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The View From Peoria, Ill., Home To Caterpillar


And I'm David Greene in Peoria, Ill., for our election series, The View From Here, and I want to ask the audience here at I Know You Like A Book bookstore one question - how many of you have confidence in the U.S. economy?

Meh, meh, OK. I'm seeing like seven or eight hands out of maybe 40 people in here. Well, yeah, I mean, when you ask that question in your community, you might as well be asking do you have confidence in Caterpillar, right? I mean, that company's known for manufacturing farm equipment, machinery, engines. It's been based here for almost a century, and Randy Smith has worked at Caterpillar for more than 40 of those years. He's also head of the local United Autoworkers Union. Caterpillar has been losing jobs, and with that, the union has lost members and strength. And if you look at Randy Smith's desk at the local 974 office, he has this paperweight that says, it is what it is.

Are you worried that there might be a time when there's a Peoria without a really strong Caterpillar?

RANDY SMITH: Oh, definitely. Yeah, yeah, definitely. You know, I thought - it enters my mind all the time. To be honest with you, back in the '70s, our union represented 28,000 members. Today, we're representing 2,600. It's scary.

GREENE: Now, even though those numbers have dropped a lot, Caterpillar is still this major presence here. There's a glittery visitor's center along the river where we met Tana Utley. She came into the company as an engineer 30 years ago. She's now a vice president. She walked me right over to this black and white photo of young men in a classroom in the 1930s learning the engineering skills they would use at Caterpillar.

Why is this what you wanted to point out in here?

TANA UTLEY: I think it says so much about Cat and Peoria, legacy and the allegiance that many of the people in the company really feel to the company. And I think it's one of the reasons tough times are so heart-wrenching for all of us because these are our people.

GREENE: And some of their people have been losing jobs. Caterpillar for the first time in its history has seen sales decline for four straight years. That's part of it, but critics at the company say Caterpillar jobs are being lost in the United States because they're moving overseas. Now, Utley says, that is not how it works. A presence overseas actually helps create jobs here.

UTLEY: Our assembly line over here in East Peoria, you know - I wish you had a chance to go there - you'll see a flag on those machines that are all rolling down the assembly line, beautiful, yellow machines. And they have a flag of the country to which those machines are shipping. The world needs what we provide. They need clean water, they need bridges, they need infrastructure. Cat equipment makes that possible.

GREENE: That's Tana Utley, a vice president at Caterpillar. And I'm here in the bookstore in Peoria with Robyn McGann. She was recently laid off from Caterpillar after working there for nearly 15 years, right?


GREENE: Well, thanks for coming in this morning. I appreciate it.

MCGANN: You're welcome.

GREENE: You know, I told that Caterpillar Vice President Tana Utley that I would be meeting with you, and that you had lost your job at the company recently. And I asked her what she would tell you, and here's what she said.

UTLEY: I'd tell her to look for the opportunity and that might be here in Peoria through, depending on her financial position, you know, engaging in some volunteerism. But also think of her opportunities elsewhere and the skills that she was able to acquire working for a multinational company and ask yourself how she can have the next chapter in her life.

It's not easy. I know it's not easy, and we feel for all of our employees and former employees that are in that position. We do what we can to help them on their way, and we wish them the very best, thank them for their contributions.

GREENE: Robyn, what do you think of that?

MCGANN: Yeah, I agree completely. I feel very blessed to have the 15 years that I had at Caterpillar. And I will take that with me, you know, where I go - that experience, that education, all of that. So no hard feelings just, you know - it's hard to start over, but I have the opportunity to do that so...

GREENE: You know, as you're starting over, I think about this presidential election year. And we're talking to people about sort of how their lives, you know, matter when they vote. As I understand it, you voted for Hillary Clinton in the primary here. I mean, do you see her as the candidate who as president would help someone who lost a job and is starting over?

MCGANN: I'm not really sure at this point. That was - at the time in the primary that was the strongest candidate to me. I'm actually still undecided, so, you know - I really, at this point, don't feel that any of them could help me or anyone else in my situation. And I'm waiting to kind of hear kind of that sound bite that will make me more confident by November.

GREENE: What sort of sound bite are you looking for?

MCGANN: I don't know, just something that, you know, speaks me, and I haven't really heard that yet out of any of them. So, you know...

GREENE: Robyn McGann, thank you very much for coming in and best of luck to you for getting that fresh start that you're talking about.

MCGANN: OK. Thanks.

GREENE: David Yepsen from Southern Illinois University is still with us. David, we've been listening to so much this morning about how sort of what people are experiencing is shaping their vote. In a few seconds, I mean, what are you reflecting on as you've been listening?

DAVID YEPSEN: Well, I reflect upon the optimism that is needed and that we just saw in the laid-off worker, who it seems still seems hopeful despite a really bad hand that she's been dealt. Our institutions are failing us, and American people are angry. And they're fearful about that, all institutions, but we've been talking a lot about government.

And I think the first task of any leader is to inspire. And here in Illinois, there's a crisis of leadership in Chicago, in Springfield. And people are down, and they're cynical. And I think that the first thing that has to occur in this state and nationally is our leaders have to start inspiring us. They have to - yes, they have to lay out plans, but they have to start restoring trust in institutions. They have to make these institutions work, and above all, they have to inspire us. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself, David.

GREENE: Nicely put. David Yepsen from Southern Illinois University. Thanks as always. Great to see you.

YEPSEN: Thank you.

GREENE: And, Steve, that is The View From Here in Illinois and I Know You Like A Book, a bookstore in Peoria. Everyone, thank you for coming as we've been listening this morning.


GREENE: And we'll be hearing throughout the program this morning from the state of Illinois. And, Steve - and then after today, you're up next, right?


You bet. In a couple of weeks, we're going to be driving around Appalachia - and that's the first thing to know, Appalachia, not Appalachia - gorgeous countryside where people also know a lot about suffering and are looking for an economic way forward. We're going to broadcast live from Knoxville, Tenn., and, David, we're going to be thinking about what you've been hearing in the Midwest. It's great to hear you guys this morning.

GREENE: Great. It's been nice being here, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
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