The Common Good
March-April 2001

That Sucking Sound

by Julie Polter | March-April 2001

You can't go home again—there aren't any jobs there anymore.

I don't think it's just post-Boomer nostalgia and those Toy Story movies that make me fond of the Etch A Sketch. It is low-tech, nonviolent, portable, and bears theological wisdom as few toys do. A friend remembers the first time he etched away enough of the silver stuff so he could see the mechanism inside-how cool it was, and what a bummer, and how there's a parable in there somewhere. An Etch A Sketch teaches about the fragility of life, that what you create will rarely last forever. And something about forgiveness and grace: They are readily available, but we don't always want to accept them; they usually involve being shaken up, but the result is a fresh, blank slate.

When toy company Ohio Art announced late last year that they were moving production of the Etch A Sketch from their headquarters in Bryan, Ohio, to China, several friends offered me their condolences. I grew up a few miles from Bryan, in a rural county that might be close to nowhere. To explain where I'm from, I give a rote set of coordinates: "50 miles west of Toledo, 10 miles south of Michigan, 17 miles east of Indiana." In response to the blank stares I usually get at this point, I cite the area's famous products, both made in Bryan: The Dum Dum suckers that my late father made at the end of his 40 years as a cook at Spangler Candy Co., and, of course, the Etch A Sketch.

I have snapshots of myself posing with the giant plywood Etch A Sketch that is part of the annual Bryan town square Christmas decoration. Indeed, a company spokesperson noted that they might well have moved production out of Bryan sooner, but they took seriously the deep community connections the toy represented.

Several small Etch A Sketch models have been made overseas for years; only the "classic" was still made in Bryan. Lately the manufacturing of hard goods has flown out of the United States as companies shrug off the burdens of regulations, unions, and First World labor costs for the more affordable production offered by overseas contractors. Even before the advent of NAFTA and tax-exempt export processing zones, I was keenly aware that jobs, production, and capital migrated. With a father, one brother, an aunt, an uncle, cousins, and several high school classmates working in various factories, I was familiar with how portable and transient entire factories could be-and how the news on the financial pages always trickles down somewhere to hardware and humans. Every few years a local company transferred operations to a Southern state where the nonunion wages were lower or a local plant was gutted for machinery and parts after a buy-out, to be shipped elsewhere along with the jobs.

SO I CYNICALLY assumed that the Etch A Sketch production jobs had migrated long ago. I can believe that company executives were reluctant to make this move-Ohio Art is not a huge transnational. A local family still owns part of it. But the company has struggled financially the past two years, and overseas contracting was a way to cut costs. They are keeping other parts of their operations in Bryan. News reports said that only about 30 workers were going to be affected by the shift. Still, 30 workers mean 30 families, and that is a substantial hit on a small town's economy and morale.

Maybe because this bit of "financial news" happened close to my roots, it made me re-examine that too-easy cynicism about job loss and the ways of globalization. Job losses in the United States or an underpaid work force overseas don't come with easy solutions. But that's not an excuse for not seeking solutions, and that means not wasting energy on cynicism. There's too much at stake-like the right to organize, for workers here and abroad, and internationally enforced standards to counter sweatshops.

Our commerce may be global, but the means of production is always local to somewhere; it always involves people. Doing what we can to create mercy and justice for all of God's children is our call. I suspect it's a large part of why we're here.

Working for international labor rights is harder than making a circle on an Etch A Sketch. But like finally getting a gracefully curved line on that silver screen, it's worth the effort.

Julie Polter is associate editor of Sojourners.

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