Carrier Workers See Costs, Not Benefits, of Global Trade


INDIANAPOLIS — 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.

[Nelson D. Schwartz| March 19, 2016 |The New York Times]

“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 J. 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.

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 Mr. 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 Ms. 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, like 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 Ms. Shanklin-Hawkins. While she says she won’t be voting for Mr. Trump and considers him a racist, she applauds his message on trade. She says she plans to vote for Senator 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, Mr. Sanders and Mr. Trump are speaking to her with one voice.

In fact, many Carrier workers here say that it was not so much Mr. 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.

Mr. Trump has repudiated decades of G.O.P. 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 Mr. Sanders, helping him unexpectedly win the Michigan Democratic primary this month. At the same time, it has forced his rival Hillary Clinton to distance herself from trade agreements she once supported, like the proposed 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership and the North American Free Trade Agreement, the 1994 deal with Mexico that is an important part of President Bill Clinton’s political legacy.

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 Mr. 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.”

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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 M.I.T., 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.

“When I learned about the impact of trade agreements, the theory was that workers would be ‘released’ into the labor market and hired back at slightly lower salaries,” Mr. Autor said. “That’s not what happened. And no amount of cheaper air-conditioners will make these workers whole.”

‘Pretty Cool Working There’

On a rainy Thursday afternoon this month, after their 6 a.m.-to-4:30 p.m. shift, a dozen Carrier workers gathered at Sully’s Bar & Grill to talk about the decades they had spent at the low-slung, beige-and-white factory across the street.

The group was diverse: black and white, male and female, old and young. And until the announcement of the eventual shutdown, most of them said they had loved working for Carrier, assembling furnaces and fan coils, hard as the work could be.

Read more at The New York Times

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