Appomattox and Fremont: closed factories and two different stories of recovery

Two stories in the Washington post about globalization and manufacturing caught my attention this Sunday. The reports told of two American towns: Fremont, CA and Appomattox, VA.

The first article (“A Hard Slog“, by Howard Schneider) tells the story of the closing of the combined GM/Toyota factory in Fremont. The factory was supposed to be a great victory of globalization: Toyota would trade increased access to the U.S. in exchange for letting GM in on the secrets of its operations. The recession, GM’s bailout, and sluggish sales eventually forced the plant to shut its doors. Auto workers making relatively high wages began seeking new work wherever they could find it, and city leaders worked to find a way to replace the 5,000 lost jobs.

The second article, “Surrendering” by Ken Otterbourg, in the Post’s Sunday magazine, described preparations for the 150-year anniversary of the end of the Civil War. The town will host a celebration next April, commemorating Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. But as much as Otterbourg told us about the town’s heritage, he painted a bleak picture of a Virginia Piedmont town that once thrived thanks to the Thomasville furniture plant. The story of decline would be familiar to the Virginians of Beth Macy’s “Factory Man“, who live just a hundred miles south-west, in Bassett, VA. (I’ll be writing more about her captivating book in a few days.) The Thomasville factory was the primary economic driver in the town. The push of globalization that Macy describes presumably played out in Appomattox much as it did in Bassett and elsewhere across the south-eastern United States: cheap labor and free lumber in Asia, combined with consumer demand for inexpensive furniture led to increased imports — and Furniture Brands couldn’t afford to keep the factories open.

Meanwhile, Fremont was able to take advantage of its location in Silicon Valley, half-way between San Francisco and San Jose. The town has survived, but the impacts of global trade are evident. New factories and offices have opened.  The former Toyota/GM plant is now home to a Tesla factory. Much like the remaining furniture plants Macy describes in Galax, VA, highly automated machinery has reduced labor requirements. While the jobs lost in the plant will never fully be “re-shored”, the former auto workers seem to have fared better than the displaced furniture workers. According to Schneider, some have found other manufacturing work at high-tech plants or at a bus maker, while others have become bus drivers, transporting commuting programmers.

Appomattox’s factory closing followed a year behind the closing in Fremont, but the Virginia town’s prospects for recovery may lag further behind. We can hope the town’s bet on increased tourism for the anniversary pays out.