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After 50 Years, Whirlpool Plant In Arkansas Closes

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For almost 50 years workers have filed into the Whirlpool's plant in Fort Smith, Arkansas to build refrigerators, freezers and other home appliances. But after months of layoffs, Whirlpool announced plans to close the Fort Smith plant altogether. And that means more than 1,000 people will lose their jobs. Weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz talks with Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders, who worked at Whirlpool for more than 30 years, about how the shutdown will affect the city.

GUY RAZ, host: For almost 50 years, workers have filed into the Whirlpool factory in Fort Smith, Arkansas, where they make refrigerators, dishwashers and trash compacters for KitchenAid and Maytag brands. But after months of layoffs and reductions, Whirlpool announced plans to close that Fort Smith plant altogether. And that means a thousand people will lose their jobs.

Mayor SANDY SANDERS: There's no good time for an announcement like this. And particularly with the economy and the situation it is now, it exacerbates the situation.

RAZ: That's Sandy Sanders. He's mayor of Fort Smith and he knows how important Whirlpool is to the city. He worked for the corporation for over three decades.

SANDERS: I started out just in an entry-level HR job of communications assistant. And when I retired, I was the manager of human resources.

RAZ: What was it like to work there?

SANDERS: It was great. It was always a good plant. It was a friendly plant. People did well working with each other, took pride in their work. So, I, you know, it's - right now, everybody's kind of low and disheartened. But we're going to recover.

RAZ: Whirlpool is moving some of those jobs to its facilities abroad, in Mexico. What is your understanding of why they're shutting down the plant in Fort Smith?

SANDERS: Well, basically, this is an excellent plant. And having worked there, I know the quality here has always been excellent. And the people working here, from line operators to plant management, have done everything feasible to enable the plant to continue to operate. But the primary factor has been that products like - that are being made here, the side-by-sides, built-ins, trash compactors, the demand for those has continued to dwindle while other product lines in refrigeration business have grown and expanded. So we've not been able to be that competitive due to the low production volumes.

RAZ: Is anybody in Fort Smith angry about this? I mean, this is a company that's been there for 50 years. So presumably, the community of Fort Smith has done quite a lot for Whirlpool. And certainly, Whirlpool has done quite a lot for Fort Smith, but is there anybody saying, well, why are you moving jobs to Mexico when we need these jobs here?

SANDERS: Well, early on, when they first moved a few years ago - were moving product to Mexico, yes, particularly, there was dissatisfaction with that because we knew the quality of product we made here was exceptional. And we hated to see those products move at that time. This recent decision, though, I think everybody has kind of felt that it's been coming for quite some time.

RAZ: Mayor, what is going to happen to those people who lost their jobs? I mean, can we assume that some or many may not find another job any time soon?

SANDERS: Well, a lot of them - of course, it is a senior workforce, and I would imagine that some would just plan to go ahead and retire. And of course, we've got the rest of this year until the middle of next year to help with retraining to help people find other jobs. You know, we've got about 250,000 people in this area as our labor pool. And even though Fort Smith is 86,000 by daytime, we're at about 200,000 population. So we're going to work at it, and we're going to sort those jobs, somewhere, somehow.

RAZ: Well, good luck to you, sir.

SANDERS: Thank you, sir.

RAZ: That's Sandy Sanders. He is mayor of Fort Smith, Arkansas and a former worker at the Whirlpool plant there, which announced this week that it's closing its facility there after 50 years. Mayor Sanders, thank you.

SANDERS: Thank you. I appreciate your time.

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