These people are not happy. And I’m not talking about the 465 helicopter factory workers about to lose their jobs in Chester County.
The anger I found bubbling over this week near the decimated former steel town of Coatesville was coming from the politicians and deal-makers who thought they were owed more. The civic stewards who spent years mixing cocktails of handshakes with taxpayer-backed financial sweeteners to keep Lockheed Martin and its Sikorsky chopper plant healthy and happy on a rural campus on Old Lancaster Pike west of Philadelphia.
The whole mess — Lockheed putting a bullet into its Sikorsky site without a trace of manners beyond what one would expect from a narcissistic teenager — is a metaphor for the brand of cold and unaccountable capitalism that insists, even after receiving public aid, that it owes close to nothing to most anyone at the end of the day.
The planned shutdown, which became public last week, is a blow to a state that has been hemorrhaging manufacturing jobs for decades. It’s also a blow to common decency.
Officials have scrambled over the past few days to create a SWAT team to bring Sikorsky to the table for a possible Plan B. One member of that rescue group, U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, told me that the company on Wednesday promised to send a high-level official to meet with her and others one day next week in Chester County.
“There is a way you can make business profitable and also do good by the people that are in your community,” Houlahan, a recently elected Democrat with credentials from Stanford, MIT, and the corporate sector, told me from Washington, where she was working on budget matters before the Armed Services Committee, of which the former Air Force officer is a member. “I’m just disappointed with how this has transpired.”
Houlahan’s assessment was markedly diplomatic. Others’ were less so.
“We had a good relationshIp with the company, and the corporate people who make that decision did not pick up the phone," said Gary Smith, who has led the Economic Development Council for 43 years in the formerly Republican-dominated county. “We had this strong relationship over many, many years. They were very much involved with us. I’ve not gotten even a call back yet from my contacts there.”
The angriest of all was longtime State Sen. Andy Dinniman.
In no way is it OK that Lockheed, which bought the Sikorsky plant that manufactures civilian choppers in Sadsbury Township, pulled the plug without a single conversation with the community in which the company was birthed, under a different owner, more than 50 years ago, the Chester County Democrat said.
“If you go out of your way to help someone, and then that person slaps you in the face in the end, you’re disappointed,” Dinniman said. “We did everything we could, and we understand [a company’s allegiance to] the bottom line. But here’s the difference. If you want to believe in the free marketplace, then don’t come to the state for help. But if you come to the state for help, you have a responsibility back to the community.”
Lockheed’s shocking announcement that it will close by year’s end its operations on a gleaming, two-dozen-acre campus might be easier to swallow if questions about why were clearer.
What we do know is that yet another manufacturer is leaving Pennsylvania because its owner decided to push the work out of state. Though orders for civilian aircraft were down, the Coatesville plant had a nonunion workforce and, according to Smith, a reputation for exceptional work and productivity.
A downturn in oil-rig business had slowed demand for some of Sikorsky’s Coatesville aircraft. The company also makes choppers for the Office of the President of the United States. But local officials had thought that Lockheed was planning to reposition the plant for growth. With defense business booming under the Trump administration, they saw the potential to convert the plant to a defense aircraft site.
Lockheed has offered few details.
“To improve customer affordability,” spokeswoman Callie Ferrari said in an email Wednesday, “we must close our Coatesville facility to balance our footprint and workforce with customer and market requirements."
Eleven years ago this August, a jubilant Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell and other officials publicly celebrated at the chopper plant. The state had just awarded $1 million in incentives. Six years before that, Republican Gov. Mark Schweiker had thrown the company $1.3 million to help it move to the gleaming facility it occupies today.
Adding insult to injury, an additional $2.5 million state grant for improvements to the campus and the adjacent county airport has not yet been spent.
Sure, business is business. But in this age of record-breaking corporate profits, it might be a good time to remember that there’s also this thing of being a human being.