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Where the Tea Party Rules

Lima, Ohio, has been struggling for decades – and the GOP’s radical policies are making it even worse

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Abandoned storefronts, empty streets and rundown housing plague Lima, Ohio, once a manufacturing hub.

Geordie Wood

Dewey Chaffins was 19 years old when he left Appalachia for northwestern Ohio in 1958. The youngest of 10, he’d grown up in Garrett, Kentucky, a hardscrabble coal town where his family had lived and mined for generations. During the 1950s, when the coal industry in eastern Kentucky fell into a steep decline, scores of young men packed up all they had and headed north toward the industrial Midwest. Chaffins found opportunity in the city of Lima, a manufacturing boomtown where there were so many factories, as one retired autoworker recently told me, ”you could walk into a place, get a job without even a high school diploma, and if you didn’t like it, you could quit, walk across the street and have another job that afternoon.” By the time Dewey and his 18-year-old wife, Linda, settled in Lima, seven of his siblings, their spouses and some of their in-laws were living in and around the city, where they quickly found work in the automotive plants or tire factories or steel mills, joined the UAW or other unions, and set about raising their children in a manner none of them had ever dreamed possible.

Dewey and Linda worked for Hayes-Albion, a Michigan-based company whose Lima plant provided Ford with chrome and trim. Their combined annual income was almost $50,000 a year, not a lot but enough at the time to buy a home in the middle-class suburb of Bath Township, just east of Lima. By the end of the 1980s, each of their four children had graduated from high school, and two had gone on to college. There was no reason to doubt that their family’s continued upward mobility was secure.

One recent morning, I went to visit Dewey’s son Scott Chaffins, who still lives in Bath, in a small three-bedroom house he shares with his wife, Lori, and their two college-age kids, Joshua, 21, and Alyssa, 18. Now 50, Scott is a burly guy who meets me dressed in long cutoffs, a blue polo shirt and flip-flops. He shuffles through his kitchen followed by the family’s big brown Lab, Brutus. Stopping briefly to say hello, Scott then excuses himself to lie down. ”It’s his blood pressure,” Lori says, apologetically. A chemist and former college professor, Scott’s been out of work for six months. ”Stress adds a lot of health issues, as you can imagine,” she says.

A short, round woman wearing a pink T-shirt and shorts, Lori Chaffins sits at a long, rectangular wooden table, drinking Dr Pepper. It’s a Friday afternoon, and she’s off for the summer from her job driving a school bus and working in the nearby middle-school cafeteria. The schedule isn’t bad, she says – working only nine months out of the year means she’s had more time to spend with her kids. On the other hand, her annual income is roughly $25,000, and she hasn’t had a raise in six years. Since her husband’s been out of work, they’ve liquidated Scott’s retirement and drained most of their savings, about $60,000 in total. Still, they have close to $160,000 in debt between their mortgage ($1,200 per month), car payments ($305), health insurance ($300 per month, with a $1,750 deductible per person) and the loans ($7,000) they took out to help pay for Joshua’s living expenses at Bowling Green State. Their home, which they purchased in 1999, along with 20 acres of land, for $170,000, has depreciated by a third, Lori says, ”and we’re still upside-down on our loan.” She shakes her head with the tight, exhausted expression of a woman who’s just barely hanging on. ”I mean, when a family can’t afford to buy steak at seven to 10 bucks a pound, that’s ridiculous. But ground beef at $4.99 a pound? That’s outrageous,” she says, her voice rising in frustration. Last year, their family had $18,000 in medical bills. ”And that was with our insurance,” she says. ”I just get so mad when people say the economy is turning around. Are you kidding me? I’m poorer today than when my husband was in college.”

Lori grew up in the nearby town of Elida. Her father, a nonunion carpenter, made less than $4.50 per hour, when he worked at all. ”We had an outhouse in the 1970s,” she says. ”I mean, we were dirt-poor. I refused to raise my children like that.”

Scott, who has a chemistry degree from Ohio State, was the first member of his immediate family to go to college, which at the time cost him $1,500 per year in tuition. While he was in school, Lori helped pay their bills by waitressing at a Pizza Hut, and she kept working as they moved from Columbus to Bowling Green, where Scott studied for his master’s, to Cincinnati. They had no intention of returning to Lima to live, but after the kids were born, they began to think it would be good to be closer to their families. So in 1999, Scott, then 34, went to work in the oil industry, managing 30 other chemists at the city’s large oil refinery, the longtime anchor of the community. Depending on his bonus, Lori says, he would go on to make between $100,000 and $125,000 a year, a small fortune in an area where most people earn less than $60,000 annually.

That was a good period, Lori says as light streams in through sliding–glass doors and reflects on a series of wall photographs: Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, the Pacific Coast. Scott took those, she explains, back in the days when they could afford to take family vacations. Today, she says, they can barely afford to go to the movies. ”The last movie I saw was Harry Potter, in 2011,” she says. ”We had no idea it would get as bad as it did.” 

Lori traces her family’s downward spiral to before the recession, in 2007, when Scott quit his job to teach college chemistry. Though the pay was good, working for the oil industry presented Scott with philosophical challenges. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Lima’s refinery complex, then owned by British Petroleum, was the largest source of toxic chemical pollution in the northeastern United States. Though the refinery reduced its toxic emissions considerably in subsequent years, Lima had disproportionately high rates of cancer, and there would still be occasional chemical releases that would cake the grass and trees in a white dust that ate through the paint on the cars. There were days when people who lived near the plant would be told to shut their windows and air conditioners and stuff towels under their doors. One summer, the river ran brown and the fish died. Scott, whose job was to monitor levels of benzene to make sure they adhered to what the EPA considered safe for dumping, felt complicit. ”It wasn’t so much the actual safety as it was the morality,” he says. ”It’s Big Oil, and Big Oil has always been about big profit. There is very little concern, obviously, for the environment beyond what’s regulatory and required.”

Leaving the refinery cleared Scott’s conscience. It also meant he took a 60 percent pay cut to become an assistant professor at the local community college, Rhodes State. To make ends meet, he and Lori got rid of two of their three cars, clipped coupons and stopped eating out almost entirely. But without the Ph.D. required for a tenured position, Scott knew he’d never make more than $50,000 a year. So in the spring of 2013, with Joshua finishing his sophomore year of college, Scott decided to give up teaching and return to industry. Nothing, so far, has worked out. ”Not many opportunities, at least in this area, for chemists,” says Scott, who, having woken from his nap, joins his wife at the table. He’s hoping something will come through soon, but if it doesn’t, he will have to look for work in Columbus or farther away. In the past few years, some of his family members who’ve fallen on hard times have turned to government assistance – something Scott never thought he’d have to do. But now, who knows. ”We’ve about exhausted all of our resources,” he says.

The air in the Chaffins’ kitchen feels thick. It could be the roast smoking in the slow cooker, or the dog, or maybe it’s just the choking reality of being stuck in a place no one expected to be. ”You know, before my dad died in 2002, he asked me if he’d given me what I wanted in life,” Scott muses. ”I said, ‘No, but you gave me what I needed.’ I look back at what they went through and see where we are now, and I really wonder if we’re better off.” 

lima ohio tea party

 Like many Ohioans, the Chaffinses are independents and have voted with their conscience in every presidential election. ”The first president I voted for was Reagan,” says Lori. ”My father would have killed me if he’d known, but I thought at the time Reagan would do a better job. I thought America was going to turn around and change.”

She felt the same about Barack Obama, whom both she and her husband voted for in 2008, though they have since become disillusioned. ”He’s very eloquent,” says Lori. ”I was in awe of him when I first heard him on Oprah. But I don’t think he has America’s interest at heart.” Scott, who calls himself a ”political agnostic,” doesn’t draw the line at Obama or the Democrats. ”It’s all of them,” he says. ”I don’t think Obama has the leadership skills I’d hoped for. And it saddens me to see our government throwing all kinds of money at the banks, which hasn’t helped the average American. But the Republicans are just as shady as the Democrats. I thought the shutdown was crazy. I see all of it as a desperate attempt by people who think they’re doing the best for the country to take the country back. But it’s all just extremism.”

Lori tells me she’s simply too busy to pay attention to politics. She’s concerned about the Second Amendment and suspects Obama may harbor ”more Islamic interest than he cares to share.” But she’s also concerned about gas prices, her health care premiums and her union contract, which she tells me ”isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.” During the last general election, in 2012, Scott, in protest of Obama’s fiscal and foreign policies, voted for Mitt Romney. Lori, despite her fears, couldn’t decide. ”I didn’t feel confident that either choice was worse – they were both bad,” she says. ”So I wrote in Mickey Mouse.”

Lima is a working-class city in Allen County, Ohio, situated on Interstate 75, roughly halfway between Dayton and Toledo. Set amid the rich soybean and corn fields that still provide the region with a quarter of its revenue, it’s a town with some of the cheapest housing stock in America – last year, the average home in Lima sold for just over $39,000 – and a long boom-and-bust history, starting in 1885, when a local paper–mill owner named Benjamin Faurot discovered oil on his property along the banks of the Ottawa River. Within two years, Lima’s oil fields were on their way to becoming the world’s largest producer of crude, and Standard Oil had moved in, building wells and pipelines, as well as a large refinery on the south side of town. By 1900, Ohio’s oil fields were largely tapped out, but the refinery remained, processing oil pumped up from Texas and the Gulf of Mexico. For more than a century, oil remained the city’s mainstay, providing thousands of local jobs and serving as an anchor for the steel and other manufacturing-related industries that came to Lima, much like it did for Youngstown and Toledo in Ohio, as well as Pittsburgh, Detroit and many other cities from industrial New England to the Great Lakes.

But it was the auto industry that defined the city’s character. In 1955, Ford Motor Co. began work on a 950,000-square-foot engine plant just east of Lima’s city limits. For the next 20 years, it would be the city’s largest employer, fed by a myriad of smaller companies that provided the industry with raw materials or parts. Thousands of people streamed in to Lima to work in the auto sector, many settling just outside the city in places like Shawnee, American or Bath. These ”townships,” as they were known, paid no city taxes and were politically independent from Lima, yet relied on the city for basic services. With good schools and tree-lined streets, the townships soon became a haven for Lima’s white workforce, while its African–American workers, who comprised roughly one-quarter of the population, lived closer to the plants within the city itself. By 1958, Lima had more than 55,000 citizens, with the township population exceeding it by the mid-Sixties.

By the 1970s, the slump in American manufacturing led Lima’s factories to cut their workforces, and some began to close. As unemployment rose, so did crime. The city’s white population, which had been moving to the townships for years, now fled in record numbers. In Lima proper, race riots broke out during the late 1960s, driving home prices down even further. By the early 1980s, the city, now a major stop on the heroin route up I-75, was emptied of all but its poorest residents.

In 2013, the University of Vermont named Lima, whose steadily declining population now stands at roughly 38,000, as one of the country’s ”saddest” cities, just behind Memphis, Tennessee, and Flint, Michigan. It is also fairly representative of many towns across the United States: not a poster child for urban decay, as is true for places like Detroit or Camden, New Jersey, but not thriving in the manner of Pittsburgh, which has been reborn as a technology hub. Instead, Lima has limped along in a diminished capacity, with limited opportunities for those who have chosen or have no option but to stay. This is true within the city limits as well as throughout Lima’s townships, miles upon miles of subdivisions whose quiet, beige emptiness now typifies the American ex-urban experience. ”It’s subtle what’s happened here,” says Gavin DeVore Leonard, a public–policy expert with the nonpartisan group One Ohio Now, whose family goes back three generations in Lima. ”There used to be a buzz and an energy here. It was a thriving place to be part of the middle class. Now, people may look like they’re OK, but in fact, a lot of them are right on the edge.”

Early one evening, I drive around Shawnee, Lima’s wealthiest township, with Sandie Kinkle, a retired nursing instructor and the mother of a friend. Passing through the sleepy enclaves with names like Breezewood Estates or Amanda Lakes, I see gigantic homes on lots with their own private ponds, each of them a near-mirror image of one another. Out on the broad, open streets, the faceless strip malls, chain hotels and smaller one- and two-story houses fade into a seamless tableau. Even in Lima’s urban neighborhoods, where, Kinkle tells me, some of her friends from the country club refuse to go, there is a strange homogeneity. Kids ride their bikes down streets once ravaged by gang warfare. Blighted, broken-down homes have been replaced by new government housing. Looking at a group of school-children playing basketball in a neighborhood park, it’s almost easy to be lulled into the belief that things aren’t really that bad.

But 34 percent of Lima’s citizens, and nearly 20 percent of those in Allen County, live beneath the poverty line. The average household income in Lima is $28,000 a year; significantly lower than the state average of $48,000 – nationally, the average is $53,000. Lima’s unemployment rate has consistently hovered at around six percent – several notches higher than the state average – which fails to take into account the longtime unemployed whose benefits have run out and who have fallen off the rolls altogether. Kinkle points out how few ”for sale” signs there are in Shawnee. It’s not because people don’t want to move, she says, ”it’s because their houses are worth so much less than what they paid for them. They can’t sell.”

Bill Faith, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio, says he’s seen the same patterns in towns all over the state. ”Really, all of this speaks to the broader picture of how the middle class in America is struggling to exist,” he says. ”The economy is stabilizing somewhat, there are businesses coming back, but we’re talking about half the size of what it used to be. You see politicians try to appeal to people in places like Lima and say, ‘We’re going to bring back manufacturing. We’re going to get these companies to come back.’ The reality is, you’ve got to incrementally bring back employment of whatever kind you can bring back.”

If the Obama administration has been plagued by slow job growth and a faltering economy, conservatives in Congress and state government have helped exacerbate the problem by blocking any reforms the administration has put forward. One of the Republican Party’s leading obstructionists is Jim Jordan, Lima’s representative in the House. Jordan, who spent more than a decade in the Ohio Statehouse before coming to Washington in 2006, is one of the Tea Party’s quiet strategists, best known for his behind-the-scenes steering of House conservatives during their 2013 campaign to shut down the government. A persistent thorn in the side of House Speaker John Boehner, Jordan regularly bucks the Republican leadership, opposing virtually any government-spending proposal: the TARP stimulus package, the auto bailout, the repeal of the Bush tax cuts, raising the debt ceiling, even emergency aid to the victims of Hurricane Sandy. He has voted to defund the Affordable Care Act 52 times. ”The thing about Jordan is, he’s a purist,” says one Lima-area journalist. ”There are some people who say they believe in limited government, but they make exceptions – Jordan doesn’t do that. In some ways, he’s everything I’d ask for in a congressman: He’s earnest and hardworking, and you’ll find no dirt – he’s squeaky clean. But he takes a very hard-line view of the Constitution; he believes his rights are a gift from God, and he wants almost no taxes. He’s a true believer.”

Ohio’s governor, John Kasich, who also claims an ideological kinship with the Tea Party, has a similar, if sometimes more pragmatic, outlook. A staunch social and fiscal conservative – as a congressman in the Nineties, he played a part in shutting down the government twice – he ran an unsuccessful presidential primary campaign in 2000, and then left politics for close to a decade to become a commentator at Fox News and an adviser at Lehman Brothers, where he made over $1 million in 2008, the year the company, and the U.S. economy, failed. Two years later, as Ohio’s own economy hit rock bottom, Kasich rode the Republican wave and was elected governor by a narrow margin. Having benefited from the perceived economic failures of his Democratic predecessor, Ted Strickland (in fact, Ohio’s economy had shown signs of improving during Strickland’s last year in office), Kasich was faced with a budget gap of about $8 billion. Promising to reduce taxes on small-business owners and eliminate personal-income taxes, his administration cut the budget and privatized a wide range of formerly state-run entities, including Ohio’s economic development agency, which Kasich replaced with a corporation called JobsOhio, run by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Mark Kvamme, a former director of LinkedIn.

By the summer of 2012, Ohio’s unemployment rate had fallen from nine percent to 7.2 percent – a full point below the national average at the time. Today, it hovers around 5.7 percent, still lower than the national rate of 6.1 percent. The state also claims an $800 million budget surplus and has built its so-called Rainy Day reserve fund from 89 cents, when Kasich took office, to $1.5 billion by 2013. Kasich has called this the ”Ohio Miracle.”

But many policy experts in Ohio say the ”miracle” is a myth. ”We have the fourth-worst job-creation rate among states since aggressive tax-cutting began in 2005,” notes Amy Hanauer, director of the progressive think tank Policy Matters Ohio, which recently came out with a report showing that changes to Ohio’s tax system in the past nine years have cut taxes for the wealthiest one percent by $20,000 while the bottom three-fifths have seen their taxes increase. Though Ohio’s job market has slightly improved, it is still more than 100,000 jobs below its pre-recession numbers. As for the balanced budget, Hanauer and others note that these gains generally came at the expense of Ohio’s municipalities, which lost half of their funding, as well as public-school budgets, which lost $1.8 billion.

At the same time, the state invested nearly $1 billion in mostly underperforming charter schools, to the primary benefit of Republican donors. This August, the nonpartisan public-policy group Innovation Ohio issued a report on Kasich’s education record, noting that two of Ohio’s largest charter-school operators, David Brennan and William Lager, also happened to be the state GOP’s largest individual donors, contributing more than $5 million to the Republican Party since the 1990s. Starting in 1998, schools run by the two men have reaped roughly one-quarter of all the taxpayer-funded charter money – about $1.7 billion. Ohio’s charter–school operators have successfully claimed that the money given to charter-management companies is no longer public, leaving them exempt from government audits or any other public scrutiny.

Progressive groups in Ohio have consistently challenged the legality of private organizations accepting public money, and in 2010, the left-leaning ProgressOhio accused JobsOhio of violating the state’s constitution by accepting public funds – a challenge that was taken to the Supreme Court. In June 2014, the court dismissed the claim by ProgressOhio, stating that it didn’t have sufficient standing to sue. But even Tea Party activists agreed with the leftist group, says Brian Rothenberg, executive director of ProgressOhio. ”It’s not just privatization that is problematic in Ohio, it is the transfer of public dollars into private coffers with little accountability or transparency,” says Rothenberg. Kasich, who once described Rothenberg as a ”nihilist” for objecting to his agenda, has shut down all state audits of private contractors until the end of his second term. ”So now, prisoners have maggots in food served by private vendors, and home-health-care aides making minimum wage have to wait months for their pay because the state privatized the Medicaid–Medicare billing system,” Rothenberg continues. ”But then again, when you elect a Lehman Brothers executive as governor, you just bring in the same intricate Wall Street shell games that bog down our economy nationally.”

The impact of these policies has been to shift the burden onto the taxpayers, who now must decide which municipal services they’d like to pay for, in lieu of state funds. In the town of Elida, for instance, the Lima suburb where Lori Chaffins grew up, voters recently rejected a $1.9 million levy on their property taxes that would have gone to support the local school district. In nearby Perry Township, voters agreed to a $90,000 levy to pay for municipal expenses like road repair. In Lima itself, where property taxes are the lowest in the area, Mayor David Berger had to close two of the city’s five fire stations and cut the municipal workforce nearly in half to stay out of bankruptcy. He estimates that the combined loss of federal and state money has been about $3 million to $4 million a year, a sizable portion of the city’s $25 million budget. ”This is the new normal,” says Berger, who lacks either a secretary or a chief of staff. ”Shrunken.”

tea party lima ohio

 A courtly, bearded 60-year-old, Berger, a progressive, is Lima’s longest-serving mayor, having been elected in 1989. Since then, he’s been fighting to keep his town afloat. In 1996, the city had a near-death experience when BP announced it would close Lima’s refinery, which would have eliminated 500 jobs and a payroll worth more than $31 million. Berger and a coalition of local leaders fought to save the refinery over the next two years, and in 1998, they won when a surprise buyer emerged in the small St. Louis petroleum company Clark Oil, which purchased the refinery for $215 million. The facility has changed hands three times since then, and under its current owner, the Canadian Husky Energy, the 1,100-acre complex has expanded to include eight refining and chemical businesses employing more than 1,000 full-time workers.

Berger sees this as a positive sign. ”I think the refinery is here for at least another generation,” he says. But the city’s larger industrial base faces a less certain future. Lima, unlike some Rust Belt cities, emerged from the recession of 2008 ”stable,” as Berger puts it, because it didn’t have much more to lose. Its worst economic crisis happened during the manufacturing downturn of the 1980s and 1990s, and most of the jobs lost then never returned. What rushed in to fill the void were increasingly lower-wage jobs in the health care and retail sectors, creating a problem less of unemployment than of underemployment, where people now must hold two or even three jobs to make ends meet.

This is one of the less-heralded facts hidden behind the rosy job numbers coming out of both Columbus and Washington. As Jason Perlman, political director- for the Ohio AFL-CIO, tells me, ”The new normal is, ‘Be happy you have a job – any job.’ But how do those jobs pay?” According to a recent Innovation Ohio report, the number of low-wage jobs paying between $7 and $13.39 an hour now outnumber both medium- and higher-wage jobs and, in fact, account for virtually all the job growth in the state. ”So who’s really winning if you can’t take care of your family?” Perlman says.

We’re dying very slowly and it’s a terrible death,” says John Paradore, who directs the local community-action program for the United Auto Workers union. On a hot afternoon, we meet near the town square, once Lima’s bustling shopping district. With most of its stores having long ago relocated to the Lima Mall, or simply closed altogether, the area has a hollowed-out feel. In a small urban park, a group of men in their undershirts idle on benches, drinking iced tea. City Hall is wide open, the receptionist who used to man the front desk having long been laid off. Though Lima does have a sparkling new civic center – host to the Lima Symphony – there is almost nowhere to grab a sandwich or a cup of coffee. One of the first things an outsider notices is that Lima and its townships lack what, for most communities, is the first sign of upward mobility, a Starbucks.

During industrialization’s heyday, the wealthy people in Lima lived on the west side of town, says Paradore, as we drive down Market Street. Stately stone mansions with turreted roofs and huge, well-tended colonials go by; one Victorian mansion houses the Allen County Museum. The rest, or what remains of them, are empty and for sale, or inhabited by doctors or lawyers – though a lot of them have moved out too, says Paradore. ”There’s nothing but old people here now,” he says.

Paradore heads south of Market, into the city’s low-rent core, where all the houses- seem in need of fresh paint. A warehouse here, some police tape there, a Dollar General. Lima has quite a few dollar stores or similar establishments. In one shopping center, we pass a Rent-a-Center, a Dollar Tree, an American Budget Co. and a Check Into Cash, as well as the requisite nail salon and pet-supply shops. There is also a gigantic Walmart Supercenter fronting an empty lot. That used to be Rays, a supermarket, Paradore tells me. A few years ago, a smaller Walmart opened around the corner from Rays, but its lease agreement prohibited it from selling grocery items. So Walmart decided to move from the strip mall to a lot just behind it, where it built a new, expanded facility. By 2013, Rays had closed. ”Don’t even get me started on Walmart,” Paradore says.

Paradore is 64 and grew up in Lima. In 1973, when he was 22, he went to work on the assembly line at Ford, and stayed at the company until his retirement in 2004. Over that period, he bore witness to Lima’s industrial decline. It started slowly, with a wave of layoffs at Ford in the late 1970s, he notes, as we drive past the Husky Energy refinery and a giant chemical plant, toward the city’s old industrial core. Skeletons of some of the old factories remain, but elsewhere, there are only vacant lots. Soon after, layoffs had spread to Westinghouse, Dana, Ex-Cello and Clark Equipment. Superior Coach, one of the city’s oldest factories and once the nation’s largest- producer of buses, sold to private investors in 1981. Even Ford, whose 2.4-million–square-foot engine plant now spreads across more than 300 acres, reduced its workforce from 4,500 to 1,600 by 1983.

In the late 1980s, the economy improved and plants once again began hiring. But the tenor of the town had changed. To stay alive, many of Lima’s surviving businesses had been sold to large conglomerates with only a tenuous connection to the region, let alone the city. In the early 1990s, a new wave of devastating closings hit. There were large cuts at the U.S. Army tank plant, now owned by General Dynamics, which had been the country’s largest producer of tanks during World War II. Over the years, its workforce had dwindled from 4,000 to less than 500. By the end of the 1990s, notes Perry Bush, a historian at Bluffton University and author of Rust Belt Resistance, which chronicles Lima’s industrial decline, the combined impact of the lost jobs and the loss in tax revenue had cost the local economy $250 million.

The unions, which once represented almost a third of the area’s workers, were now in a precarious position. Since the 1960s, a combination of racial divisions in the workforce, the shift of industry overseas or to the de-unionized South, and the increasing use of union-busting consulting firms to intimidate striking workers had weakened the American labor movement to the point that, by the 1980s, broad anti-union sentiment began to seep into even bedrock industrial communities like Lima. To keep their people at work, the United Auto Workers and other unions now agreed to concessions with management that systematically stripped collective bargaining of much of its power. At Hayes-Albion, the Ford supplier where Dewey Chaffins worked for 30 years, managers came to their employees in the late 1980s with a deal: accept a cap on their salaries – and a 50-cent bonus as a thank-you – or run the risk of being let go. Older workers, like Dewey, refused. But younger employees said yes, and the yeses won. With those concessions, wages began to steadily drop until, by the time Dewey retired in 2002, he was making less than he had a decade earlier. A union man all his life, Dewey saw the changes and was angry at the UAW for giving in, says Scott Chaffins; but he was even angrier at the workers for not realizing what was happening to them. ”My parents’ generation wanted a better life for their children, and those children, having lived a better life, didn’t know what it was like to struggle,” says Scott. ”It was like the farther they got away from their history of struggle, the more complacent they became.”

Today, UAW representation in Lima is vastly diminished. To John Paradore’s dismay, ”even people who work in the factories think unions are bad,” he says. ”It’s hard to really understand it. You have a lot of guys who did well because of the union. But their attitude is, ‘I got mine, and who cares about the other guy.’

Some plants, like Honda, have never been unionized, though they adhere to policies set by labor unions in Japan. At Ford, however, the UAW agreed to wage cuts during the most recent downturn, the result being that, today, a new factory worker at Ford might start at $19 an hour, ”which is good,” Paradore notes, though he or she will often be working side by side with someone who, hired under a previous, more robust contract, is making nearly twice as much. In many companies, workers start at $14 an hour, or even less. In 2010, International Brake Industries, which was founded in Lima in 1967 and was acquired by a Michigan-based company in 1999, went from paying workers $14 per hour to asking the UAW to agree to new wages of $9 per hour. The union said no, and in the spring of 2011, International Brake decided to close its Lima plant and move operations to Indiana. One-hundred–and-ninety-eight people lost their jobs. To avoid further dealings with the union, the company also told employees its Indiana plant would hire contract workers.

Contract work, which is often not full time, is rapidly becoming the major source of employment in Lima, as in many parts of the country. There are a number of temporary agencies – also known as staffing services – in Lima, who supply local businesses- with both blue- and white-collar workers. ”We used to see a cycle of employment where someone would be hired for 89 days” – a traditional cutoff between temporary and permanent employment,” says Jacqueline Fox, CEO of the Lima Allen Council on Community Affairs, a local community–action organization. ”Get laid off, go on unemployment and then get hired again, sometimes by getting reassigned to a different company, while the first one hires another temp.” But now, Fox notes, temp jobs can last a lot longer – ”indefinitely,” she says. Many businesses often use temp agencies as a way to prescreen for permanent employees; others, though, base their entire business plan on temporary hires. Says Fox, ”We can’t get employers to make a long-term commitment to employees to move them from temp to permanent because, in my opinion, it’s a cost-savings measure. You don’t have to pay health insurance if you have temporary employees. And they’re easily replaced.”

”What we experienced here is that the Great Recession really became an employer’s market,” says Marilyn Horstman, deputy director of social services at the Allen County Jobs and Family Services. Between 2008 and 2010, the worst years of the recession, unemployment in Allen County rose from 7.9 percent to more than 12 percent. ”If a company wanted rocket scientists to work on the floor of a manufacturing facility, they could get it,” says Horstman. Before people even realized what was happening, she adds, companies started to increasingly rely on temp agencies, which they saw as more cost-efficient. ”Some of these companies didn’t have HR departments, and if they had them, they would still have whole areas, like a whole warehouse, that was all run through a temp agency.”

Horstman tells me about one employer that has hired hundreds of temporary workers, a number of who can’t afford their own cars to get to work. Though the city does have bus service, it only covers a limited area and doesn’t run all night, leaving those who work the late shifts out of luck. Many workers without cars either find a ride with a friend or take taxis, which some temp agencies pay for by deducting the fare from a worker’s check. ”After that deduction,” says Horstman, ”some people wind up making around $2 an hour.”

Before she started driving a school bus, Lori Chaffins had a job through a temporary agency at the nearby Honda plant, driving cars across the plant for $13 an hour. ”I didn’t have the benefits, I didn’t have the bonus, I didn’t have insurance. And on Saturday, I would get time and a half like everybody else, but I worked right next to someone doing the same job and making $35 an hour,” she says.

Thirty-eight-year-old Kenneth Long spent seven years as a contractor, most recently driving a forklift at Procter & Gamble. In Lima, he says, contractors did most of the physical work while P&G’s full-time employees generally sat behind computers. But for someone lacking a college degree, it was the only way to get a job. ”It’s like legalized extortion,” he says.

Long and his 41-year-old cousin, Shawn Smith, are sitting on the porch of Shawn’s mother’s house on the south side of Lima. Their families have lived in Lima even longer than the Chaf