Home » Obama in Elkhart, Ind.: RVs, Amish, Unions

Obama in Elkhart, Ind.: RVs, Amish, Unions

President Barack Obama has gone to Elkhart, Ind., to announce $2.4 billion in new grants for work on energy-saving devices for electric cars, which will be made in recreational-vehicle factories. Elkhart and neighboring LaGrange counties manufacture more RVs than anywhere else in the United States.  The grants will increase manufacturing employment in the area and produce energy-saving equipment, a win-win situation for an area that sorely needs help.

Having visited some of those RV factories and spent some time in the area, I must point out a few things about the context of those factories and that area that the national mainstream media have not mentioned.

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My visits were in connection with my book on the Amish, “Rumspringa: To Be or Not To Be Amish.”  To the surprise of many outsiders, lots of Amish men work in these RV factories, which are located in a narrow strip in the middle part of Indiana just south of Interstate 80, an area that has a substantial Amish population.  Signs advertising the various RV brands, and for an RV Hall of Fame, can be seen from the interstate that connects New York and Chicago.

These factories make everything from small towables to large self-propelling fantasy homes on wheels; their adjunct factories construct prefabricated trailer homes.  The work is tough manual labor, as putting together an RV is the province of teams of people who do many different jobs, using machinery that can push around the multi-ton vehicles as they are being assembled.  The Amish and non-Amish work in these factories because Elkhart and LaGrange are mostly rural counties in which jobs are not plentiful anyway, and certainly not those that pay upwards of $20 an hour for experienced workers.  The factories are famous for hiring anyone who can do the work, including high school dropouts, ex-cons, and Mexican immigrants who came to the area originally to do farm work and stayed on because the factory work was available.

The RV factory foremen that I spoke with considered the Amish to be ideal employees. They are good and consistent workers, they show up for work on holidays that other workers insist on taking, they don’t complain, and they don’t need health insurance (because they pay their own). The Amish are also adamantly anti-union, which the foremen also like.   

The reasons for the area’s inordinately high rate of unemployment, which attracted the president there in February and again in August, are complex.  They involve a downturn in demand for RVs that is as much traceable to last summer’s $4-a-gallon gasoline price – RVs are notorious for gas-guzzling – as to the general downturn in the economy, which has curtailed the sale of such luxury leisure items as RVs.

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As important as these reasons is the anti-union matter.  Because there have been so many Amish available to work in the factories, the owners and operators have been able to keep the unions from successfully organizing there.  Unionized factories have a harder time laying people off whenever they feel like it, as union contracts frequently make owners pay 50 percent or more of the usual salaries during brief hiatuses, and to continue paying workers’ health benefits. The United Auto Workers (UAW) has many such contracts across the line in Michigan, contracts that have prevented the unemployment rate in Michigan from soaring into the 25-percent range rather than hovering in the 15- to 18-percent range.   Unions have been the route to the middle class for many millions of Americans. Areas with non-unionized factories tend to be poorer than those that have unions, and Elkhart and LaGrange are no exception to that rule.  

The Amish are anti-union, by the way, because of their sect’s adherence to the Biblical imperative to not yoke themselves together with unbelievers; this same tenet prevents them from using electricity from the common grid, dressing in clothing that is like that of unbelievers, and having telephones in their homes.  They work in the factories because there are no longer enough farm jobs for them.

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The other aspect of the situation that needs attention is the abysmal state of education in the area.  Despite the relatively nearby presence of Notre Dame, Purdue, Goshen, and various Indiana State Universities, this area has among the lowest percentage of college graduates in the United States.  This is a vicious circle, of course, because those who graduate from Indiana universities tend not to stay in Indiana but to go elsewhere to seek jobs; my two Chicago nieces, for instance, both of whom graduated from colleges in Indiana, are employed in the Chicago area.  But north-central Indiana also lacks good public high schools, trade schools for modern jobs (such as computing), and other such training programs.  The absence of unions also contributes to this, as today most unions have apprenticeship and training programs that can funnel high school graduates into good jobs.

Education has always been dicey in rural areas.  For many decades, farmers were permitted by law to pull their children out of school at age 14 so they could work on the farms.  This has now been altered (except for the Amish and allied sects), but the legacy of seeing education as not particularly meaningful to rural life remains.  School boards are well-intentioned but no match for voter apathy that consistently underfunds public school systems and rejects bond issues for new facilities and higher teacher salaries.  My admittedly random sampling of talks with area teenagers, Amish and non-Amish, revealed no dearth of bright young people but a lack of opportunities for serious study.  Not incidentally, I believe, those Amish who express a desire to leave the sect often cite the possibility of going elsewhere to study the wider world as a main reason for not ever coming back home from their rumspringa adventures, the testing time for Amish teens.

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So let’s celebrate the steps that the president is enabling the Elkhart area to take via new programs for energy-saving devices and the like, but let’s keep our collective eye on the underlying problems: fixing those will take a lot longer and a lot more effort.

Salisbury resident Tom Shachtman has written more than two dozen books and many television documentaries.

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