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Downsized: how it feels


As JoAnn James-Scott opens her front door, I can see her smiling through the screen. She calls it her Kool-Aid smile.

She's lived in the 19th Ward all her life. Her home is modest, and its goldenrod base with burgundy trim looks freshly painted. She asks if I'd mind taking off my shoes. We sit in her living room. Pictures dress the fireplace mantle and more fill the end table next to her sofa.

JoAnn is a fit-looking 47, and she has a daughter, JeRonda, 31, and two grandchildren that she calls the highlight of her life. She was 12 when her mother died. She met her husband, Allen, at Valeo, the Rochester auto-parts plant where she has worked for the last 22 years. Valeo just announced two weeks ago that it was shutting down its Rochester shop. JoAnn will soon be out of a job. This is what it feels like, in JoAnn's words, to spend your life in machine work and to be downsized.

"I've worked all my life. I like my job. I remember my interview at Valeo. They liked that I always had something lined up, that all my jobs to that point intertwined. No gaps. I was hired in 1983 and I've been there ever since. You know, I had my plan to retire after 30 years. Maybe I would do something part-time. I have a lot of emotions about it right now.

It's not hard work. Long hours. Lots of time on your feet. But I go in and get into my routine. Last night I went in at 6:45 and came home this morning at 11. I haven't gone to bed yet. That's 16 hours on your feet.

It's machine work, auto parts. They want you to do a minimum of 1,600 parts a day. That's not hard. It's not dangerous, either. That machine won't even cycle until you push the button. It's tedious. All you need are your hands. You really don't need to think about a lot of things. Just keep moving. I had this one job where you had to put this grease over the case, and that black grease would get all over. It would even get under your nails with gloves on. I would come home and I would still smell it on my skin.

I've had some good managers and I've had some real doozies. They're all gone, and I'm still there. This one guy, he was just one of those people, you know, who just like to abuse their power. They think they're managing. He went by me one day and I had my paper out, cuz you know, I like to read my paper, do my crossword puzzle on my breaks. He says 'put that away,' so I folded it up nice and neat, and I put it under my lunch box. He comes by again and says, 'that's not good enough. I don't want to see it.' And then, this other time, he sends this girl into the ladies room after me. She tells me that he said he didn't want me sleepin' in there on company time. I said I am not sleeping, and if he has proof of it he has been peeping in those stalls. That's invading my privacy. I finally told him, 'You've gone too far. I'm gonna have to go the union about you.'

I liked the day shift. We worked as a team on that shift. It was a great group of people and we worked well together. We looked out for each other. The C shift is more intense. I don't know why, because we had all the white shirts on the day shift, but they didn't bother us. They knew that we knew how to do our job, and left us alone. This shift, it's every man for himself. I tell 'em I can play any game. Just tell me how to do it.

That company has been good though. My daughter came there for a while, and she didn't like it. 'It's too hard. It's awful.' But I told her, don't you hate my job because I don't hate my job. That job paid for your braces. That job paid for a whole lot of things around here. You know, I would tell people, my job is not for sale, so don't be givin' my job away. But you know, the younger generation, they can't work as hard as we do. They're not used to it.

I don't know what I'm gonna do. I have to admit --- I do have some emotions about it. I was hoping to be there to get my 30 years in. But we knew things were not going so well. There were over 4,000 employees there when I first started. But we kept thinking, once they get down to a certain level, they will see efficiency and be more profitable.

My husband has always wanted to leave Rochester. But Rochester is all I know. Besides, I had my job. I had my house. And I had my family here, so I was content. I liked my life. I really liked my life. He has always wanted to move some place a little warmer. So, maybe this is the time. I am trying to motivate myself because I know I have to do something. But what? I don't know. I have to go out into a workforce with a lot of younger people who have degrees. I can't go some place for $9 or $10 an hour. That just won't work for me. But there are no jobs like mine anymore. Not around here. Allen says this is my chapter two.

I always wanted to be a coordinator. You know, plan parties and events. I love it. I love putting it all together. The food, the decorations, the theme --- I just love it. But for right now, it's like I told my friend --- they're still signing pay checks down there, so I'm going to work."