Amid the rugged cattle farms that dot the hills of southern Kentucky, in a clearing just beyond the Smoke Shack BBQ joint and the Faith Baptist Church, lie the remains of the A.O. Smith electric-motor factory.
It’s been eight years since the doors were shuttered. The building’s blue-metal facade has faded to a dull hue, rust is eating away at scaffolding piled up in the back lot and crabgrass is taking over the lawn. At its zenith, the plant employed 1,100 people, an economic juggernaut in the tiny town of Scottsville, population 4,226.
Randall Williams and his wife, Brenda, were two of those workers. For three decades, they helped assemble the hermetically sealed motors that power air conditioners sold all across America. At the end, they were each making $16.10 an hour. That kind of money’s just a dream now: Randall fills orders at a local farm supply store; Brenda works in the high school cafeteria. For a while, he said, their combined income didn’t even add up to one of their old factory wages.
Just as the Williamses were being informed by A.O. Smith that they’d be let go, a young Mexican woman named Zoraida Gonzalez was hired some 1,200 miles away in the hardscrabble town of Acuna, just over the Rio Grande from Texas. To replace its Kentucky output, A.O. Smith was ramping up production in lower-cost Mexico, a move facilitated by the signing a decade earlier of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Gonzalez was brought in to help handle phone calls.
Now 30 years old and in charge of payroll, she makes about $1.75 an hour, on par with wages earned on the plant’s assembly line. It may not seem like much by U.S. standards. (Or, for that matter, to some of the workers toiling in the heat of Acuna’s factories.) To Gonzalez, though, the money has been life-changing. It’s given her things she says her mother never had: a washing machine, cable TV, a Ford Freestar minivan that she shares with her boyfriend, daily zumba classes at a nearby gym and the hope that her 11-year-old son, Angel, will be the first member of her family to attend college.