Brian Alexander is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the author of Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town.
Private-equity firms have been rapidly buying and selling off companies for decades, and workers in Lancaster, Ohio, are living with the consequences.
Men started making glassware along Pierce Avenue in Lancaster, Ohio, in 1905. That was when Ike Collins and his business partners fired up a small furnace to melt silica and other minerals inside The Hocking Glass Company near the banks of the Hocking River. Locals were soon calling the outfit “The Hockin’.”
There were other glass companies in Lancaster, drawn there by cheap natural gas. But following a 1937 merger with the New York-based Anchor Cap and Closure, The Hockin’, now Anchor Hocking, grew into the world’s largest manufacturer of glass tableware and the second-largest maker of glass containers such as beer bottles and peanut-butter jars. It even played a role in the invention of late-night TV, in 1950, by sponsoring the pioneering NBC show “Broadway Open House.” Anchor Hocking became Lancaster’s largest employer by far, the rare Fortune 500 company based in a small town. At its peak, it employed roughly 5,000 people there, including executives in the headquarters, and many more in plants around the country.
But then came the 1980s. Since the start of the Reagan administration, Anchor Hocking has undergone a series of staggering transformations as a result of the financial manipulation that has come to define the American economy in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Carl Icahn bought up shares and demanded a board seat and other changes, then agreed to leave the company alone after being allowed to sell back his ownership stake at a premium—a practice commonly referred to as “greenmailing.” Then, Anchor Hocking was purchased in a leveraged hostile takeover by Newell Corporation. After Newell’s own near-disastrous merger with Rubbermaid, Anchor Hocking was sold off in a debt-financed buyout to the huge private-equity firm Cerberus Capital Management. The company promptly fell into bankruptcy, out of which it was sold in another debt-financed buyout to a much smaller private-equity firm called Monomoy Capital Partners. There was a forced marriage with the silverware company Oneida, then an initial public offering after which the stock soon tanked. In quick succession came a shutdown, a notice (in accordance with the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act) that the place might close for good, a second bankruptcy during which the former creditors became the equity owners, and countless leadership rotations. During the past 15 years, it’s had three different corporate owners. In January the company’s name was changed from EveryWare Global to The Oneida Group.
Even after all this, they still make glass in Plant 1, the plant Ike Collins started, and roughly 900 people still have jobs in Lancaster. But the factory has been poorly maintained and the people who work there have seen their wages and benefits walked back so that now some make just about what they made, or less, adjusted for inflation, than they did back when the saga began. In 1985, that was roughly $10 per hour for a 20-year, high-level employee, or about $22.50 in today’s dollars.
The poor maintenance, the wages and benefits, and the drastic job cuts are only the most obvious costs. The spiritual damage may be more profound. Recently I sat in the small living room of a Lancaster glassman who works in Plant 1 and asked him if he knew which company currently owned Anchor Hocking. The last I knew, after the 2015 bankruptcy the ownership group consisted of former lenders that aren’t in the business of running a glass manufacturer. The company was for sale. I wondered if there’d been some ownership consolidation, and my query to the company went unanswered.
“I think it’s Monomoy,” the glassman said. It wasn’t Monomoy. I wasn’t surprised by his reply, though. Keeping track of who owned what, or even the name of the parent company, is exhausting. Many employees have mentally disconnected from their employer in an effort to tune out the turmoil. None had any idea, for example, of the dividend recapitalizations the company had performed that benefited the private-equity sponsors and increased the company’s debt burden. They had no idea what a dividend recap was. Some didn’t know a CEO had been fired until weeks after the fact. Better, they thought, to put their heads down, do their work, go home, collect a check. If the furnaces were blazing when workers showed up for their shift, they had a job.
“Stability has been replaced by chaos,” Shannon Monnat, a sociologist and demographer at Penn State University who researches the interplay between economics and health, says of such situations. The longer the stress lasts, whether it involves family, community, or work, the more disheartened people become and the more faith they lose in the system, until, finally, they disconnect to survive.
Monnat has recently been studying “diseases of despair”—the plague of opioid addiction, alcoholism, and suicide afflicting places like Lancaster. She’s found that instability at work is strongly correlated with the prevalence of these problems as well as with social and family breakdown. Drug abuse is not solely due to the cheap availability of heroin or meth, nor some imagined weakness of the working class. Monnat believes it’s also caused by people’s loss of faith that they each occupy an important place in the American system.
In Lancaster, the transition from stability to chaos seemed to happen fast, in about three decades, so many can still recall when the city was prosperous and predictable for people like the Plant 1 workers. In those days, the biggest criticism of the town was how boring it was. Lancaster was a cohesive community—a trait not lost entirely, thanks to the devotion many local people still feel—where social classes mixed and executives, from the founders to middle management, all lived in town. Their kids went to school with the factory workers’ kids.
Workers didn’t work only to earn a check. Anchor Hocking’s employees believed they were part of Lancaster’s social web, and the nation’s. But the respect workers once felt emanating from the world around them has largely disappeared. One day in the summer of 2015, I sat in on a meeting between labor and management where a woman spoke up to ask about the 401(k) plan. (Anchor Hocking’s defined-benefit pension plan was switched to a 401(k) long ago.) The company had stopped making contributions to workers’ 401(k) accounts in 2014 when the plant shut down during a fiscal crisis prompted in part by all the private-equity financial engineering.
The worker said she’d heard or read somewhere that, now that the Great Recession was over, employees at banks had once again begun receiving 401(k) matches from their employers. Referring to the lenders-turned-equity-holders, she asked, weren’t she and her fellow workers now bank employees, too? Shouldn’t they get their 401(k) matches back? She didn’t know which employees of which banks were receiving matching contributions, but it didn’t matter anyway, because EveryWare was not owned by banks, but other finance firms like Nationwide and Voya Financial. There was a giant, gray system hovering somewhere, out there, and she had no idea where, how, or even if, she fit into it.
“New hires can get a 401(k) at McDonald’s,” one man piped up. Was it any wonder Plant 1 couldn’t attract skilled millwrights? (A new contract signed last fall re-instituted 401(k) contributions for some employees.)
As the publication date of my book about Lancaster and Anchor Hocking, Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town, approached, the company’s employees had been warned via a company memo not to speak to me, or any journalists, so their identities have been kept anonymous here. (Some of the workers’ statements in this article also appeared in Glass House.) When asked about the company’s current status and plans for the future, Erika Schoenberger, The Oneida Group’s general counsel, declined to provide any details, “many of which,” she said, “remain confidential.” She only offered that Oneida is “proud of our heritage and our people” and “concentrated on strategic initiatives to build a successful future for our company and our communities.”
Weighed down by the powerful feeling that they aren’t valued, many workers are left to mark the passing of time. “These are the working-class people more likely than everybody else to have retirement countdown clocks on cell phones,” Monnat says of laborers like those at Anchor Hocking. “There’s no sense of meaning.” The American Flint Glass Workers Union, which represents some of Anchor Hocking’s factory workers, was forced to fold itself into the United Steelworkers in an attempt to maintain at least some bargaining power. But there’s precious little of that left because the workers know that at any time the plant could shut down. Production could be moved, possibly to another country.
In late February, employees were informed that The Oneida Group was contracting with the India-based outsourcer Infosys to handle customer-service functions currently based in Lancaster. The word “layoffs” did not come up in the announcement, but the implication was clear enough: They were disposable workers. “It’s tough for those people in customer service,” one salaried employee told me. Speaking of the community spirit that extended from the company into the town itself, the employee said, “It’s really heartbreaking. A lot of them have known each other for 30 years, grew up with each other.”
I asked this employee what might have been if Anchor Hocking had not been subject to the whims of the financial engineers. “I can’t help but think if things had been different, if some money had been put into machinery, product development, training, that we’d be in better shape.” Counterfactuals are hard to prove, of course. But Anchor Hocking’s longtime rival, Libbey, based in Toledo, Ohio, is still in business as a public company and still making money, despite having spent years under the ownership of the private-equity giant Kohlberg Kravis Roberts when KKR owned the container company Owens-Illinois; Libbey had been spun out from Owens-Illinois in 1993 and a former Anchor Hocking executive now runs it.
Lancaster’s decline, then, wasn’t the result of some sort of natural and inevitable evolution of technology, like the demise of the buggy-whip industry, nor of the pressures of free trade and offshoring, as intense as those have been. It is the culmination of a series of decisions over a period of roughly 35 years. As one former CEO of EveryWare Global told me, “It’s not about making the product. It’s about making money appear and the 99 percent doesn’t understand that.” The Plant 1 employees certainly don’t. They only know that the old social contract has disintegrated and that nothing has come to take its place.
Back in 1984, A. Bartlett Giammatti, who was then the president of Yale University, and who would later become the commissioner of Major League Baseball, warned that the tide of deal-making and the financialization of the economy could lead to disillusionment and drift as “the impulse to private gain has nothing to connect itself to except itself.” As Chris Nagle, a union leader in Plant 1, said to me in answer to my question about which presidential candidate his fellow union members seemed to prefer, “We don’t like anybody.”
Those who voted for Donald Trump, the salaried employee suggested, did so not out of enthusiasm, but out of this very disconnect. “People are grasping for anything,” he said. What many didn’t know, and may still not, was that two of the men who played such a large role in shaping Anchor Hocking’s history—Carl Icahn and Stephen Feinberg, the founder of Cerberus—have been confidants of Trump and helped get him elected.
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.