around. We have had some national franchises move in here and buildsignificant buildings here. At the same time, theres this loss of jobs in west central Michigan that goes far beyondElectrolux. And it seems to me like theres a growing chasm between the haves and the have-nots. GORDON STAUFFER (FoundingCEO & President, Northland Refrigeration): So, please join me. Im very happy to finally have some of my cars in onelocation. So please join me. This is the addition of the house that were just completing NARRATOR: Gordon Stauffer livesdown the road from Sandys farm. His lakeside home is a showcase for the high-end appliances his company manufactures.GORDON STAUFFER: Refrigerator/freezer. In stainless steel inside and out. NARRATOR: Stauffer is Founding CEO ofNorthland, one of Greenvilles last working factories. His company is riding a wave of new consumption by the wealthy.GORDON STAUFFER: We certainly anticipated that there would be growth in the super high-end portion of the home applianceindustry. There are probably more million-dollar homes built last year than any time in our history. And there is a lotof disposable income going to second homes, high-end second homes, and when they build these high-end second homes theyexpect an icemaker; they expect a wine cooler. They expect all these high end appliances. GORDON STAUFFER (showing home):Pet food, ice for the pets water. The hot tub is right through those doors.NARRATOR: Trends in the appliance industry reflect growing inequality in America. CEO salaries are now more than 250times the average workers pay. LUI: The number of products produced per workers has actually gone up. However, workershave not shared in the benefits of that greater productivity. It has gone to those at the top of the pay scale within thecompanies. DVD Chapter 6: Resources / Control NARRATOR: And where you stand on the economic ladder is a good predictor ofhealth. MARMOT: The higher the grade, the better the health. The lower the grade, the higher the mortality rate and theshorter the life expectancy in this remarkably graded phenomenon. So if you were second from the top, you had worsehealth than if you were at the top; if you were third from the top, you had worse health than if you were second from thetop all the way from top to bottom. GORDON STAUFFER: I have been very blessed, and Ive got exceptional health. I do liketo work out, in fact Im waiting for this construction to be completed so that I can put my basketball court back inoperation, because I still play basketball. NARRATOR: Stauffer and other wealthy Americans have more options, resourcesand power to control their lives - all contributing to better health. GORDON STAUFFER: I told George W. that I had aphotograph of myself with his mother, and he said thats the one to keepkeep that photograph. There is a perception thatthe CEO gets all of the stress, actually if youre a good CEO maybe you give the stress, rather than get the stress.MARMOT: Autonomy, control, empowerment turns out to be a crucial influence on health and disease. People who aredisempowered, people who dont have autonomy, people who have little control over their lives, are at increased risk ofheart disease, increased risk of mental illness, in the Whitehall studies, increased risk of absence from work, andincreased risk of decrements in functioning. GARY WHITE: You cant effect change in your life right now. Because theresnothing you can change. Its all depending on outside forces, and all you can do is try to work with outside forces. SANDYBECK: We have less control now than when we worked at Electrolux and made what I call very good money. Its kinda scarywhen we dont have the money that we did have when those taxes go up. Living on the lake with the higher income peopleisnt a plus in that situation. If we get really desperate, we might have to take the bitter pill and put some land up forsale ourselves, but we only want to do that if its the last resort. BRUCE BECK: I guess Ive gotten up there where I dontworry like everybody else does. Im more privileged than some. SANDY BECK: Some people would say people like him thats gotone year to social security are the lucky ones. BRUCE BECK: Yeah, governments not guaranteeing that either. SANDY BECK:No. NARRATOR: And there are no guarantees for Sandys marriage, which didnt weather the Electrolux closing well. Feelingpressured and depressed, Sandys husband left her for almost a year to carry on alone.RICK PRICE: We do live in an individualistic society. We believe that people are individually and personally responsiblefor their own fate. We enact our laws that way. We create our social policy that way. NARRATOR: Wealth inequality is muchmore extreme here in America than in any other industrialized nation. The top 1% of our population holds 38% of allpersonal wealth. And nearly one third of all corporate stock. And their tax rates are getting lower and lower. Is thisthe only way for a modern industrialized economy to operate? There are alternatives. DVD Chapter 7: Sweden NARRATOR: In2004, Peter Stenberg lost his job when Electrolux moved a vacuum cleaner plant from his hometown of Vstervik, Sweden toHungary. Peter had worked at the factory for 21 years. But unlike the workers in Greenville, Peter isnt stressed out, hehasnt turned to drinking and hes not worried about losing his house. PETER STENBERG (21 years at Electrolux): Ive beenstudying psychology, computers, that sort of thing, but now Im looking for work. I think something good can come fromthis. It will give me a new start. NARRATOR: Like most of his coworkers who lost their jobs in Vstervik, Peter hasunemployment benefits at 80% of his former salary. This support will continue as long as he goes to school or looks fornew work. In Sweden, the costs of unemployment have been carefully calculated. THOMAS STROS (Minister of Industry,Sweden): Unemployment is very bad for individuals. You lose your connection in society, you lose your democraticempowerment, but you also suffer when it comes to health. And that creates of course, another discussion because it is awaste of resources to let people be laid off for long periods of time, or unemployed for long periods of time. But italso costs even more if you dont do anything. NARRATOR: During the last century, Sweden built a political system thatdistributes wealth to provide economic security to all its citizens. But it hasnt been at the expense of prosperity.Swedens economy has kept pace with the U.S. for the last ten years. And while its economic system rewards entrepreneurs,it also protects workers. STROS: Sweden is a country very much dependent on free trade. We cant hide our production frominternational competition. But globalization also means greater demand on public policy and public efforts to see to itthat it is an environment where its possible for individuals to live and to have a good life. And thereby globalizationalso means that you must have taxes high enough to have resources to help people to get the skills, the support theyneed, to be able to come back. NARRATOR: Sweden continues to evaluate how much support to provide its citizens. For now,Swedes are guaranteed a college education, health care, five-weeks paid vacation, 16-months paid leave for new parents,and much more. And these policies seem to make a differencethe average Swede lives nearly three years longer than we do.For this security, Swedes willingly pay more taxes than Americans do. This helps to ensure that health is not dependenton personal income, wealth or job security. MARCUS KVANBERG (speaking in Swedish): If you look around, youre so glad youlive in Sweden. I cant imagine living on 50%. You wouldnt know whats going to happen to your children, your family, toeverything Youd have to sell the house, the car no wonder people feel sick.YVONNE TAMBOUR (speaking in Swedish): Who will they sell it to? Who? Who will move there if there arent any jobs?NARRATOR: Nearly 80% of Swedish workers are protected by unions. When Electrolux decided to move the Vstervik factory,the union and the government pressured the company to make restitution to the workers and their community. The companyresponded with 3 million dollars to stimulate the creation of start-up businesses in Vstervik. The city of Greenville,Michigan received nothing. CAMILLE PETERSSEN (speaking in Swedish): Whats left? Does it become a ghost town? What happensto those people? Chapter Eight: A Shared Future NARRATOR: The Swedish union workers raise the real question: What willhappen to the unemployed in Greenville and why are the unemployed across America left to fend for themselves? DON PELLOW(Machine Operator, 32 years at plant, Wife also lost job): Every one of us here has at least twenty-five years in hereover there at the plant; me and Gary thirty, Marcella forty. And youre always working for the future. Thats why youworked every day was for the future. And now there is no future. JERRY JONES: As a Christian I really do understand thatwe have a responsibility to the whole community. To me, the notion of individualism is right in the face of caring foryour brothers and sisters. RICK PRICE: Well the Scandinavians know something that we dont know and theyve known it sincethe middle of the nineteenth century. And that is, theres a sense of shared social responsibility about the fate ofworkers. Theyre not just sort of cannon fodder; theyre not just resources to be thrown away. And that really makes anenormous difference.