Marcus Hook is a town teetering on the edge of destruction. Last year, Sunoco Oil announced that it would shut down its refinery in Marcus Hook. This refinery has employed residents for generations; it provides a tax base for the community, and directly funds part of the school district. As horrible as it is, I wish this were an isolated event; but Sunoco is also closing its South Philadelphia refinery, and ConocoPhillips is closing one in nearby Trainer, Pennsylvania. In total, 2,500 Pennsylvanians will be laid off, and thousands more will see their livelihoods affected as more residents struggle with unemployment and the tax base disappears.
Throughout the last six months, elected officials across the political spectrum have joined together to help find a buyer for these refineries and save the community. There has been one notable exception: Governor Tom Corbett. Our Governor has refused to attend important meetings with stakeholders, speak to the press about the issue, or even meet with the workers facing layoffs. We were heading out to Marcus Hook that day to collect letters from the community demanding that the Governor help save their jobs.
As we rode out to Marcus Hook I kept finding myself distracted. It must have been the factory town, with the factory closing, that drew my mind back. I couldn’t help thinking of my own hometown.
I’m not from anywhere all that special to the rest of the world. Just one of those small factory towns in Ohio; one of the many with no factories left. I remembered the guy I dated just after high school that worked at one of the plants. I remembered hearing that he’d moved away after the shut down, and being glad for him. I remembered being just 18, looking for a job just to make ends meet while I started off at college. I remember competing with laid off factory workers for a position at a service station. I remember moving away, because I couldn’t find enough work to pay the bills. I remember those who didn’t; some have kids, and others have moved back in with their parents. Most of them still haven’t found full time jobs. One way or another, they manage to feed their own kids.
I knew what today would be. The men would have those expressions – the ones that say, “I have to figure out how to make this work, but I don’t think there is a way anymore.” The women usually look sad, and scared. Everyone is angry.
I knew what would come next from what happened in my town. Families couldn’t keep their houses. Some young workers moved away and some moved back in. The rising crime rate, desolate downtown streets, and closed up shop fronts follow quickly. The children don’t have safe schools, or the activities they need to learn to be the leaders the town needs. The playgrounds start to rust.
I was right. Everyone I met had the grim sadness I expected. Some were vehement, angry, and ready to act. Some were scared, and quiet; a sense of hopelessness hung about them. Resignation reflected in their eyes as they glanced over their shoulders to the dead end of the street where you can still see the light from the burn off of the oil refinery, for now. No one was too busy to write a letter to the Governor about this. One after another the heartbreaking stories poured onto the pages. Christine said “Dear Governor Corbett…our families, children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren depend on us to provide for them.” She knew what a lasting impact this time would have on her town. Jay said simply “Dear Governor …I believe you need to stand up.” Theresa started her letter by saying that she is “struggling as it is.” Each face, each voice bracing for the impact of the work that their Governor has not done for them.
I was prepared for all of this. I have seen these things before. They always make me sad, and so, I fight to make things better where I can, with what small voice I have alone, and with a lot of organizing. Still, I wasn’t prepared.
As the night drew to a close, I met a kindly woman with a quiet about her. She had an injured leg which caused her trouble while standing at the door, so she invited me in promptly and sent her grandson to get me some tea. I glanced around, saw three happy dogs, a younger and an older child, a neat, but lived in home. I sipped the tea while she told me about choosing to move to Marcus Hook because it was such a fine place to raise a family. The tea was sweet tea, and tasted just like the kind my mother made. I was reminded of home now more than ever. She told a few stories about friends and family, the older child was an 18 year old student at the local high school. They both were writing letters to the Governor when the older woman’s head popped up and she broke the quiet asking very plainly “What’s going to happen for the kids?” My mind raced back to all of my friends who had moved away, or stayed, and all of the choices they should never have had to face. I couldn’t bring myself to answer her.
Just then, the younger girl piped up. She was not subtle. She told of kids who were 11 and 12 smoking cigarettes outside the classroom windows, and how when she was that age she was only thinking about soccer practice, but that funding has already been cut. She said that she knew the pizza shop was closing, and that none of her friends could find jobs. She also said she knew it was all going to get worse. I knew she wasn’t wrong.
As I finished my tea and they finished their letters, the older woman, Ellen, didn’t say a thing. She looked at me, and her eyes got very sad. My tea was done, and so were their letters, so Ellen showed me to the door. As my hand stretched out for the doorknob, she said, quietly, “The mayor would be glad to know about your work. His house is that one there. He’s a nice man. You should visit him.” With that, I stepped out the door, took a deep breath, composed myself, and went to see the mayor.
The faces I had seen this evening shared a certain intensity as soon as I brought up Sunoco. The face of this man, the mayor, was intense before I said anything at all. He looked profoundly exhausted. When we spoke, his voice quavered, showing the same exhaustion. He was, as Ellen had suggested, heartened to know of the work we were doing. Mostly though, he was tired. I invited him to write a letter and his eyes lifted under heavy lids to catch mine as he said that he has met with President Obama three times about this, but that Governor Corbett hasn’t had time to see him once. “Do you think it will work?” I struggled to find the words to answer. He finally obliged me. When I glanced at the letter later the second line caught my eye: “maybe this time you will…accept my offer for a meeting”
We pay our legislators, and our senators, and our governors. Their paychecks always arrive on time. The job they are doing to earn these checks is to represent the people, to act in our best interest. There are going to be a lot of folks In Marcus Hook whose paychecks won’t arrive on time or at all. They will be performing the tasks they are paid to do until they are asked to leave. Dear Governor Corbett, can you say the same?