Carrier workers vow to hold Trump to promise of saving factory jobs

INDIANAPOLIS — By the time the Chicago Cubs won the World Series this month, for the first time in 108 years, Paul Roell was already asleep. He did not stay up to see Barack Obama win the presidency in 2008 or watch in 2000 as the margin of votes separating George W. Bush and Al Gore in Florida shrank to the vanishing point.

After all, he has to clock in daily at 5:30 a.m. at the soon-to-be-shuttered Carrier factory in Indianapolis, where he has worked 17 years.

But shortly before 3 a.m. Nov. 9, when the networks projected Donald Trump would be the next president of the United States, Roell was wide-awake. His wife, Stephanie, was up, too, and they exchanged high-fives in the wee hours.

By the numbers

1,400

The number of jobs that will be eliminated by 2019 if Carrier follows through on its decision to move its furnace factory to Monterrey, Mexico.

$55,000

Paul Roell’s annual pay (with overtime), as a team leader for Carrier.

In fact, Roell was so keyed up, he did not sleep at all that night and headed straight to the plant before sunrise, bleary-eyed but euphoric. “I don’t watch sports, but this was my World Series,” he said.

It is precisely this level of enthusiasm, from Roell and millions of like-minded Americans, that pollsters and Hillary Clinton’s campaign did not appreciate, even though it was vividly on display in February after a video went viral showing furious Carrier workers learning from management that their jobs would go to another country.

Carrier’s decision to move the factory to Monterrey, Mexico, will eliminate 1,400 jobs by 2019. Trump quickly made the factory Exhibit A in his argument against the trade policies of Republicans and Democrats alike.

He cited Carrier again and again on the campaign trail, threatening to phone executives at the company and its parent, United Technologies, and to hit them with 35 percent tariffs on any furnaces and air conditioners they imported from Mexico.

To cheers at his rallies, he predicted Carrier would call him up as president and say, “Sir, we’ve decided to stay in the United States.”

Now his supporters expect action. “If he doesn’t pass that tariff, I will vote the other way next time,” warned Nicole Hargrove, who has worked at Carrier for a decade and a half and is not certain what she will do if and when her job goes to Mexico.

Carrier isn’t changing its plans. In a written statement three days after the election, the company said, “We are making every effort to ease the transition for our Carrier colleagues in Indiana.” The company pointed out that it will finance four-year retraining and educational programs for employees and provide financial help.

For Trump, now comes the hard part. In interviews in recent days and in March, Trump voters in Indianapolis made clear that if he does not follow through on his promises, they are prepared to turn on him, just as they are seemingly punishing Democrats now for not delivering the hope and change voters sought from Obama after he won as an outsider in 2008.

And while Roell is a conservative, Trump’s tough talk about Carrier, the economy and the future of U.S. manufacturing jobs also appealed to moderates like Darrell Presley, a steelworker in rural Crawfordsville, Ind., who voted for Obama in 2008.

Obama fell short

“He was for change, and said he would take care of the middle class, but he didn’t live up to those expectations,” Presley said. “I feel like the American people are at the point where they’ve had it, and this was the last chance.”

On Election Day, blue-collar workers across the industrial heartland hearkened to Trump’s call, putting states never thought to be in serious play, like Wisconsin and Michigan, in his win column.

As president, however, Trump will face a tough balance. Tariffs and trade wars stand to hurt U.S. workers who make products that are exported to Mexico or China. Few voters will be happy paying more for imported goods.

And regardless of who is in the Oval Office, manufacturers are seeing relentless pressure, from investors and rival companies, to automate, replacing workers with machines that do not break down or require health benefits and pension plans.

Wall Street hedge-fund managers are demanding steadily rising earnings from Carrier’s parent, United Technologies, even as growth remains sluggish worldwide.

The Carrier plant is plenty profitable. But moving to Monterrey, where workers earn in a day what they make in the U.S. in an hour, will increase profits faster.

Roell, who earns about $55,000 a year with overtime as a team leader making furnaces, has few illusions about the gulf separating him from Trump, or the global headwinds U.S. factory workers face.

“His father was a millionaire; he’s a billionaire,” Roell said, sitting at Sully’s Bar & Grill near the factory with Carrier workers. “His son Barron’s allowance is probably more than my salary.”

Nor does he underestimate the profound economic threat to the 1,400 workers at the factory, where layoffs are expected to begin next summer and continue in waves until it closes in 2019. Roell was promoted to team leader in March.

The mood in the factory has worsened. Senior engineers travel from Indianapolis to Monterrey to supervise the shifting of production lines to Carrier’s factory there, workers and union officials said.

Mexican engineers, in turn, have been coming to the U.S., measuring and assessing the machines they will operate soon, unless, of course, Trump can deliver on his promise.

“It’s demoralizing when you see them taking pictures,” Roell said. “It’s like you are getting divorced but you are still living with your wife and her new boyfriend is coming over.”

 

For workers like Roell, 36, who started at Carrier just weeks after receiving his high-school diploma and never returned to school, the problem is not a shortage of jobs in the area. Instead, it is a drought of jobs that pay anywhere near the $23.83 an hour he makes at Carrier, let alone enough to give him a toehold in the middle class.

When he drives to work each day before dawn, Roell passes warehouse after warehouse of giants like Wal-Mart and Kohl’s with “Help Wanted” signs outside. The problem is that they typically pay $13 to $15 an hour.

“I guess I could work two full-time shifts a day,” Roell joked.

The situation confronting him and other blue-collar Carrier workers is not one anecdote from the region some people call the Rust Belt. It is part of a broad predicament for non-college-educated workers borne out by Census Bureau data.

And it explains why even in Indiana, a state with a lower unemployment rate than the national average, and a strong rebound from the recession in many ways, the economic and political frustration is palpable.

Since 2010, the private sector in Indiana has added roughly 300,000 jobs, bringing the unemployment rate from a high of 10.9 percent in January 2010 (nearly 1 percentage point above the national average) to 4.5 percent (nearly half a percentage point below the national unemployment rate).

But nearly all that growth occurred in the service sector — hotel and food-service jobs, or health-care technicians, or workers in the warehouses Roell drives past — which added more than 220,000 positions for a total 1.9 million today.

While manufacturers added 85,569 jobs since the sector bottomed out at 434,919 in January 2010, factory employment in Indiana overall remains significantly below where it was before the Great Recession.

And service jobs do not come close to paying what manufacturing jobs do. According to the Census Bureau, the typical service-sector position in Indiana paid $39,338 in 2015, compared with $59,029 for a manufacturing position.

The cross-generational drop-off can be stark, and it scars families. Within Local 1999 of the United Steelworkers union, which includes workers at Carrier and other industrial employers, members typically start at $17 an hour, according to Chuck Jones, Local 1999’s president.

For comparison, his 21-year-old granddaughter Haley Duncan is about to finish college and take a job in health care that pays $14.50 an hour.

Duncan and her older brother, Drake, were tempted by factory work. But Jones and their parents told them to stay in school because, while manufacturing might pay more, its future is becoming more precarious.

The Rexnord bearing factory in Indianapolis — where Jones started working fresh out of high school in 1969 and where his stepson works now — last month said it might follow Carrier to Mexico and eliminate at least 300 jobs.

Even Robin Maynard, a Carrier team leader who enthusiastically backed Trump, acknowledges that even a phone call from the Oval Office to the company’s executive suite might not be enough to save his job.

“Hopefully, he can do something for us,” Maynard said. “But I think it’s out of the CEO’s hands. It’s in the hands of the shareholders.”

In this age of 401(k) investment plans and individual retirement accounts, these shareholders are, in a real sense, all of us.

But for the Carrier workers in Indianapolis and millions of other blue-collar workers, no matter how they voted, nuances like that do not matter so much now. Just the hope that Trump will try to reverse the long decline in their neighborhoods, their living standards and even their longevity is an emotional balm.

“He doesn’t like blacks. He doesn’t like Hispanics. He doesn’t like disabled people,” said Jennifer Shanklin-Hawkins, who, like roughly half the Carrier factory workers, is African American. “He’s not presidential material. But my husband and I weren’t mad or upset when he won. I know blacks who voted for him, and I want to give him a chance.”

 

Some blue-collar neighborhoods that supported Trump have been portrayed as monocultures, the opposite of supposedly more diverse, cosmopolitan cities that favored Clinton, the Democratic candidate. That caricature does not hold up in Indianapolis.

At least half the workers on Carrier’s assembly line are women. And dozens of Burmese immigrants have gone to work at the factory in recent years, part of an influx of nearly 15,000 refugees from Myanmar into Indianapolis since 2001.

Instead of bias, what animates these voters, whatever their race or political orientation, is a profound distrust and resentment of wealthier, educated Americans, a group they say lacks a connection to them and does not care about their economic situation. And to them, Clinton seemed at least as elite as Trump, if not more so.

“I just couldn’t bring myself to vote for him, but both candidates are evil,” said Shanklin-Hawkins, who reluctantly voted for Clinton but has never forgiven her for her remarks about “superpredators” in the 1990s, or the mandatory prison-sentencing guidelines Bill Clinton signed into law as president.

“Hillary hasn’t sweated a day in her life, unless it was losing a tough case as a lawyer,” Maynard said. “We wanted to take America in a different direction. I’m just hoping Trump will do what he says.”

Presley readily acknowledges that Trump is a billionaire with an Ivy League education.

“But he gets that the country is in bad shape,” Presley said. “Sure, he made some mistakes and sometimes he went a little overboard, but the guys I work with related to it. If we spoke in public, we’d make mistakes too.”

Local union leader Jones, a fierce supporter of Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s rival for the Democratic nomination, said he “held my nose and voted for her.”

“But everybody is tired of the same old politicians. It could have been Captain Kangaroo and he might have won.”

As for the candidate who did win, the union leader said he was waiting for him to make that phone call to Carrier.

“He’s got time. He doesn’t take the oath of office until Jan. 20,” Jones said. “Trump made Carrier the poster child and said he would hold Carrier accountable. Well, we’re going to hold him to it.”

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