It was bad news just begging for a politician’s promise to make it better—1,400 jobs at a Carrier Corp. plant in Indianapolis eliminated, with production moving to low-wage Mexico.
Now, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has made a “100 percent” guarantee that if he’s elected, the factory will remain open, a pledge met by much skepticism and some praise by workers, economists and voters last week in Indiana, which holds a pivotal presidential primary Tuesday. While he leads polls there with a message of protectionism and saving jobs, few Hoosiers took his promise at face value.
“He’s just not on planet Earth,” said Jennifer Foxworthy, a Democrat who manages an Indianapolis logistics company. “He can’t make an executive decision for everything he believes in.”
Carrier’s February announcement, captured on a video that swept the Internet, reaffirmed a decades-long trend of deindustrialization and heightened the sense of powerlessness among workers in Indiana. The state has seen a steady slide of manufacturing jobs since 1969, when 33 percent of workers made their livelihoods in the production of goods. Today, only 14 percent do.
In February, Trump moved quickly to trumpet the Carrier job-cut news, mentioning it at rallies across the country for the past 10 weeks. He pledged to hit Carrier with a 35 percent tariff on air-conditioning units and goods returning to the U.S. That threat, he said, would scare Carrier executives into reversing their decision to move the jobs.
"Here’s what’s going to happen,” Trump said on stage in Indianapolis last Wednesday with legendary Indiana Hoosiers basketball coach Bobby Knight. "They’re going to call me and they are going to say ‘Mr. President, Carrier has decided to stay in Indiana.’"
"One hundred percent—that’s what is going to happen," Trump insisted. "It’s not like we have an 80 percent chance of keeping them or a 95 percent. 100 percent."
Presidents have few tools at their disposal beyond their power of personal persuasion to target specific companies or jobs. Trump’s campaign said in a statement that he would renegotiate trade deals and save the jobs using “existing authority.” A Trump administration would work with Congress to rewrite the tax code to encourage manufacturing and make moving jobs abroad more costly for corporations, according to the statement. Trade deficits have been “nothing but a disaster for the working class.”
The sentiment resonates in Indiana.
Lana Brown, a 71-year-old retiree from Newburgh, said that Trump’s message to bring back manufacturing is "one of the reasons I’m voting for him."
"Everyone felt it when Carrier announced they’re closing. I have friends whose husbands and sons worked there. They weren’t old enough to retire," Brown said. "It’s not fair."
Critics say the promise is misleading.
“Trump’s saying what people want to hear, not what people need to hear,” said Chuck Deppert, the former president of the Indiana AFL-CIO, a coalition of labor unions. “Until we make a decision that we want to build things in the country again and we’re going to reward people who do it with decent wages and decent profits for corporations, then things will change. But that’s going to take a major change.”
Carrier workers, represented by the United Steelworkers Union, cost about $30 an hour with salary and benefits compared with about $3 a worker in Mexico, said Michael Hicks, an economics professor at Ball State University and director of its Center for Business and Economic Research. Improved technology and increased automation means fewer workers are needed, so production is being shifted to Mexico, not jobs, Hicks said. Manufacturing output in the state is at record levels.
“The technology genie is out of the bottle, and Donald can’t put it back in,” Hicks said, adding that he can understand Trump’s appeal to workers seeing their jobs slip away. “If you’re looking at this whole milieu of stagnant jobs and falling factories, Trump’s demagoguery looks real to you."
Mark Smith, a 14-year veteran assembly-line worker at the Carrier plant, gathered with almost a thousand union members and supporters at the Indiana state capitol grounds Friday to protest the decision and then march with placards and flags through the streets of downtown Indianapolis. Most demonstrators were supporting Democrat Bernie Sanders, a long-time critic of free-trade agreements, pacts that they blame for hundreds of thousands of job losses.
They met under sunny skies and American flags, listening to tub-thumping speeches and rock music that was popular when manufacturing was the powerhouse of the Indiana economy. Trump wasn’t mentioned, but job anxiety hung in the air.
“I don’t believe a word he says,” Smith said in an interview. “He’s like a lot of the billionaire class out there and he doesn’t care about us little guys down here at the bottom.”
Trump’s critics and supporters agree that the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, is to blame for the job losses. Trump backer Cameron Hadley, a manufacturing subcontractor from Evansville, says the New York businessman has the right approach.
"You look at what NAFTA has done to us," Hadley said. "Trump understands that. That’s why he’s leading here."
For Susan Chilberg of Elkhart, who is 69 and self-employed, Trump’s background is needed for a nation and an economy that need fixing.
“He will be able to negotiate far, far better than anybody else that’s running right now for the United States to help the United States regain its stature, number one, and number two to bring jobs back,” Chilberg said.
Even among Trump’s supporters, though, there are doubts about the Carrier guarantee. Nick Aldrich, a bank employee taking a smoking break near downtown’s 285-foot tall Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, said he doubts Trump can save the Carrier jobs, even though he supports the New York businessman.
By raising the jobs issue, Trump has started a conversation on trade and job protection that should have begun 30 years ago, said Aldrich, 32, a self-described cynic about politics.
“He’s saying ‘Let’s bring jobs back and no more welfare’ and I like that,” Aldrich said. If Trump doesn’t follow through, Aldrich said, the result will be anger.