FORT SMITH, Ark.—When a new refrigerator plant opened here in 1962, this city held a parade to celebrate the arrival of a big employer that helped compensate for job losses at a nearby Army base, Fort Chaffee.
Now the resilience of Fort Smith, long noted for its ability to attract manufacturers and their well-paying jobs, is being tested again. Whirlpool Corp., the current owner of the refrigerator plant, recently disclosed it would close the factory by mid-2012, moving some of its 1,000 jobs to other plants in the U.S. and Mexico.
Whirlpool blamed sluggish U.S. demand for appliances. The world’s largest appliance maker and No. 2 Electrolux AB of Sweden until recently were keeping spare capacity for an expected sales revival that hasn’t happened. Electrolux says North American appliance sales this year will be down about 25% from the 2005 peak. Both are slashing capacity.
The fault wasn’t with Fort Smith or its workers, Whirlpool insists. “It is a great work force,” says Jeff Noel, Whirlpool’s head of public affairs. Though unionized, the plant was “almost jointly managed” by the company and labor, he adds.
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