In the fall of 1979 while visiting friends in Burlington, VT, I went into a McDonaldâ€™s to eat breakfast and bought a copy of the Burlington Free Press. The front page carried a story about IBM, which had a plant in Burlington. IBM, according to the story, had purchased a large tract of land on the outskirts of Athens, GA, for the purpose of building a plant there to manufacture semiconductorsâ€”components of electronic circuits. I found a pay phone and called John Toon, one of The Athens Observerâ€™s ace reporters, and we had a scoop. As you know, IBM never did anything with the propertyâ€”probably just as well in a way, because the semiconductor manufacturing process used millions of gallons of water. IBM sold to the Orkin family, and now theyâ€™ve sold some of it to Athens-Clarke County and Oconee County, who will sell it to Caterpillar. Thus, over 30 years later, we have finally hit the jobs jackpot.
As Kevan Williams points out in this issueâ€™s Athens Rising, the deal flies in the face of all the nay-saying that pictures our area as unfriendly to business with an unattractive workforce and uncooperative local governments. Caterpillar likes us for who we are, loves us, apparently, and is ready to break ground. Once that happens, lots of suppliers are expected to buy up the rest of the IBM/Orkin property and create even more jobs supporting Caterpillarâ€™s needs.
Still, dare I say it? You knew I would. There is something disturbing to me in that photograph of our mayor and commission and staff all posing together wearing CAT capsâ€”the one where theyâ€™re all looking straight ahead, except for the mayor, who cuts her eyes at the camera. I certainly donâ€™t begrudge them this moment of glory, brought about by heroic efforts from our staff, led by the manager and never-before-seen cooperation between our government and Oconee Countyâ€™s.
The deal is sealed, and now weâ€™ll see how it works out. Weâ€™ll see how Caterpillar fits into our community and how we accept Caterpillar. Up until now, everything has been top secret, as these matters always areâ€”no press, no public meetings, no citizen involvement: the perfect business transaction, everything behind closed doors, every tax abatement, every expense for water and sewer and transportation, land purchase, workforce trainingâ€”all worked out away from the prying eyes and questioning minds of our citizens: all done for us by the experts who know what we need and want and have finally figured out a way to get it for us and certainly donâ€™t need any help from the Athens music community lamenting the trees that will be cut down.
We are welcoming a company that is on the cutting edge of adapting to modern economic realities, a highly profitable American company that is bringing jobs back home by negotiating pay cuts with unions, avoiding unions by moving to â€œright-to-workâ€ states and leaving states where it deems corporate taxes too high. We welcome Caterpillar gladly, as we would welcome any other corporation that brought us jobs, because we are desperate. If they decide to retreat from their promise to pay above the median wage in Athens and Oconee, that will be okay, too. Like the rest of America, we are in no position to bargain. Caterpillar, like the automobile manufacturers, has caught on to the fact that our long-running recession has finally made it unnecessary to go to third-world countries for cheap labor when they can get it right here at home.
Thatâ€™s just the facts. Thatâ€™s just smart business. The â€œunion bossesâ€ are dead, and they never lived in Georgia, anyway. Itâ€™s a Walmart world, and Caterpillar employees, like their counterparts in the new GM jobs, will shop at Walmart to make ends meet if necessary. Theyâ€™ll need the new Walmart downtown and probably a few more nearer the site.
Yeah, yeah, I know. Whatâ€™s the dif? Weâ€™ve got Caterpillar and the jobs we have lacked for so long, and thatâ€™s the main thing we had to have. Iâ€™m just sayinâ€™: we donâ€™t know what else weâ€™ve got, because we werenâ€™t behind those closed doors. For this gigantic windfall to work out in the best interests of Athens-Clarke County citizens and Oconee County citizens, we are totally dependent on our elected governments and their staffs to look out for usâ€”and theyâ€™re all wearing CAT hats.
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