Indiana primary: Laid-off Rust Belt voters become key players

Indiana’s ailing Rust Belt economy may be one of Donald Trump’s favourite campaign riffs, but the powerful voting bloc of manufacturing labourers isn’t necessarily backing the Republican presidential frontrunner.

Carrier factory’s relocation to Mexico from Indianapolis means 1,400 American layoffs

Wendell Garrett, 69, sits at Sully's Bar and Grill in Indianapolis, which serves employees who work at the Carrier plant across the street. Garrett worked at Carrier for 44 years before retiring three years ago. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

A Carrier factory job in Indiana used to mean something. Stability. Good wages. Pride in crafting American-made air conditioning and furnace systems.

Robert James put in 18 years as a forklift operator at the Carrier plant in Indianapolis, earning enough to buy his own home, help with medical bills for a wife suffering from emphysema and pay his daughter's college tuition.

Frank Staples spent 11 years with Carrier, mostly on night shifts for $22 an hour and clocking enough hours to raise two sons and his niece, and support a wife who is too sick to work.

Vickie Burrus, going on 20 years at the firm, has nine family members working at the factory.

The day they all learned in February they were losing their jobs along with some 1,400 others due to the company's decision to relocate labour to Mexico, they became local casualties of the slow carving out of Indiana's manufacturing heartland.

"Me and my wife sat down on the bed. I told her, 'Hey. I'm losing my job,'" Staples recalled, tucking a pinch of tobacco dip into his lower lip. "It was like, shit, you know? It's true."

As Tuesday's Indiana Republican primary nears, these working-class Hoosiers take on national prominence as a bloc of Rust Belt voters angry about free-trade deals they blame for the shuttering of mills across America.
Frank Staples, 37, who has worked 11 years at Carrier Corp., with his sons Lincoln, left, and Cooper at Staples's home in Stringtown, Ind., near Indianapolis. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"Carrier has become a central part of this election," says James, 57. "Manufacturing is probably at the top of the list of issues right now. We just don't want to see this happen to another American plant."

Donald Trump has shown himself to be particularly prescient on the matter, hammering at Carrier Corp. for the outsourcing deal since February.

American manufacturing jobs, the lifeblood of so many pockets of Indiana, won't go anywhere under his watch, the Republican presidential frontrunner assured a crowd here yesterday.

"I'm going to tell you, I'm going to bring it all back," Trump promised some 2,100 amped-up Hoosiers in the Indiana Theater in Terre Haute, an hour west of Indianapolis.

They were the right words for an audience still reeling from news of the Carrier layoffs, said Trump supporter Zach Brock, 20, waving a Trump 2016 sign outside the rally venue.

Hard times in the heartland

Indiana remains America's manufacturing heartland, with some 29.5 per cent of the total output in the state coming from manufacturing last year, according to the National Association of Manufacturers.

But the state's manufacturing sector has been the largest source of job loss between 2007 and 2013, according to a study published in the Indiana Business Review, with nearly 60,000 jobs lost in that six-year period.

"I don't even know where to begin with what's happening with the manufacturing economy," Brock said at the Trump rally, before his father jumped in. 

"Manufacturing? There ain't none," said David Brock, wearing a red "Make America Great Again" hat. "It's like the plants are all disappearing."
Robert James, 57, has worked 18 years at Carrier operating a forklift, usually on night shifts. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

James, the forklift driver, will be 60 by the time Carrier phases out the last Indiana union jobs in 2019.

He has heard Trump's tough-talking pledge to impose a 35 per cent tariff on furnaces and air conditioners that came from Mexico, where labour can cost as little as $3 an hour.

If only James believed that plan might actually work.

"What Trump says definitely sounds good," James said.

But there was reservation in his voice. "If I had to bet on that promise, I wouldn't."

'Trump is speaking out of his butt'

Staples, the 11-year veteran, put it less delicately.

"Trump is speaking out of his butt," the 37-year-old said outside his West Indianapolis home, noting that such a proposed tax would likely never fly without congressional approval.

The ailing manufacturing economy has been a dependable campaign riff for Trump, one that has thrust Carrier into the national spotlight as the race for a Republican nominee intensifies.

Trump himself has used the Carrier case as a cause célèbre for reinvigorating Rust Belt jobs.

Watch: Carrier management announces layoffs:

He reminded supporters yesterday that his interest in Carrier began months ago, before "Indiana was going to be such an important state."

"I've been talking about Carrier from the first day it happened, which was when I saw the cellphone tape of that firing. I've been talking about this thing for three, four months … because it's emblematic of what's happening around the country," Trump said.

But many of the very workers whom Trump may be counting on for Tuesday have another candidate in mind, and it's not a Republican.

Steelworkers endorse Democrat Sanders

United Steelworkers Local 1999, a chapter of about 3,000 union workers of whom nearly half are employed by Carrier, opted last week to endorse Democratic presidential nomination candidate Bernie Sanders.

The Vermont senator's credibility rests in his consistent anti-NAFTA stance, says Local 1999 president Chuck Jones, who attributes the collapse of American manufacturing in part to such trade deals.

"People know Bernie's history," Jones said. "He's been saying the same thing for 20 to 25 years, his whole political career, about how devastating their trade bill was that President Bill Clinton passed when he was in office."

In front of the state house on Friday, Sanders slammed the "corporate greed" of Carrier and its parent company, UTC, which posted $7.6 billion in earnings last year. He was joined by busloads of Steelworkers.

Sanders hugged Staples, who offered the candidate his union hat.

Is Trump a hypocrite?

Trump still enjoys some support among Carrier employees, though his foreign business interests smack of hypocrisy to others.

"The thing about Donald Trump that pisses me off is he has manufacturing jobs that are out of the country," Staples said. "A clothing line in China. So he's going to tax Carrier 35 per cent? But not tax himself for all the shit that he ships back to the U.S.? He's talking out both sides of his mouth."

Even so, you don't need to look far from the Carrier plant to find a Trump fan. Just across the street at Sully's Bar and Grill, where off-shift Carrier employees regularly wind down with a pint or a cigarette or watch NASCAR or Indianapolis Colts football, 69-year-old Wendell Garrett sat finishing a beer on Sunday.

"As far as Carrier's concerned, I suppose Trump would be the better man," said Garrett, who worked 44 years at the factory's warehouse before retiring in 2013. "For the simple reason he spoke out right out the bat about us."

He's less sure who his son, Willy, is leaning towards for Tuesday's vote, he said, adding that Willy has worked at the company for 25 years.

"I just know right now he's looking for other work," Garrett said.
David Brock, left, his father Dave and younger brother Zach attending a Trump rally at Terre Haute, Ind. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

About the Author

Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.