Will Trump’s Broken Promises to Working-Class Voters Cost Him the Election?

Last December, Bob Kemper, the grievance chairman of United Steelworkers Local 1299, was summoned to a conference room at Great Lakes Wor...


Last December, Bob Kemper, the grievance chairman of United Steelworkers Local 1299, was summoned to a conference room at Great Lakes Works, a U.S. Steel plant just south of Detroit. A cohort of senior managers told Kemper and three other union officers that the automotive industry, which buys almost all of the plant’s steel, was cutting its car production. With reduced demand for its product, most of Great Lakes would be “indefinitely idled.” Kemper knew this meant that members were getting laid off, but the terminology was unfamiliar. “Our contract says the facility has to be declared shut down in order for our members to get a severance,” Kemper told me. “We were trying to figure out what the fuck ‘indefinitely idled’ means.”

Nearly a thousand workers have since lost their jobs. The layoffs came at an inauspicious time for Donald Trump, who won the Presidency, in 2016, by flipping Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania by a combined total of seventy-seven thousand votes. (His winning margin in Michigan, barely ten thousand votes, was the slimmest of any state.) Two days before Election Day, Trump had held a rally in Macomb County, Michigan, a national bellwether for the white working-class voters who were once known as Reagan Democrats. “We are going to stop the jobs from going to Mexico and China and all over the world,” Trump said. “We will make Michigan into the manufacturing hub of the world once again.” A Republican Presidential candidate had not won Macomb County since 2004; Trump carried it by nearly fifty thousand votes.

The political importance of trade and manufacturing derives from the fact that the sector’s average pay, including benefits, is close to forty dollars an hour, roughly twice as much as the average job in retail. For workers without a college degree, who represent more than sixty per cent of the American workforce, the industry is one of the few that offers family-supporting jobs with benefits. And yet American manufacturing has been in decline for decades. Altogether, the U.S. has lost ninety-one thousand plants and five million manufacturing jobs since 1997. As President, Trump continued staging rallies across the Rust Belt, promising a manufacturing revival. In July, 2017, at an event in Youngstown, Ohio (“Steeltown, U.S.A.”), Trump promised that the jobs lost from the area’s abandoned mills would be “all coming back.” He implored the crowd, “Don’t move. Don’t sell your house. We’re going to fill up those factories.”

To complement such messaging, the Trump Administration has touted its trade policies. One of its most significant moves came in March, 2018, when the President imposed import tariffs of twenty-five per cent on steel and ten per cent on aluminum. Both U.S. Steel and United Steelworkers lobbied for the change, and it initially brought a rebound to the American steel industry. Four months after implementing the tariffs, Trump travelled to Granite City, Illinois, to celebrate the reopening of a U.S. Steel mill that had been closed for three years. “After years of shutdowns and cutbacks, today the blast furnace here in Granite City is blazing bright,” he said. “Workers are back on the job, and we are once again pouring new American steel into the spine of our country.”

But, like with many aspects of the Trump Administration, such boasting masked a profound failure. The Administration ultimately exempted Mexico, Canada, and Australia from the tariffs, and a few other countries were exempted in exchange for accepting a quota on their exports. In June, 2019, only seventeen per cent of the steel imported by the U.S. was subject to the trade policy. “It was a short-term sugar rush—it didn’t deal with the long term,” Scott Paul, the president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, told me. “It may sound counterintuitive, but the tariffs weren’t protective enough.”

America’s industrial base has actually deteriorated further during Trump’s Presidency; more than two hundred thousand jobs have been lost to offshoring and trade, according to the U.S. Labor Department. (Other estimates have found that as many as seven hundred thousand jobs were lost in just 2017 and 2018.) General Motors has closed three U.S. plants, including one that recently employed nearly five thousand people in Lordstown, Ohio; the company is now the largest automaker in Mexico. Boeing and General Electric have offshored thousands of jobs to low-wage countries, with no significant response from the Trump Administration. In fact, a new report by Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch found that more than four hundred billion dollars in federal contracts have gone to companies which offshored jobs during the Trump Presidency.

Bob Kemper at the Local 1299 union hall, in River Rouge, Michigan.

After winning the 2016 election, Trump dispatched Vice-President-elect Mike Pence to negotiate a deal with Carrier Corporation, an air-conditioning manufacturer that had announced plans to move fourteen hundred jobs to Mexico. The company agreed to keep about seven hundred jobs, in its Indianapolis plant, in exchange for seven million dollars in state tax credits. “This is the way it’s going to be,” Trump told the Times. “Corporate America is going to have to understand that we have to take care of our workers also.” But United Technologies, Carrier’s parent company, has since offshored nearly sixteen hundred jobs. At the same time, the Trump Administration has given the company fifteen billion dollars in government contracts.

Although Trump has failed to deliver on many of his manufacturing promises, he continues to campaign as though he had. Recently, he gave a speech in Janesville, Wisconsin, touting his deal to bring a Foxconn manufacturing plant to the state despite the fact that the project has become a notorious boondoggle. Wisconsin taxpayers have shelled out at least four hundred million dollars so far for a nonexistent LCD factory and fewer than three hundred jobs of the thirteen thousand that the company has promised to create. Similarly, at an event near Saginaw, Michigan, last month, Trump boasted that he “saved the auto industry” and brought the state “a lot of car plants.” But Michigan has lost fifty thousand manufacturing jobs since the start of Trump’s Presidency, about half of them in the auto industry. Jobs in Michigan lost to offshoring actually increased by more than two hundred per cent during the first three years of Trump’s Presidency, compared with the last three years of Obama’s.

Andrea Hunter, the president of Local 1299, who was with Kemper when management announced that Great Lakes would be idled, saw the power that Trump’s false promises had on some of her members. In the summer of 2018, she was in the midst of negotiations over a new contract with U.S. Steel in Pittsburgh. During the talks, Trump declared, at a rally in Tampa, Florida, that U.S. Steel was building six new mills. “When Trump said it, we were all laughing,” Hunter said, recalling an exchange between the union representatives and company executives. “We said, ‘Y’all don’t want to give us any money, but check out these new plants coming.’ They said, ‘We don’t know what he’s talking about.’ Then I have to come back to my membership and say it’s not true. And some member will say, ‘Yes, it is.’ Now they’re calling me a liar.”

Local 1299’s union hall, in River Rouge, is down the street from the Great Lakes mill. Its squat brick façade and small white steeple are meant to evoke Independence Hall. An auditorium inside is decorated with a mural painted, in the late sixties, by a steelworker named J. J. Janiec. Titled “Forgotten History,” it depicts some of the American labor movement’s bloodiest battles—the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, in Colorado; the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937, in Chicago—foregrounded by a portrait of Philip Murray, a Scottish immigrant and coal miner who was the first president of the steelworkers’ union. (The painter’s grandson, a third-generation steelworker, lost his job at Great Lakes last year.) In the hall’s entranceway, near a plaque depicting Franklin D. Roosevelt—labor’s greatest ally in the White House—a stack of flyers advertised jobs with the Detroit Police Department.

On a Tuesday morning in September, Jeanelle Jones came to the hall to sign up for a workshop offered by Trade Adjustment Assistance, a federal program that helps workers who’ve lost their jobs to foreign trade find new careers. Jones is sixty-three and worked at Great Lakes for seven years, first as an overhead-crane operator and then as a safety representative. Before that, she worked on the assembly line at an axle plant in Detroit, but she took a severance package when the company began closing the factory and moving most of its production to Mexico. “My biggest fear right now is my age,” Jones said. “How many people are going to employ a sixty-three-year-old woman?” Jones also worries that a bout with lung cancer, in 2011, might dissuade a company from hiring her. “Normally you get asked, ‘Have you been diagnosed with something in the last ten years?’ ” she said. “I won’t be past that until next year.”

Jones signed up for the workshop with her friend and former co-worker Brandy Folks. Unemployment was about to run out for both of them. Folks, who has a six-year-old son, was concerned about finding a job that paid anything close to what she made as a steelworker. “I am not looking for a Bugatti,” she said. “I am looking to pay off my car and my mortgage without the worry that’s looming in my head.”

Brandy Folks, who was laid off from Great Lakes Works, with her partner, Glennisha.

Folks’s parents had met while working at Great Lakes (which was then owned by National Steel) in the nineteen-seventies. Her mother, Pat, was one of the first women hired at the plant, and Folks’s baby shower was held at Local 1299’s union hall. After living in California, Nevada, and Kentucky, where she worked as a deputy sheriff, Folks returned to Michigan, in 2008, to be closer to her family. On her first day at the plant, she said, “I made the same amount of money as both of my parents, who were still working at that time.” But it was dangerous work. At the mill, Folks worked as a slab burner, cutting steel to the parameters of particular orders, and then in masonry, relining thirty-foot-deep iron and steel ladles with brick. “We don’t pinch our fingers, we don’t break them—we lose hands and legs,” she said. “Or you just die.” During her time at the plant, two 1299 members were killed on the job.

Folks said that she knows several laid-off workers who had come to Detroit on their second transfer, after losing their jobs at U.S. Steel plants in Granite City and then Lorain, Ohio. Many now planned to transfer from Michigan to a mill in Fairfield, Alabama. “If I wasn’t married,” Jones said. “I would probably have went to Fairfield.”

Exit polls after Trump’s victory showed that he had won sixty-one per cent of white voters without a college degree in Michigan. Among households with a union member, Hillary Clinton beat Trump by thirteen points, but that was twenty points fewer than Barack Obama’s margin over Mitt Romney four years earlier. Bob Kemper estimates that as many as half the workers at Great Lakes supported Trump. “Trump was the great savior of the steel industry,” Folks said, sarcastically. “I’m not going to be surprised if he does win again. He’s done an excellent job of fearmongering.”

After Trump took office, a new level of divisiveness came into the plant. Complaints brought to the union over racial harassment soared. Folks said that she had experienced racism and misogyny at work before Trump’s election, but it became more brazen afterward. “The climate changed,” Folks, who is Black, told me. “It became very polarizing, very much us versus them.”

One source of tension came during lunch hour, when some co-workers started wearing MAGA hats at the table. “Some people are saying, ‘Trump allowed me to be able to be me—I’m going to speak the way I choose to speak,’ ” Jones, who is also Black, said. “Trump cares about one thing, and that’s green. He cares about the filthy rich. He cares about the people that he feels somewhere down the road is going to be able to contribute to him, not the working-class people, not the poor-class people. Trump could care less about color. It’s about rich versus poor.”

Manufacturing employed more than a quarter of the American workforce in 1970. Three years later, wages for non-college-educated workers peaked. In 1976, Jimmy Carter narrowly won the Presidency, carrying nearly two-thirds of union households. The following year, on September 19, 1977, a day that became known as Black Monday, Youngstown Sheet & Tube announced that it would close one of its steel mills and lay off five thousand workers; older residents still remember where they were when they heard the news. The decision sparked a massive wave of deindustrialization across the Midwest. Youngstown had been the second-largest steel-manufacturing city in the country, after Pittsburgh. By the time Ronald Reagan campaigned in Youngstown in 1980, an additional nine thousand jobs had been lost. In his speech, Reagan told the unemployed steelworkers, “These [closings] would not have happened if I were President.”

The Republican National Committee chose Detroit as the site of its 1980 convention, where Reagan, during his acceptance speech, promised to “make America great again.” (Trump trademarked the phrase in 2015.) Reagan won every state in the industrial Midwest, helping to secure a landslide victory over Carter. But deindustrialization only deepened; by the end of Reagan’s second term, virtually all of the steel industry—some fifty thousand well-paying jobs—had vanished from Youngstown and the surrounding Mahoning Valley.

In September, 1984, Walter Mondale, the Democratic Presidential nominee, spoke to a few hundred workers at a rally outside a steel plant in Cleveland. Throughout his long political career, Mondale had been a strong supporter of the same free-trade agenda that Reagan had ultimately pursued in office. As a senator, he once led a successful filibuster to kill a labor-supported measure to limit cheap textile imports; as Vice-President, in the Carter Administration, he was associated with a recession and an eight-per-cent unemployment rate. Now, trailing Reagan badly in the polls, he was making a desperate attempt in Ohio and Michigan to win back Reagan Democrats. In Cleveland, he reminded the crowd of the promises that Reagan had made to the laid-off steelworkers in Youngstown. “First time, his fault,” Mondale said. “Second time, your fault.” Reagan had allowed foreign steel to take over more than a third of the U.S. market, Mondale said, “turning our industrial Midwest into a rust bowl.”

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Newsrust: Will Trump’s Broken Promises to Working-Class Voters Cost Him the Election?
Will Trump’s Broken Promises to Working-Class Voters Cost Him the Election?
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