The fuzzy video, shot by a worker on the floor of a Carrier factory here in the American heartland last month, captured the raging national debate over trade and the future of the working class in 3 minutes 32 seconds.
“This is strictly a business decision,” a Carrier executive tells employees, describing how their 1,400 jobs making furnaces and heating equipment will be sent to Mexico. Workers there typically earn about $19 a day – less than what many on the assembly line here make in an hour. As boos and curses erupt from the crowd, the executive says, “Please quiet down.”
What came next was nothing of the kind.
Within hours of being posted on Facebook, the video went viral. Three days after Carrier’s Feb. 10 announcement, Donald Trump seized on the video in a Republican presidential debate and made Carrier’s move to Mexico a centerpiece of his stump speeches attacking free trade.
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Jennifer Shanklin-Hawkins is one of those Carrier workers who listened to the announcement on the factory floor. After 14 years on the assembly line, she earns $21.22 an hour, enough to put her oldest son through college while raising two other children with her husband, a truck driver.
And when she saw Trump talking about Carrier on the news, all she could do was shout “Yessss!” at the TV. “I loved it,” she said. “I was so happy Trump noticed us.”
In living rooms and barrooms across Indianapolis, conversations with Carrier workers like Shanklin-Hawkins crystallize what has become an extraordinary moment in the American political and economic debate. As both political parties belatedly recognize the anxiety and deep-seated anger of blue-collar workers nationwide, the more-trade-is-good bipartisan consensus that has long held sway in Washington is being sundered.
What isn’t evident in the video – or in the furious debate it has spawned – is that both the company and its soon-to-be former employees are reacting to the same transformative quarter-century of American economic policy aimed at lowering trade barriers and staying globally competitive.
“We have to look around the corner and see how this market will change in order to invest and stay in business for another 100 years,” said Robert McDonough, a senior executive at Carrier’s parent company, United Technologies. “You can blink and see your market position erode.”
The rub is that the costs and benefits aren’t distributed equally. Global trade has produced big gains for Americans, such as more affordable goods – clothes, computers, even air-conditioners – and led to a more advanced economy.
At the same time, a chronic trade deficit and an overvalued dollar have caused factory jobs to dry up, contributing to a deep divide between the political and economic elite and the rest of the nation. Perhaps a clash was inevitable.
Consider the case of Shanklin-Hawkins. While she says she won’t be voting for Trump and considers him a racist, she applauds his message on trade. She says she plans to vote for Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who similarly blasts free trade, but from the left. The two populist candidates may be political opposites, but when it comes to the downside of globalization, Sanders and Trump are speaking to her with one voice.
In fact, many Carrier workers here say that it was not so much Trump’s nativist talk on illegal immigrants or his anti-Muslim statements that has fired them up. Instead, it was hearing a leading presidential candidate acknowledging just how much economic ground they’ve lost – and promising to do something about it.
Trump has repudiated decades of GOP support for free trade, calling for heavy tariffs on Mexican-made goods from the likes of Carrier. This has helped put him within arm’s reach of the Republican nomination.
Opposition to trade deals has also galvanized supporters of Sanders, helping him unexpectedly win the Michigan Democratic primary this month.
Exit polls after the Michigan primary, for example, showed that a clear majority of both Republican and Democratic voters believe international trade costs the American economy more jobs than it creates.
Nicole Hargrove, a 14-year Carrier worker, said she was an undecided voter and was uncomfortable with Trump’s attacks on immigrants, particularly Mexicans. “But I’d like to turn him loose on the financial world,” she said. “Maybe if Carrier had to pay more to bring stuff in, they’d think twice about moving jobs out.”
No silver bullets
Mark Weddle, 55, started work at Carrier 24 years ago and earns $21 an hour running a machine that makes heat exchangers. “I have two brothers-in-law from Mexico,” he said, explaining why he disagrees with Trump’s anti-immigrant stance.
But when it comes to Carrier, “we’ve all worked our butts off,” he said. “And now they’re going to throw us under the bus? If Trump will kick Carrier’s ass, then I’ll vote for him.”
That’s pretty much what Trump has threatened to do. At rally after rally, to rapturous crowds, he vows to impose a 35 percent tax on Carrier products from Mexico. Then, the laugh line: “I want to do this myself, but it is so unpresidential to call up Carrier.”
And Trump vows not to take Carrier’s calls until it agrees to change course. “As sure as you’re here, they will call me up within 24 hours,” he promises, and say to him, “‘Sir, we’ve decided to stay in the United States.’”
It is powerful talk.
The relentless loss of American manufacturing jobs, however, goes back nearly half a century, driven largely by forces beyond the control of any president. The advances of technology, the diffusion of industrial expertise around the world, the availability of cheap labor and the rise of China as a manufacturing powerhouse would have disrupted the nation’s industrial heartland even without new trade deals.
Nor are tariffs likely to bring many of these jobs back, said David Autor, a professor of economics at MIT, who is one of the country’s foremost specialists on the pluses and minuses of free trade. “We don’t have silver bullets,” he said.
The workers in the Indianapolis factory are represented by the United Steelworkers union. As has been the case in the auto industry, the union agreed in 2011 to a two-tier wage system in which new hires were paid less than veteran employees.
“I’m more skilled with my hands than I am with my brain,” said Robin Maynard, half joking. He holds two associate degrees, oversees a team of 15 and has worked at Carrier almost 24 years. “But I like working with my hands.”
Carol Bigbee, 59, has worked at Carrier for 13 years. Her 32-year-old daughter has a college degree and the kind of job that many economists say is the future in postindustrial America; she works in a medical lab. The only problem, Bigbee said, is that her daughter’s hourly pay is one-third less than her own pay at Carrier.
“I think it will be extremely hard to find a job that pays $22 an hour,” Bigbee said. “You have to be really blessed to find a job that pays that kind of money.” The few manufacturing jobs left require math tests, something she says she worries she could not pass.
The first layoffs won’t begin until 2017, and the final shuttering of the factory isn’t expected to happen until 2019, giving employees time to prepare. In addition, United Technologies has offered to cover the cost of at least four years of additional schooling for Carrier workers. But that’s cold comfort to people who can’t afford not to work or those, like Bigbee, who are near retirement.
She will be 60 in May, making retraining impractical. “If I were in my 40s, I’d go back to school,” she said.