Back at the Carrier Plant, Workers Are Still Fighting on Their Own
The news that the Carrier plant would be closing broke on February 10, 2016. Robert James, vice president of Local 1999 and an employee at Carrier for nearly two decades, had gotten off the late shift around 3 ᴀᴍ and gone to bed, but his phone kept buzzing with the news. “It was too early for people to be playing,” James says. A meeting at the plant the next day confirmed it: The company was shifting its operations to Mexico. “The bottom dropped out of people,” he recalls.
James and Jones are a study in contrasts. James is soft-spoken and thoughtful where Jones is brash. Jones is white; James, who will become president of the union when Jones retires, is African American. Yet both carry the weight of the layoffs in their slow movements, exhausted grimaces, and occasional sharpness.
Industrial work is rarely pleasant, but when James began his job, Carrier was a decent place to work. In recent years, however, conditions have deteriorated. Despite remaining profitable, Carrier demanded a two-tier wage system after the 2008 financial crisis. Two-tier contracts are a long-standing point of contention in the labor movement, since they drive a wedge between long-term and newer workers by forcing the latter into a lower wage bracket for the duration of their time at the company. Yet even that concession, James acidly notes, wasn’t enough for Carrier—not when the prospect of even lower wages beckoned elsewhere.
The news that Carrier would be closing the plant came during the presidential primaries. When Jones and a handful of workers crashed a meeting that then-Governor Pence was holding with the executives of UTC, brandishing Keep It Made in America signs, Pence told them there was nothing to be done. This came as no surprise: Most politicians, whatever their party, only care about the union at election time, Jones says, when its membership base can deliver money and votes. And though Hillary Clinton campaigned at other Indiana plants and acknowledged that NAFTA, which she had supported, had sent jobs overseas—adding, “It’s now our challenge to figure out how we are going to keep those jobs, grow those jobs”—it sounded like too little, too late to many workers. More than a few of them quoted to me her statement that the Trans-Pacific Partnership would be the “gold standard” of trade deals.
But both Trump and Bernie Sanders seized on Carrier as an example of the problems they vowed to solve. Suddenly, the Carrier workers found themselves at the center of campaign speeches denouncing NAFTA and outsourcing, of promises to “Make America great again.” They heard Trump declare that Carrier executives are “going to call me, and they are going to say, ‘Mr. President, Carrier has decided to stay in Indiana….’ One hundred percent.” They met with Sanders—a signed picture of the insurgent candidate with Jones hangs in the union hall. Jones believes that Sanders actually meant what he said, and adds that the Vermont senator continues to check in with the union. When Sanders conceded the primary to Clinton, her perceived inattention to USW’s issues—reinforced when Clinton surrogates like Senator Chuck Schumer and former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell argued that losing votes among “blue-collar Democrats” could be offset by picking up votes among wealthier suburbanites—caused some members to shift toward Trump. Enough of them did that the local, which had endorsed Sanders in the primary, remained neutral in the general election. And then came Trump’s shocking victory.
It was only a few weeks after the election that Carrier workers started to hear rumors that Trump was meeting with their company. Then the Secret Service agents showed up. Jones says the union was left out of any talks until the day Trump arrived and began talking about air conditioners—the Indianapolis plant makes furnaces—and about his proposed border wall. Jones was furious that the president-elect gave misleading statements about the number of jobs that would be saved, and he said as much to reporters. He kept saying so, even after Trump insulted him on Twitter: “Chuck Jones, who is President of United Steelworkers 1999, has done a terrible job representing workers. No wonder companies flee country!”
Jones shrugs. “I’ve been doing this job for over 30 years—what Trump said about me didn’t faze me a bit.” It’s the continued loss of jobs that worries him.
As James points out, it’s not that Carrier workers are so attached to their particular jobs; it’s the wages and union protections they’ll miss. When, in the wake of Trump’s deal, Carrier opened up the option for older workers to retire early, saving more jobs for younger workers, many of them jumped at the offer. People at the plant no longer think of Carrier as their future, even if their jobs—like James’s own—have been saved for now. And they’re probably right: Shortly after Trump’s announcement, the head of UTC admitted that the company plans to use some of the money that it said it would reinvest in the factory to increase automation—a move that will lead, presumably, to laying off more workers.
“Carrier was asked the other day at a meeting with the plant manager and HR people, ‘How long would the plant be here?’ They don’t have an answer to that question,” James says. “My opinion, I say four years. Trump will be out of office, and they’ll have accomplished what they wanted to accomplish with the tax break.”
Around the corner from Carrier is the Rexnord plant, a long, flat structure with an American flag flying over it. Like Carrier, the plant has been in the city for decades, making bearings (machine parts that reduce friction) and a healthy profit—the company as a whole made $67.5 million in 2016 and paid its CEO $1.5 million in total compensation. Rexnord is smaller than the Carrier plant, with around 300 employees. The average wage, according to Jones, who represents the workers at Rexnord too, is $25 an hour; at Carrier, it’s a little lower, around $23.
Jones himself took a job at Rexnord, then known as Link-Belt, in August of 1968, before he’d even turned 18. Like many of the employees, he heard about the job from a friend, who encouraged him to lie about his age. The job would nearly double the wage he was making at Kentucky Fried Chicken. “I was making $2.21,” Jones laughs. “I hit the mother lode.”
Conditions at Rexnord changed over the years, from Jones’s first days until his retirement, which will come when the plant leaves—a captain going down with his ship. But for most of the time, the union helped keep the work bearable. It was unions, after all, that made jobs “decent” in the first place, not the beneficence of employers, and certainly not any characteristic of the work itself.
John Feltner was hired at Rexnord a little over three years ago, just before the company demanded a two-tier wage system. A big man who wears silver rings with skulls on them, Feltner doesn’t look old enough to have three children in their 20s and a new grandson. He had worked for years at Navistar, another Indianapolis plant, but lost his job in 2008 (the plant was shuttered for good in 2009). The financial crisis echoes throughout the stories of the Indianapolis plant closures as much as NAFTA does, with demands for wage concessions and other givebacks, as well as job losses that, like Feltner’s, led to home foreclosures. He wound up taking a job at an insurance company, which eventually sent him to Texas as a loss-control agent. Feltner missed Indiana, though—he once drove for over 14 hours from the Dallas–Fort Worth area for a five-minute interview at Rexnord. He didn’t get the job that time, but he wound up moving back anyway. “We were basically down to our last $200, and Rexnord called,” Feltner says.
Now he’s facing joblessness again. Gary Canter, a good friend of Feltner’s, recalls the scene: On the afternoon of Friday, October 14, 2016, the Rexnord employees were called to the back dock and told that the plant was closing. “Take that home for the weekend and share that with your family,” adds Canter, a lean man with a rare but winning smile. Three hundred more jobs would be disappearing.
The layoffs, coming in tandem with those at Carrier, will reverberate throughout the community. “That plant closing doesn’t affect just the workers,” Feltner says. “It affects their families, it affects all these businesses, it affects the pizza shop, the Dairy Queen—this place is going to be affected.” He’s sitting at a table in Sully’s, the bar where workers from all three local plants share double-size mugs of beer after work. “A lot of people don’t understand that.”
The reality began to sink in when the company started pulling machines out of the plant. Then the Rexnord workers were asked to train their Mexican replacements. “There’s a lot of uneasiness at the plant,” Feltner notes, between those who volunteered to make a few extra dollars per hour training the new workers and those who refused. “It’s almost an insult to us to even think that, with all the knowledge that it takes to do our jobs, that we can transfer that over to anyone in two or three weeks,” Canter says.
But their resentment is aimed mostly at the bosses, not the replacement workers or those who volunteered to train them. “Wherever they go, they’re exploiting these people,” Canter says. “Thank God we scrapped the TPP, or they’d be screwing over the Mexicans the same way and going over to Vietnam and paying 50 cents on the hour.”
Like those at Carrier, the Rexnord workers won’t necessarily miss the work itself—“It’s hard work…sometimes it’s not as much physical as it is mental,” Feltner says—but they will miss their co-workers. “I spend more waking hours with them than anyone else, even my own family at home,” Canter says. Feltner adds: “Sometimes we become each other’s therapists.” As their layoff dates approach, the hardest thing for many of them to do is to imagine what else they might do with their lives. Kyle Beaman, who works in quality control, fantasizes about winning the lottery and says that he might buy the Rexnord plant—he even has a name picked out: Midwest Bearings. Feltner is considering what to do with the Trade Adjustment Assistance retraining option; he has an engineering degree and has already reinvented his life more than once. “If I could work for myself and just be in control of me and my boys, it would be awesome,” he says. If money were no object, Canter offers, he’d like to be a fishing guide. But practicality reasserts itself not long into these conversations. “Going into something at an entry level and with a 27-year-old child, two 9-year-old kids, a house payment, car payments—I just can’t do that,” Canter says. “Unfortunately, money is an issue.”
When Jones began working at Rexnord, Indiana’s union density was at 40 percent; now it’s under 11 percent, thanks to outsourcing, the 2005 removal of public-sector collective-bargaining rights, and Indiana’s 2012 right-to-work law. Despite all that, Local 1999 has kept its membership numbers steady, losing fewer people than expected when the right-to-work law allowed workers at unionized plants to opt out of the union. It did this mostly by being willing to fight, even when circumstances suggested that the union should simply accept whatever concessions were demanded.
That willingness to fight was on display on March 8. While some of the workers at Rexnord were training their replacements and those at Carrier had one last day to choose early retirement, the workers at Sumco—also members of Local 1999—voted 63-to-2 to go on strike. Their vote ended at 4 ᴘᴍ, and within an hour, they were walking a slow picket line in front of the building.
For the Sumco workers, like those at Rexnord and Carrier, the frustrations date back to the financial crisis. “Right now, we’re just trying to get back everything we lost in 2009 and 2010,” says Bill Horton, a 23-year Sumco employee and the unit president at the plant. “That year, we lost over half our vacation days, half our personal time; we agreed to not take a pay raise for two years.” In the interim, the company continued asking for concessions, even though, as far as the workers know, it had become profitable again. (When contacted by The Nation, Sumco refused to confirm information about its profitability.)
The anger at Sumco was palpable. More than once, workers told me that Sumco’s owners bought themselves new pickup trucks the same year that the workers agreed to forgo raises. The work itself is dangerous—Sumco workers do electroplating with caustic chemicals that often results in burns, and Horton rattles off a list of some of the more gruesome injuries. “Back in October, one guy lost his foot,” he says matter-of-factly.
The two-tier wage structure was a key issue at Sumco. Marco Gutierrez, who moved to Indianapolis six months ago, tells me, “I didn’t really know what it was when I first got in, but now that I understand it, it’s pretty unfair. We do the same amount of work.” The Sumco strike was his first experience on the picket line; he appreciated that the higher-tier workers were holding out for him.
Going on strike for decent manufacturing work while layoffs and closures were happening all around them was a gutsy move. But making even more concessions was unthinkable. “We honestly were expecting them threatening to move to Mexico,” Horton shrugs. A passerby underscores that fear, saying that he’d like to support the striking workers but that, in demanding higher wages, they were simply hastening the outsourcing.
But that remark misses the fact that these workers have already given up plenty. “We’re not asking for much,” they tell me over and over—but when you get them talking, you can hear the anger: Why can’t we ask for more? “You can only kick a dog so many times,” one of the strikers says. Their health-care plan already has a high deductible: “Single-payer is the only way,” more than one worker tells me. Darren Dilosa, another union official at the plant, states flatly: “You want something, you have to fight.”
These are people who work hard, and it shows in their bodies; you can hear it in their voices, rubbed rough from cigarettes and chemical fumes. No one expects to enjoy the job: The hours are long, and taking away vacation time and days off, as Sumco did, seems like an even crueler joke because it’s what these people work for. They tell me about their hobbies—a new camera, a vintage pickup truck—and they tell me, too, about the high rate of divorce at the plant: When you work up to 80 hours a week, when forced overtime is both common and random, it’s hard to plan on anything but going to your job and perhaps having a beer at Sully’s when you’re done.
Yet these workers continue to fight for one another. On March 11, the Sumco workers voted on a contract that gives newer workers a path out of the two-tier system—a rare victory in today’s world. They also got colleague Darron Tichoner’s job back after he had been fired, Tichoner says, for returning to the workplace to pick up his asthma inhaler and staying too long in the plant. “I think it was the best we could do,” Dilosa tells me. Fourteen of the workers, though, voted to stay on the picket lines, to demand more.
All around Local 1999’s union hall and the factories are the signs of the “new economy.” Around the corner from the hall is a sign for OnDemand Staffing, a temp agency; across from Sumco and Carrier are Target and Amazon distribution centers—jobs that pay around $12 an hour, less than half what many of the plant workers make, and with no union to protect them. “We all know that NAFTA and all these trade deals have done damage as far as manufacturing jobs go,” James says. “But it’s not just manufacturing jobs. You call Microsoft now, it’s over in India. It’s just jobs in general.”
Indeed, in many parts of the country, manufacturing work is now performed by workers hired by temp agencies, and some of the Rexnord jobs may be moving to Texas—where there are lower wages and fewer unions—rather than Mexico. Other manufacturing jobs are being done by robots. For Canter, there’s no job on the horizon that will pay him what he made at Rexnord. “I know we’re all about free enterprise and making money, but we were making you profitable,” he says about the company. “Then, just to turn your backs on us like that for a dollar—in my opinion, it’s being allowed to happen.”
Canter is a lifelong Democrat, but he voted for Trump. So did Feltner and Beaman. Each of them feels slightly different about the president now: While Beaman is inclined to think that Trump’s statement to the Carrier workers was an honest mistake, Canter calls it a “misleading” deal and is frustrated with Trump’s inaction on Rexnord and other closures. “I thought, ‘Let’s give this man a shot and see what happens.’ Well, we’re not seeing anything.” “There hasn’t been a political party in a long, long time that thought about the working man, and that’s gotta change,” Feltner adds. He has a button with a picture of Indiana’s own Eugene Debs, the labor organizer and five-time Socialist Party presidential candidate, pinned to his bag. And he’s right: Neither Republicans nor Democrats have had much to offer working people since the wave of outsourcing began. Republicans have taken the position that the workers are going to have to lower their standards. Democrats, notes Mark Price, a labor economist at the Keystone Research Center, have tended to push “better” trade deals that enforce labor standards—but are opposed by organized labor. “The failure to deliver results that lift up communities impacted by trade, while advancing expanded trade, has presented in people’s minds a very unhealthy contrast between their lived experience of dislocation, decline, and despair and the flowery language Democrats use about putting people first,” Price says.
During the primaries, Sanders suggested that companies should be denied government contracts and face penalty taxes if they offshore jobs—something that Trump echoed on the campaign trail, though his deal with Carrier featured a tax giveaway instead (for w
hich, Jones says, “the taxpayers of Indiana ought to be in a rage”). But such company-by-company fixes are not enough. “You have to have a systemic answer,” says Price. A more effective approach would involve taxing the wealthy, and financial speculation in particular, to drive down the incentives for executives to make short-term decisions intended simply to boost the bottom line. It would also involve using the money raised by those taxes to invest in retraining, relocation, and income supports for workers whose jobs are lost to offshoring or automation, and negotiating rules for global trade that include labor and environmental standards. Changing the corporate structure could help, too, Price points out: Worker-owned cooperatives would have a bigger incentive to keep jobs here than shareholder-owned corporations do.
As outsourcing and technological change continue to erode Americans’ job security, bigger ideas like a universal basic income or a job guarantee are getting more attention. But despite their postelection hand-wringing over reaching working-class voters, Democrats haven’t put forward a coherent plan to address the issues those voters face.
Local 1999 hasn’t entirely given up hope. The workers at Rexnord gathered signatures for a petition asking for the state to help save their jobs and delivered it to the new governor, Republican Eric Holcomb, who agreed to meet with them. They held rallies in front of the Rexnord plant, generating honks of support. But the layoffs began in late March anyway, and most of the workers know that their days at Rexnord are numbered.
In any event, the increasingly desperate situation of American workers won’t be remedied by handing out yet more tax breaks to corporations like Rexnord. Truly addressing their plight will involve confronting the problems of global capitalism—or, at the very least, halting the constant downward pressure on their standards of living. Nor is it a matter of prioritizing the concerns of white, male workers to the exclusion of others: The workers at Carrier, Rexnord, and Sumco are black and white and Latino, men and women, and eliminating jobs at any of the plants will hurt all of them. “When you strip away the middle class,” Feltner says, “or even close to the middle class, you start making people settle and settle and settle for less, and it brings everyone down.”
Sarah Jaffe is a Nation Institute fellow and the author of the forthcoming Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt (Nation Books).
Co-published with The Nation.