CNN Senior National editor
Confirmation of what already was apparent – that the economy is in recession – sent me to the basement.
I found the box filled with hundreds of articles I wrote between 1978 and 1983 for the Quad-City Times, the largest newspaper for a community that straddles the Mississippi River and includes the cities of Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa and Rock Island and Moline in Illinois.
On a map, the “Quads” are dots in the heartland; from an airplane, urban breaks in the fertile land that feeds not only a nation, but much of the world.
A fistful of those articles reported on the battering the Quad-Cities economy took in those years, in particular the farm and construction machinery industry and the men and women who worked for such companies as home-grown John Deere and International Harvester, J.I. Case and Caterpillar Tractor.
Their wages and benefits were the product of often heated negotiations between these companies and the United Auto workers and other unions. In good times, they bought new pickup trucks, vans and campers and boats to fish the Mississippi and Rock rivers.
Then came the last major recession suffered by this country. The farm economy crashed. Demand for tractors, combines and other equipment fell.
In technical terms, the nation was in recession from January-July 1980 and July 1981-November 1982.
In real terms, the Quad-Cities endured a recession that started before and finished well after those dates. Some might say that recovery continues today, even as another recession takes hold.
Labor was one of my “beats” in those years. My byline appeared on what I crudely referred to as the “obits” on some 20,000 jobs. Over time, the presidents of union locals came to dread my calls and company spokesmen gave up putting a positive spin on grim numbers of layoffs and plant closings.
As the equipment makers struggled with declining sales and profits, the unions were asked to make concessions, often on top of previous concessions. When those unions decided they would give back no more, up went the strike shacks outside plant gates. Union funds replaced only a portion of the strikers’ wages. Blue-collar pickets outside could idle non-union white-collar employees inside, as the companies lost production and revenues.
Everyone suffered, but probably none more than International Harvester. In 1979, Harvester’s chief – whose $460,000-plus salary made him one of the highest paid CEOs at the time – pressed the UAW for concessions on top of an earlier cost-cutting program. He underestimated the union’s resolve. The 172-day strike that followed – one of the longest in UAW history, through a bitterly-cold winter – ended with the union retaining most of its benefits. That CEO was gone soon thereafter, but International Harvester was on the road to its eventual demise.
When these big companies suffered, so did smaller firms that supplied parts and services. The result was predictable.
“Clouds on Q-C’s horizon” was the banner headline on the front page of the Times on Sunday, Nov. 8, 1981. My lede sentence: “The stories about layoffs in the Quad-Cities read like wartime casualty reports; the news from the economic battlefront is not good.”
Three months later, on Feb. 14, 1982, the headline read “Layoffs become a way of life.” “The economic formula is simple,” I wrote. “When you have too much of something, cannot sell what you have and are not building more – workers must be laid off.” Caterpillar planned to idle 1,450 workers for a week and 350 indefinitely at local plants. “We can live with this one-week thing, but their 350 indefinite layoffs really destroy families,” the local UAW president told me.
Local merchants were hit hard. More and more downtown storefronts on both sides of the river offered nothing past the glass.
Real estate values steady declined. (I courted and eventually married a local woman and even when her parents moved to Florida in the early 1990s, the price they received for their house in Rock Island was well below its worth.)
Local governments faced budget deficits as tax receipts ebbed. Just as today, parks, libraries, public works projects and services deemed non-essential were eyed for savings.
By November 1982 unemployment in the Quad-City metro area reached a record 17.5 percent, nearly double from a year earlier.
Eventually, the financial pinch reached the newspaper. Ironically, I suppose, I became a statistic, one of a dozen people let go on an unhappy day in January 1983.
The headline on the last article I wrote: “Deere to layoff 200; July shutdown will idle 4,100.”
I’ve seen what recession can do to a community.
And it’s not pretty.
Anderson Cooper goes beyond the headlines to tell stories from many points of view, so you can make up your own mind about the news. Tune in weeknights at 8 and 10 ET on CNN.
Questions or comments? Send an email
Want to know more? Go behind the scenes with