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SHENZHEN, China — Every day, hundreds of Chinese laborers here pass in front of a factory sign that may be true, but still reads like an insult to the people of DeWitt, Neb.
“Home of the Vise-Grip.”
For generations, that was DeWitt's proud claim. Vise-Grip locking pliers were invented in DeWitt, a Saline County village about 30 miles southwest of Lincoln, and produced in a factory that sits on the town's main street.
Some townspeople spent their entire adult lives making pliers. After work, guys at the local bar would test each other's strength by squeezing a pair of Vise-Grips with one hand, tightening the tension and passing it on. At night, DeWitt residents went to sleep to the clang of steel and the hum of metal presses as the plant churned out millions of pliers a year.
All that changed four years ago when the factory's parent company, Newell Rubbermaid, made headlines nationally: The DeWitt plant was closing and Vise-Grip production was moving to China. About 330 workers lost their jobs.
It's a fate on the minds of many American workers this Labor Day weekend. As the economic recovery grinds slowly, many workers continue to worry that their employers might seek to cut production costs by finding cheaper labor in other countries, whether that's in China, India, Mexico or Vietnam.
In DeWitt's case, the clanging steel now happens in Shenzhen, a fast-growing city of 14 million, not a village of 513. It happens amid China's urban toll roads and high-rises and countless other factories, instead of a small Nebraska town surrounded by cornfields and lacking a single stoplight.
These days, Vise-Grips are made mainly by migrant Chinese workers who are hundreds of miles from their homes and families, living in dormitories next to the factory. In Nebraska, workers lived with their families in their own homes in DeWitt or nearby communities such as Wilber, Beatrice and Crete.
The 2008 Vise-Grip move to China is just one example of the outsourcing trend that has sent large numbers of American jobs overseas, year after year.
Reliable outsourcing numbers are scarce. Some academic studies have estimated hundreds of thousands of jobs lost each year, while the U.S. Department of Labor counts far fewer jobs shifted through overseas moves — partly because of gaps in the way the numbers are collected.
As Election Day approaches, both Democrats and Republicans are trying to tap into public fears about outsourcing. President Barack Obama's campaign has targeted GOP nominee Mitt Romney's record on outsourcing while at Bain Capital, and Republicans have claimed that Obama's stimulus law sent jobs overseas. Independent fact checkers say both sides are stretching the truth.
But there's no question about what happened to the Vise-Grip employees in DeWitt.
Monday is the four-year anniversary of the day they officially learned that their parent company, Newell Rubbermaid, had decided to shift production to a plant in Shenzhen, a special Chinese economic zone just across the border from Hong Kong.
It was a shock to many, but not entirely unanticipated. Newell Rubbermaid, a conglomerate with businesses such as Graco car seats, Levolor window blinds and Sharpie pens, had been closing scores of U.S. factories in the previous few years as part of a massive restructuring. Several plants in Beatrice shut down, for example, and many of those jobs went overseas.
In DeWitt, employees had taken pay cuts and seen the local workforce shrink from a peak of 750 two decades earlier. Corporate bean-counters were questioning some of the factory's manufacturing processes, suggesting some were unneeded and could be cut to save money.
Already, some specialty tools in the Vise-Grip line were being made in Taiwan, and some of the parts being assembled into pliers in Nebraska had been shipped in from China.
The DeWitt workers say they could tell the difference in the quality of the Chinese parts. The steel in the handles wasn't as good, they said. Some parts were cold-forged instead of hot, the way the DeWitt factory always did it.
They had a derisive name for those pliers with Chinese components: “Rice Grips.”
But the DeWitt workers were well aware that the world had changed. Knockoff versions of Vise-Grips already were being made in China and elsewhere, and consumers were buying them.
It didn't matter that the imitations didn't hold up as well as real Vise-Grips in the factory's stress tests. Consumers seemed to like lower prices more than they respected the Vise-Grip brand name and reputation for quality.
At the time, Newell Rubbermaid's push to use some Chinese parts seemed like a reasonable way to make pliers at a competitive price.
But in the end, it didn't matter. By Oct. 31, 2008, the DeWitt plant was shut down.
DeWitt's loss was Xu Weijun's gain.
In 2008, Xu was a migrant worker in the booming industrial city of Shenzhen, looking for a better job to support his family back home. One of Xu's relatives told him that Newell Rubbermaid was hiring as it added the Vise-Grip line, and he jumped at the chance.
He's still there. The 36-year-old said his job is to clean the teeth of the jaws of the Vise-Grips, removing minor imperfections left by the cutting machine before the pliers are electroplated.
He's glad to work as many hours as he can get. Most months, he earns about $420, including overtime.
In DeWitt, where the average wage was $13.50 an hour, monthly pay was more than five times as much — not counting overtime.
Few Americans would want Xu's life. For most of the year, he lives apart from his wife and two sons, ages 12 and 9, unable to spare the money or the time for the 250-mile, one-way journey to Hezhou in Guangxi province. He typically sees his family once a year over the Chinese New Year.
Shenzhen was a relatively small fishing village in the late 1970s when China's leaders tapped it to become an industrial powerhouse by making it attractive to foreign companies seeking cheap labor. They revamped local laws for banking, labor and property ownership, and built an airport and highways.
Shenzhen went from rigid communist rule to what Chinese officials called a “socialist market economy.” Foreign investment poured in. So did laborers from surrounding areas.
In Shenzhen, Xu bunks with six other men in a company dormitory room next to the factory. The rent is cheap — 40 yuan per month, or about $6.50. As a result, he's usually able to send about $320 a month to his family.
In his hometown, Xu says, the largest factories have just a few dozen workers, and the monthly base salary is much less. Even with overtime, he couldn't expect to earn more than $240 a month.
Smoking a cigarette as he watched a raucous game of pool near the plant gates, Xu was stoic about life as a migrant worker.
“I don't have a good education,” he said, speaking through an interpreter. “I don't have any other choice. For my family, I have to work outside (my hometown).”
When he's not working, Xu hangs out in the street between Newell Rubbermaid's factory building and its offices and dormitories. The surrounding area has other factories, as well as apartments and pungent food markets with live chickens.
Workers from nearby plants mingle outside in the sticky heat, most wearing shirts embroidered with company names, often with upper-sleeve pockets for a spoon to use at meal breaks.
In an open area of the wide street closed to traffic, kids play badminton without a net.
Told that hundreds of Nebraska workers lost their jobs when he gained his, Xu expressed sympathy. But he added that ordinary workers like him have nothing to do with such decisions.
DeWitt resident and former Vise-Grip worker Bruce McDougall knows about doing what you need to do to survive. He continued to work a few months for Newell Rubbermaid as a consultant helping with the new Chinese production line. Some former co-workers were angry with him for going to Shenzhen, but he said he had a family to support.
In China, McDougall was taken aback by the “old-school” factory's lack of automation. “It's like stepping into the '40s and '50s.”
McDougall found himself standing up for the Chinese workers when Newell Rubbermaid officials complained they weren't as productive as the DeWitt employees. The main problem wasn't workers, he said, but inadequate equipment.
Newell Rubbermaid, which is based in Atlanta, declined to answer specific questions about production methods or the market forces that drove the company to move to China. But spokesman David Doolittle said the move has had good results.
“In the past four years, the Vise-Grip brand has gained market share, entered new global markets, and been recognized for quality and new product innovations,” he said.
Over the years, competition and cost-cutting have made Vise-Grip pliers less expensive than they used to be, after adjusting for inflation.
In 1949, for example, you could buy a 10-inch Vise-Grip plier direct from Petersen Manufacturing for $2.50, including shipping. In current dollars, that's about $24. Last week at Lowe's, a Chinese-made Vise-Grip cost about half as much — although another brand's similar locking pliers, also made in China, were even less expensive.
Despite criticism from former employees and some snarky comments on Internet sites, the company's Chinese-made products stack up well, Doolittle said.
“We use the same or better materials in all our Vise-Grip products,” he said. “We conduct rigorous internal testing of our products and meet or exceed all the quality standards of the earlier products.”
Jack Garrison is unconvinced. The lifelong DeWitt resident worked at the factory for 43 years, including a long stint in quality control. Now 78, he says he's seen Vise-Grips from China with uneven jaws and imperfect plating that never would have passed muster on his watch.
“Vise-Grip used to be a proud name,” Garrison said. “That's not true anymore.”
Vise-Grips were invented by William Petersen, a Danish immigrant who came up with the tool in his blacksmith shop and was granted the first patents in the 1920s. The company was run by Petersen's children and grandchildren until 2002, when Newell Rubbermaid bought out their interest.
Until then, the Petersens were famous in town for taking care of their workers and community.
When local groups had fundraisers, the Petersens often made the contribution that put the drive over the top. In winter, the Petersens sometimes deployed their maintenance workers to help with snow removal.
And when Garrison was looking to buy a house in 1963 for his growing family, one of the Petersens told him to let the company buy the house. Rather than paying on a mortgage, Garrison had money withheld from his paycheck until he had repaid the company's no-interest loan.
“That's the kind of people they were,” said Randy Badman, a 36-year employee. “They treated us like family. We weren't treated like numbers.”
It's a connection lost when Newell Rubbermaid took over, leaving DeWitt more vulnerable to the sharp-pencil calculations of corporate finance officials.
Vise-Grip was hardly the first business to follow that path from a mom-and-pop enterprise to an impersonal multinational corporation. Within Newell Rubbermaid, for example, Vise-Grip is part of Irwin Industrial Tools — which itself was once a small Ohio-based company that made its name by producing a unique auger bit.
The Irwin website praises both Ohio's Charles Irwin and Nebraska's William Petersen as “two men from the American Heartland” whose imagination and determination laid the foundation for the modern company.
The website doesn't mention that Newell Rubbermaid not only closed the DeWitt Vise-Grip plant, but a few years earlier shut down Irwin's longstanding operations in Wilmington, Ohio. Most of Irwin's jobs in Ohio went to China or Brazil.
DeWitt was hit hard by the Vise-Grip closing, although locals say they've taken the punch and are still standing.“We haven't dried up and shriveled up and blown away,” said Badman, who is DeWitt's village chairman.
With the help of a state grant, the town is repaving some roads, including one along the edge of the factory. It's named Vise-Grip Drive.
The town's population continues to decline, although that trend was already in play before the plant closed. Most local residents have stayed, but these days, DeWitt is more of a bedroom community for places like Beatrice, Crete and Falls City.
A few small businesses — a convenience store and a day care — have opened in town, part of the ebb and flow of main streets.
At the factory itself, which covers four city blocks, attempts to lure a big company have fallen short, but three small manufacturers have taken over corners of the 376,000-square-foot building, which also is used for boat and camper storage.
One of the new businesses makes ceramic gazing balls, gnomes and other yard decorations. Shari Lewis, owner of 3Paws Inc., worked in packaging at the Vise-Grip factory in the 1980s and is happy to be back. Earlier this year, she had 20 workers helping with a big order for Menards, but her company normally employs three.
It's nothing like the old Vise-Grip days, of course. And it's hard to know when — or if — those days will ever return.
But Vise-Grips remain part of the town.
In the collection of pliers on display at the town museum, where Garrison recalls every weld and design change.
In the stories many DeWitt residents can tell of family ties to the factory. “Everybody in my immediate family worked there, including my kids and my wife,” said Badman, 64. So did his father.
In the town office building that was donated by Harriet Petersen Fort, the daughter of the Vise-Grip founder. (Fort died this summer at age 102.)
And while a Chinese factory on the other side of the world may make a similar claim, locals know the difference between the original and a pretender. In case anyone is tempted to forget, DeWitt's town sign spells it out in enduring brick letters:
“The Home of Vise-Grip Tools.”
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