Blue-Collar Americans Say Trade Is Killing Them

SOUTH MILWAUKEE, Wis. (McClatchy Washington Bureau/TNS) -

Maurice King worked for Joerns Healthcare, a medical-furniture manufacturer, for nearly 43 years. Until suddenly one day, he didn’t.

Joerns closed its plant in Stevens Point, Wis., in 2012, after years of gradually outsourcing work to China. It let go 175 workers. Now the 62-year-old former local steelworkers union president works a 2-11 p.m. shift at a fan factory.

No more local fish fries on Friday nights with his wife, or his side job for 25 years as town chairman in Dewey, population 975. He hasn’t yet earned a week of vacation. Retirement has been pushed back.

“You had the job, you figured you were planning out how things were going to go,” King said. “Now you’ve got to back up and rethink.”

Establishment economists, government and business officials argue that trade deals are critical in a global economy, and great for America. But critics like organized labor call them “death warrants.”

And in blue-collar communities in Wisconsin and across the industrial Midwest, that economic angst, coupled with some sense of betrayal, helps explain the roiling politics of 2016.

Wisconsin votes Tuesday. Soon after come other industrial states, including Pennsylvania. And all could be battlegrounds this fall in the general election.

A lot will look like Milwaukee, once known as “the machine shop to the world,” now grappling with a new economy.

Wisconsin has lost more than more than 68,000 manufacturing jobs since the mid-1990s when the first of several trade agreements with Mexico, China and other nations took hold. About 76,000 Wisconsin workers in various fields lost their jobs because of imports or the work they do being shipped overseas, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

Not all the layoffs and plant closings can be attributed solely to free trade. Some are due, at least in part, to slowdowns in specific industries such as housing and mining.

That’s the case in South Milwaukee, a community of more than 20,000 people, whose economy is built around the Caterpillar plant, which builds huge steam shovels and other mining equipment. Its predecessor, Bucyrus International, built shovels that were used to dig the Panama Canal.

Caterpillar has laid off about 600 of its 800-plus workers over the past two years because of a business slowdown.

“It’s had a pretty large impact,” said Brad Dorff, an assembler at Caterpillar and the local United Steelworkers union president. “Whether it’s small grocery stores, a hardware store down the street, local taverns –– they used to get a lot of business from the people that live in this community who were making a good living, a good wage working here.”

Wisconsin’s manufacturing sector, once one of the country’s strongest, has taken a lot of punches in recent years. General Motors, General Electric, Chrysler, Joy Global Surface Mining and Manitowoc Cranes have all cut jobs or closed operations in recent years for a variety of reasons.

Hometown companies such as Kohler, the plumbing supply manufacturer, and Trek Bicycles have sent jobs to India, China and Taiwan.

Meanwhile, Madison, the state capital, will lose 1,000 jobs over the next two years as the 100-year-old Oscar Mayer meat processing plant closes. Just east on Interstate 94 in Jefferson, Tyson Foods will close its pepperoni processing plant, cutting 400 jobs.

“Change is hard,” Jefferson Mayor Dale Oppermann said. “Something that unexpected like this is a challenge for people. A lot of the people I know haven’t filled out a job application for 30 years, much less done it online.”

The turmoil feeds into a debate over trade in the 2016 campaign.

“Politically, it’s an easy point to make: It isn’t totally untrue at all to say that globalization has hurt American workers,” said former Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat who served from 2003 to 2011. “What you do about that is a lot harder to figure.”

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democrat candidate Bernie Sanders have been the most outspoken against trade deals.

Factory workers are skeptical of anything a politician says.

“We’ve had promises from some of the presidential candidates,” said Wynn Sandahl, a machinist at the South Milwaukee Caterpillar plant.

In Wisconsin, voters are about evenly split on whether free trade agreements have helped or hurt, according to a recent Marquette University Law School poll. In Michigan and Ohio, a majority of primary voters in both parties said foreign trade kills jobs in the U.S.

That’s the feeling inside union halls and communities with closed factories. Trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership mean only uncertainty and distress.

“We’ve watched a lot of our friends lose their jobs,” Dorff said. “They have homes that now they can’t afford. They have families they have to support. They lost their insurance. Their kids have diabetes and they’re trying to get medication. It literally breaks your heart.”

The Business Roundtable, an association of major-company executives, say international trade supports 1 in 5 Wisconsin jobs, and that lower manufacturing costs overseas lowers prices for U.S. consumers.

“It is an economic fact of life that both businesses and their employees benefit when we sell more products overseas, and consumers enjoy a wider range of products at lower prices,” Jerry Jasinowski, former president of the National Association of Manufacturers, said in a recent statement.

But since NAFTA, which removed tariff barriers between the U.S. Canada and Mexico, went into effect in 1994, and the granting of permanent normal trade status to China in 2000, a key question has been how much have those decisions contributed to job losses at home.

Economists generally say that overall, trade creates more prosperity, and that displaced workers will find other work. But competition from China has meant the loss of 2.4 million jobs, according to a recent report by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private nonprofit research group.

It pointed out that industries are often concentrated in certain parts of the country and that local economies have not had the capacity to absorb those workers whom Chinese competition has displaced.

Julie Granger, senior vice president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, said that in a global economy, the notion that “free trade encourages the loss of local jobs is not always the most responsible way to look at it. If we are not engaged in the global economy, we will lose more jobs. There’s no going back. It’s the same story in Milwaukee as it is in other cities: many of lowest-skilled jobs simply were disappearing.”

So is organized labor, long the backbone of the working class, a force in Wisconsin politics and a persistent critic of the trade deals. From 2014 to 2015, union membership as a percentage of the Wisconsin workforce fell to 8.3 percent, from nearly 12 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But organized labor has been under siege in Wisconsin for a while.

At the General Motors plant in Janesville, Wis., the company won significant concessions from the United Autoworkers to help keep the plant open. But the automaker closed it anyway in 2009, putting 850 people out of work.

“Take it or leave it,” is how Roger Hinkle, once a Milwaukee factory worker, now an employment training specialist for the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO Labor, Education and Training Center, characterized management attitudes in an era when offshoring can be an alluring option.

“We can’t get wage increases. They took away our benefits. The overarching sense is these agreements are basically written and built for improving profitability for corporations. That’s the interest that’s being served.”