Trump-voting workers are barely getting by in Indiana — and fear slipping into the McDonald’s economy
HUNTINGTON, INDIANA―For two years, after the birth of her daughter, Anna Glasgow, 24, attended high school in the morning and then worked an eight-hour shift at McDonald’s. She says the public schools in this Northern Indiana town of 17,000 are good, but “there is a huge dropout rate because people just want to go into a factory and make money.”
The first day of her senior year Glasgow quit school. She had been relying on family to help with childcare. “I didn’t want to depend on my mom. I have to do it on my own.” With the father of her child locked up, Glasgow landed a job as a machine operator in a fiberglass factory.
“It was strenuous work, making car doors and hoods. I enjoyed it.” At first she broke out in rashes from the fiberglass. “The fiberglass cuts your skin, but you get used to it.” In the summer the temperature in the factory could soar to 120 degrees. “On a hot day, one or two people would pass out. Usually people in their 50s and 60s.”
In 2013, she jumped shipped to the Carrier Corporation plant in Huntington. Currently earning $14.83 an hour, Glasgow says, “When I first started, I was money hungry, I worked as much as 83 hours a week.”
In February 2016, Carrier announced the plant would shut down this year, eliminating 738 workers as it shifts production to Monterrey, Mexico. Glasgow is staring at being jobless for the first time since she was 16. “I’ve started to get nervous. I’ve never had to apply for unemployment. I have to get on Medicare to cover my daughter and baby boy.”
Glasgow, who “grew up dirt poor, sometimes eating ramen noodles for a week,” is optimistic about her future. She plans to get married later this year to her fiance, a U.S. Army Vet who served in Afghanistan. They live together in a house they bought with a Veterans Affair loan three years ago. She is studying to become a dental hygienist in addition to working. Because Carrier is paying for education, she says she will collect unemployment, concentrate on her studies, and “spend every minute available with my kids.”
On a mild January day, Glasgow and six other Carrier workers gathered in the hall of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 983 in Huntington. The Carrier plant, which manufactures control panels for air-conditioners, heating, and ventilation units, is slated to close shop in June.
Some, like Brad Woodring, 58, have spent their entire worklife at the plant. With 39 years at Carrier, Woodring says, “I thought it would be there forever, long after I retired. I have no ill feelings toward Carrier because they’ve been good to us.”
Woodring is one of 17 factory workers in Indiana interviewed by the Raw Story who are losing their jobs as production shifts to Mexico. Their stories became a national sensation when Donald Trump Tweeted about the two companies behind the offshoring, Carrier and Rexnord, vowing “No more!”
Woodring, who voted for Trump “because under the circumstances he was the right man for the job,” says, “I was excited when Trump started tweeting, but tried not to get my hopes up. I have faith in God and he’s going to get me through this.”
But he hints at worries about what’s next. “I’m in limbo because I have to go out there and find something else. I am diabetic and have to take medication for that.”
Other veteran workers like Terri Browning, 55, who has put in 30 years, said as she listened to the announcement that the plant was being shuttered, “The first words that came into my head, were WTF, what the firecracker, that is.” She is looking at transitioning to retirement early. “I called my husband and told him we may be going to Florida sooner than we think.”
But Browning is worried about being able to sell their house in a depressed market. Even if they can move to the Tampa area as planned, she will still need a job. “I can flip hamburgers. My biggest concern is health insurance. I have chronic issues, and I am a two-time cancer survivor. That’s why I am looking at some type of manufacturing; 90% have some type of insurance.”
All told the three Carrier and Rexnord plants are shedding 1,600 union jobs. After Trump’s intervention, the Carrier plant in Indianapolis will retain 730 union jobs, but no one knows for how long, and union officials say they don’t expect to see any details of the deal. Steelworkers Local 1999 will shrink by a third as more than 1,000 workers lose their jobs, while the IBEW local will wink out of existence as their entire membership consists of the 738 workers at Carrier.
The prediction that NAFTA would lead to a “giant sucking sound” of jobs fleeing to cheap labor markets in Mexico has come true to pass for hundreds of thousands of factory workers in the Midwest. And the effects radiate outward.
Terri Browning says it’s not just 700 people losing their jobs in the Huntington area. “Any extracurricular activities your kids are in are going to stop. There is going to be less eating out, money is not going to be there for United Way, March of Dimes.”
Glasgow says she likes that Huntington is a small town “where you know everyone or know of them.” But it’s “kind of boring” she says, with not much to do beyond teenage amusements like a bowling lane, skating rink, and a movie theater. She says the town is “starting to get filled with drugs, cocaine, crack, heroin. A lot of friends from high school have died of drug overdoses, five or six of them.”
THE NEW ECONOMY
The agent at a rental car counter at the Indianapolis airport declares with pride that the state capitol “has the second-most war memorials in the country. Washington, D.C., is first. We take care of our vets.”
There are no memorials for Indiana’s manufacturing past, but Carrier and Rexnord workers can rattle off the companies that have left Indiana for Mexico, China, and elsewhere: Ford, Pratt & Whitney, RCA, Navistar, Alcoa, Piles Speakers, GM. As manufacturing flees, the population of Northern Indiana towns like Huntington, Marion, South Bend, or Gary have not grown or declined precipitously since 1990. Indiana was spared the worst of the housing crisis, but that limited any rebound. Home prices have stagnated in numerous pockets, reducing the incentive to buy a home as it returns little if any investment.
The economic model for the capitol in Indianapolis is the cookie-cutter mold of “creative” industries such as higher education, biotech, and finance tied to high-end living. Downtown boasts the Chase Tower, pharmaceutical research labs for Eli Lilly, $2,550 apartments for rent, craft-beer bars, and office workers crowding the Indianapolis City Market at lunch. Traveling west toward the Steelworkers hall, after passing under a blue railroad bridge, maintenance declines instantly. Roads are rutted, grass is reclaiming the sidewalks, and the street is lined with modest Mexican restaurants, money transfer-services, beauty salons, and tire shops. A block past the “dancing girls live” at Patty’s Showclub, the electronic sign at George Washington Community High School reads, “No Hay Classes” in advance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
According to Marquita Walker, associate professor of labor studies at Indiana University, more than 13,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost in the Indianapolis region out of nearly 70,000 that existed in 2006. The loss is much starker as the economy has grown substantially. Blue-collar jobs have plunged from 12 percent of available jobs a decade ago to 7.6 percent today. Indiana is typical of many post-industrial cities in that the economy is now dominated by education, finance, professional and business services, government, and healthcare. It reflects the split between low-wage service sector work and well-paid jobs in the knowledge economy.
Down the street from two-story wooden homes with windows sealed with plastic to ward off winter and American and Confederate flags snapping in the wind, sits USW Local 1999’s hall, a rectangular brick-faced building stuck in the crook of a road next to railroad tracks. Next to a large events hall, union leaders hang out in a conference room fielding media phone calls and interviews.
Workers filter into the union hall before and before shifts at Carrier and Rexnord. They talk of the difficulty of surviving in the low-wage sector. Workers bank on retraining or a college degree, which either the companies or Indiana state will pay for, to give them a leg up in the creative, hi-tech, and service industries.
Don Zering, 62, president of the USW local 1999 unit at Rexnord, says education isn’t the issue, “What’s the pay going to be? You take $10 an hour in pay. People are going to lose their houses, they’re going to lose their cars.”
Many workers own their own homes, most younger ones are not overly concerned about their prospects, and older ones are trying to hang out until Medicare and Social Security kicks in. But there is a pervasive feeling that the path to a secure career and retirement is eroding in front of them and narrowing behind them.
Some were swamped by the Great Recession. John Feltner, 47, vice president of the USW unit at Rexnord, lost his job at Navistar in 2008 when it was shuttered. “I lost everything. I had a very nice home. Lost it. Cars were repo-ed. We’ve been renting ever since.” He calls the East side of Indianapolis a “war zone,” saying that’s why he moved his family further away.
Brian Hunter, 41, who’s put in 16 years at Rexnord says, “I’m young enough to go out there and get something. I could lose my truck. I don’t want to lose my home. The hard part is looking your kid in the eye and telling them you can’t play this sport because we can’t afford it right now, you can’t have what everyone else is having.”
The same is true for Travis Michael, 40, who has worked at the Huntington plant for 19 years and conducts testing and packing of electronic control panels. “My biggest worry is paying for my son’s college. I’ll find another manufacturing job. If not, go back to school for a certificate in computerized numerical control machining or welding.”
But they are only a few steps away from the lowest rungs of the economy. Michael, who voted for Trump, says, “Everyone’s going to be working at McDonald’s and Walmart. Something needs to change or we’re going to be jumping the wall and going to Mexico. He don’t need to build it quite yet.”
If these workers lose their foothold in unionized factories that pay $23 an hour or more, they could slip into the Walmart and McDonald’s economy. Here desperation and poverty is the daily bread. Low-wage workers describe surviving on $25 a week for groceries and going hungry, duct taping shoes together, living one couple or one family per room in an apartment, and working injured for months out of fear of being fired if they take time off to see a doctor. They have no savings, no possibility of owning a home, and no hope of retirement.
Driving along a major thoroughfare Northwest of the city sit grim concrete shopping centers that are some rubble and a crashed spaceship short of a post-apocalyptic film. Inside the Indiana Discount Mall is the changing face of America. A mostly Latin American clientele peruses stalls and small shops hawking knock-off brand clothing and toys, electronics repair, barbershops, beauty salons, and Mexican food and music.
Further north, past a stretch of fast-food restaurants, gas stations, garages, dollar stores, vape shops, and the Masjid E Noor, lives Lakita Clark. The parking lot in the rental complex of homes and apartments is sprinkled with cars pocked by rust or bearing crumpled hoods and doors. Clark lives in a tidy home and is watching cable news with her four children spread out nearby, each absorbed by their own electronic device. A towel under the door blocks the rain that’s puddling grassy divides between the rowhomes.
With 15 years at the Indianapolis plant, Clark will keep her job as a fabrication technician at Carrier, while 550 workers will lose theirs. She’s displeased so many jobs are being lost. Clark says while “Carrier has been good to us, when they laid everyone off, it opened your eyes. No one’s job is safe.”
She is considering switching to the healthcare field, having worked in a hospital when she was younger. “In 10 years I’ll be 50. My sons have big goals. One wants to be an architect, the other wants to be a football player.”
“It’s been a whole mental breakdown with the plant closing,” says Clark. “When I thought I was going to be laid off, I worried about where am I going to live at without no job and no money. How am I going to pay my rent. How am I going to make my car payment. With four kids $10 an hour is nothing to me.”
Clark feels Trump’s intervention at Carrier overshadowed the role the workers played. “Me and my kids were protesting for our jobs. The seven months we protest, it was nothing.”
Robert James, who has been at carrier for 18 years and is vice president of USW Local 1999, agrees. “One of our members took that video and it went viral. The steelworkers kept Carrier in the news.”
Back at the steelworkers hall, Tim Mathis, 51, who works at Rexnord machining housings for ball bearings, says, “We’re not asking for anybody’s sympathy, we’re asking for people to stand with us and say no more—the bleeding’s got to stop.”
Sitting in the conference room, puffing on a cigarette, Chuck Jones sees a dark future for many of the 1,600 workers who are being pushed out of the Carrier and Rexnord factories.
“Guy gets laid off. One day someone comes in. He says, ‘Did you hear about Old Luke? His car got repo’ed.’
“A few months later, ‘Did you hear about old Luke? He lost his house, got foreclosed.’
“A few months after that, ‘Did you hear about old Luke? His wife left him after he lost his house. He blew his brains out.’
“I’ve heard this too many times. Very few of them who are losing their jobs are going to come out alright.”
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.