What Workers at Carrier and Rexnord Have to Say About Trump.
INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana—Dragging on a cigarette as he sits in the hall of United Steelworkers Local 1999, Robert James says, “Trump stood on stage and lied about 1,100 jobs being saved at Carrier in Indianapolis.”
James, 57, is the local vice president and a forklift driver who’s worked for 18 years at the Indiana-based factory that manufactures furnaces for homes. In February 2016 Carrier told more than 2,000 workers at two factories in the Hoosier State they were going to be fired and production would shift to Monterrey, Mexico. After a video of the workers being fired went viral, Trump made Carrier a poster-child of offshoring during the presidential campaign. Following his victory, Trump turned the screws on Carrier to keep jobs in the United States.
That enabled Trump to sweep into Indianapolis on December 1 as a job-saving hero. He announced before a packed house of employees and news media that more than 1,100 jobs would stay in the Carrier plant.
But the numbers Trump announced don’t add up. When James and other union leaders met with the company right before Trump went on stage, they were told 730 union jobs would be saved at the Indianapolis plant―nearly 400 less than Trump announced. Trump was apparently including 350 engineering and administrative employees, but they were never leaving. That meant 550 workers would lose their jobs in Indianapolis as well as 738 workers at Huntington, which would shut down entirely.
That made James angry. He was one of the workers selected to appear before Trump as the news media broadcast the event live, but was in no mood to meet with the president-elect or shake his hand.
It was left to James and USW Local 1999 President Chuck Jones to dash the hopes of many workers. “We had to explain to workers that number was wrong. The workers were shocked that the number of jobs saved were lower than they thought. A lot said, ‘That’s fucked up.’”
Jones was more pointed, telling the media the president-elect “lied his ass off” about the jobs saved. That earned him Trump’s wrath, leading to threats pouring in such as, “You better keep your eye on your kids” and “We’re coming for you.” Jones says, “It really pissed me off he misled people their jobs might be saved. He didn’t want to get up and tell people part of the plant is going to stay and part of the plant is going to Mexico.”
One of the cards sent to Chuck Jones, president of United Steelworkers Local 1999, after Trump attacked him. Jones had told the media Trump "lied his ass off" for saying more than 1,100 jobs would be saved at the Carrier plant in Indianapolis when the actual total was 730. Another 550 workers are being fired.
At the Local 1999 hall, wolfing down a cheeseburger and fries for lunch as he conducts media interviews, Jones says he is “grateful for the 730 jobs Trump did save.” But he points out this was a one-off deal. Jones says because Carrier’s parent company, United Technologies, does $6.7 billion in federal business, mainly for the Pentagon, “Trump had a helluva bargaining chip with the military contracts.”
Jones and others attribute the move to “corporate greed.” He says, “It’s all about money. Carrier is a very profitable company. Because they can pay the Mexican workers $3 an hour to enhance their profitability, they will do it.” UT earned $7.6 billion in 2015, has squirreled away $29 billion offshore, and is buying back $16 billion in stock to boost its share price.
Union leaders haven’t seen any details of the deal between Trump and Carrier. Jones says, “We don’t know if we are even going to see a formal agreement, anything in writing. Do I trust them? Hell no.” He is also wary of Carrier’s plan for $16 million in investments that include automation. “Two years after they put the automation in, it makes it a lot easier to move the plant.”
James agrees, “I don’t trust Trump and I don’t trust Carrier. If you were going to take my job once, you’ll do it again. I feel Carrier is going to move the whole damn plant out in a few years.” He says the union probably won’t learn of the company’s plans until 2018, when the next contract comes up for negotiation.
In Jones’ estimation, “Trump used Carrier workers.” He says, “Very few of them who are losing their jobs are going to come out alright. Carrier’s average wage is $23 an hour. Rexnord’s is $25 an hour. There’s not a lot of jobs paying that out there. They’ll have to work two jobs—‘Would you like fries with that?’—for less money and no benefits.”
“Trump did a helluva masterful job telling working class people he would be their champion.” But rather than make America great again, says Jones, Trump is leading “a race to the bottom” with comments like “all workers, they make too much money.”
Frank Staples is one of those on the chopping block at Carrier. A 12-year company veteran, he says, “I was ecstatic about Trump’s announcement.” But when he realized he was among those losing their jobs, Staples says, “I felt disrespected by the company we poured our soul into. What they did is just downright shameful.”
As for Trump, Staples says, “My opinions haven’t changed. Trump is still a jackass. Trump says Northern workers make too much, move it down to the Southern states. I can’t trust him. I think he says a lot of shit because people want to hear it. They vote for whoever lies the best. I’ve always been a Bernie man. He’s for the working people.”
At age 37, Staples is uncertain about his future. “I really don’t know what’s going to come next. I have a high-school diploma. I’m not stupid; I’m smart. They say we have jobs. It’s $8-an-hour flip burger jobs.”
Staples biggest worry is losing healthcare coverage. “If they get ride of ACA, how am I going to pay my insurance, pay my meds. I’ve had my shoulder replaced. I’ve had three heart attacks.”
‘A UNION JOB ALLOWED ME TO RAISE A FAMILY’
Staples is one of 17 workers interviewed by the Raw Story at two Carrier plants in Indianapolis and Huntington, and a Rexnord facility in Indianapolis that makes ball bearings. All three factories are moving to Monterrey, Mexico. Trump singled out both companies for moving jobs, pledging to stop offshoring.
While the jobs in Huntington pay only $14 to $18 an hour, nearly every worker there says the healthcare and benefits they receive is indispensable. Katherine Kumfer, 27, who immigrated from Peru as a teenager, says Carrier pays $5 an hour less than her previous job as a hair stylist but she took the position for the benefits.
Kumfer says, “I have two kids, 4 and 6, so I need the healthcare, and they are paying for my education for accounting. I can’t afford student loans. I can’t afford to pay them back, just like the rest of the population out there.”
Workers at the Indianapolis plants can make $70,000 a year with overtime. Robert James says, “A union job allowed me to raise a family and own a home.” He says it also allows him to take care of his wife who has health problems and look forward to a secure if simple retirement.
The day after Trump soaked up the adulation for saving 730 Carrier jobs, he Tweeted, “Rexnord of Indiana is moving to Mexico and rather viciously firing all of its 300 workers. This is happening all over our country. No more!”
Rexnord, however, was unfazed by Trump’s 140-character Twitter strike. Chuck Jones says, “Trump can’t play that military card he used against Carrier on Rexnord.”
In mid-December Rexnord told the state of Indiana 350 jobs would relocate to Monterrey by June 2017. Add that to 550 jobs leaving from Carrier in Indianapolis and 738 workers being fired from the Huntington factory that manufactures control panels for heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning units. All told more than 1,600 jobs are leaving that Trump vowed to save.
‘I STILL SUPPORT TRUMP’
The Indianapolis workers are in the United Steelworkers; the Huntington workers are members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 983. Among workers who say they cast a ballot, half voted for Donald Trump, including some union officials.
A young-looking 47, John Feltner is a new grandfather and vice president of the USW Local 1999 Rexnord unit. He’s also a two-time victim of outsourcing. In 2008 he was booted after 10 years at an Indianapolis-based Navistar plant that cast diesel engines for Ford, and which “shut down and moved to Huntsville, Alabama, a right-to-work state.” Employed at Rexnord since 2013, Feltner says, “We thought we were going to retire here.” Plant workers were told in mid-October, in the homestretch of the presidential race, that executives were mothballing the plant. Feltner says as he listened to the announcement, “I was pissed, angry, felt kicked in the gut. The closure just doesn’t affect 300 people at Rexnord. It affects their families. I went up and down the businesses in the area. They employ people. They said this is going to affect us.”
When Trump started Tweeting about Rexnord, Feltner says, “We were ecstatic. We saw what he did with Carrier. It was unprecedented. That got a lot of hopes up for people over there.”
Feltner voted for Trump. Now he is losing his job that Trump indicated he would save. Feltner says, “Do I still support him? Yes I do, if he is going to bring jobs back to America. I’m tired of jobs leaving this country. I’m tired of the middle class getting smaller and smaller.
NO BUYER’S REMORSE—YET
Robert James says, “A lot of our people at Carrier voted for Trump. Some said because he is going to protect our jobs. They may not have buyers’ remorse now, but they will later.”
Tim Mathis, 51, is losing his job at Rexnord after 12 years. His prior job was eliminated in 2004 when a different bearing manufacturer shifted production to China. He says, “People are pissed off, they were hoping for a change. Million and millions of jobs are leaving the country and the fat cats are getting fatter. ”
A fourth-generation union member Mathis says, “My dad was an autoworker, my grandfathers were mineworkers. You don’t vote Republican.” But he voted for Trump “because I thought it was best for America. I’m going to give the man his due. I think there is all kinds of potential.”
Don Zering, the USW Local 1999 Rexnord unit president, “voted for the candidate who didn’t win.” But he asks, “If Trump could do what he did with Carrier, and he wasn’t even the president, why didn’t Obama do it?”
John Feltner claims at Rexnord at most 10 percent voted for Clinton with the overwhelming majority going for Trump. He says among unionized auto and railroad workers he talked to in Indianapolis, the buzz was in favor of Trump.
Time and again workers mention the same issue as to why they abandoned the Democrats: NAFTA. Feltner says, “The NAFTA bill is still fresh in people’s minds. The international was all, ‘Vote Democrat, Democrat, Democrat.’ Then they make an announcement about jobs going away and it’s because of NAFTA. The workers connect that to the Democrats, and Hillary was saddled with that.”
Chuck Jones agrees. “Bill Clinton is the one who gave us NAFTA and I give a rat’s ass what he did with women, but once he did that I was done with him.”
During his campaign Trump repeatedly invoked “the forgotten men and women of our country.” As a slogan it was unremarkable; it could be used in any election. But combined with his denunciations of free-trade deals, rage at job-stealing immigrants and nations, and barnstorming of the Rust Belt, those words described how many workers felt who have been abandoned if not abused by the Democrats.
Workers have a sharp sense of their own self-interest. Talking to them dispels the liberal myth that “the white working class just voted overwhelmingly against its own economic interests,” as Paul Krugman contends about Trump’s election.
Brian Hunter, 41, who’s worked at Rexnord for 16 years, says, “I rooted for Trump, I voted for him. He’s someone different, something different. Did he save all of the jobs? No. Did he try? Yes. Did he do more than our last president? Yeah.” Like other workers who mentioned the plant moving to Mexico, Hunter is adamant that Mexicans are not the enemy. “Do I blame the Mexican people? No. They didn’t buy the company and move it.”
Among Clinton voters, none pulled the lever for her with any zeal. Terry Browning, 55, who has worked at the Carrier plant in Huntington for 30 years, saw Clinton’s political experience as an asset. Other Clinton voters mustered “the lesser evil.”
Lakita Clark, 40, who’s put in 15 years at Carrier, says of Clinton, “I wasn’t big on Hillary, but I supported her. I am all for voting for a woman president, but I was rooting for Bernie. I liked him more than Hillary.”
In Clark’s view, her vote for Clinton was a vote against her self-interest. “If Hillary won, we would still be out of a job.” Clark also observes, with merit, that if Clinton “had Sanders for her vice president, she would have won.”
Clark’s enthusiasm for Sanders is common among Carrier and Rexnord workers. They seemed genuinely excited about Sanders, and the few who didn’t support him think he is sincere. Unabashed Trump supporters like Tim Mathis think Trump would have lost to Sanders. Jones, whose Steelworkers local endorsed Sanders in the primary, felt “Bernie coulda beat Trump. A lot of people who were turned off by Hillary and didn’t vote or voted third party would have rallied behind Bernie.”
To be fair, the belief Sanders would have won doesn’t consider how Trump could have pummeled him as “Commie Bernie.” But the outpouring for Sanders’ shows Democrats had a winning formula—appeal to the economic interests of all workers—but one rejected by the Clinton and Obama wing of the party that has dominated it for the last 25 years.
That most workers are more anxious about loss of healthcare than a cut in pay points to the failure of Obamacare as well. It reduced the number of uninsured by 21.3 million in six years. But it is a cumbersome system that provides little security for workers who have to contend with price spikes and switching plans to ensure some basic coverage. Obamacare has reduced the number of families that have trouble paying medical bills by 24 percent, though it appears to be leveling off. A universal system that guaranteed quality healthcare to everyone regardless of income or employment would give workers leverage over massively profitable companies like Carrier.
At the same time, some Trump supporters were drawn to his dark side. Travis Michael, 40, who has worked at Carrier’s Huntington factory for 19 years, says, “I kind of like his crazy ways. Trump said what’s on his mind. He’s more of a person.” Michael says he supported him mainly “about the Carrier issue,” adding, “Plus, Hillary wanted to take our guns.”
Tim Mathis says, “We need to deal with jobs and immigration.” He says it’s not a racial issue, explaining that his wife is from the Phillipines. “The immigration system works. It’s not easy, but we went through it.”
Like others, John Feltner is in a wait-and-see mode. “We knew what we were going to get with Hillary. We don’t know what we are going to get with Trump; we still don’t know. It’s a shot in the dark. But it’s a shot.”
Arun Gupta contributes to The Washington Post, YES! Magazine, In These Times, The Progressive, Telesur English, and The Nation. He is author of the forthcoming, Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction: A Junk-Food Loving Chef’s Inquiry into Taste, from The New Press.
Follow him @arunindy or email at arun_dot_indypendent_at_gmail_dot_com.