The Current

Made in America: How Trump and Biden's rival visions for economic recovery are resonating with Illinois voters

We continue our U.S. election series Road to November with a stop in Illinois, where U.S. President Donald Trump promised to bring jobs back and put the United States first. Have those promises been kept, and will workers there vote for him again?

Trump and Biden offer different plans to keep jobs on U.S. soil

Dan Simmons is president of United Steel Workers Local 1899 in Granite City, Ill. He said he was initially hopeful that Republican nominee Donald Trump could revive manufacturing jobs in his state. (Lawrence Bryant/Reuters)

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This story is part of The Current's series Road to November, a virtual trip down the Mississippi River from Minnesota to New Orleans, to meet some of the people whose lives will be shaped by the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

When Republican nominee Donald Trump visited the Granite City steel plant in 2018 and promised to bring manufacturing jobs back to Illinois, worker Dan Simmons felt optimistic.

"I was all thumbs up ... at that time that we were going to see some pressure put, and to keep the manufacturing jobs here in the United States," said Simmons, president of United Steelworkers Local 1899 in Granite City, Ill. 

"None of that took place, so what little optimism I had at that time, when he was here, was soon gone," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"It was just rhetoric and lies."

Trump visited the steel mill in Granite City, Ill., in July 2018. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Bringing manufacturing jobs back to America (from countries with cheaper labour) was a plank of Trump's 2016 bid for the White House. 

During his four years in office, he has imposed rules, which require 75 per cent of components in any product "Made in America" to be sourced from within the U.S. He has also imposed tariffs on imports of materials, such as steel, aimed at curbing competitors like China from undercutting U.S. steel mills with cheaper products.

Speaking to reporters at the White House earlier this month, Trump reiterated his pledge: "We will make America into the manufacturing superpower of the world, and we'll end reliance on China once and for all."

Trade war with China hurt U.S.

While the price of steel did initially rise after tariffs were introduced in early 2018, the effect was short lived, in part due to Trump's trade war with China. The dispute and its wide-ranging tariffs slowed U.S. economic growth by 0.3 per cent of GDP, according to a September 2019 Moody's Analytics study, and increased costs for manufacturers. Those costs were passed on to consumers, or resulted in layoffs and wage freezes.

Footage of Trump's visit to Granite City formed part of a recent campaign ad, but looking back on the visit, Simmons said the president said "a lot of things that weren't accurate."

He's seen a "spiralling down still in our manufacturing sector jobs and the steel industry as a whole since Donald Trump's been in office." 

A Ford Motor Co. employee is seen working at a Chicago assembly plant last month. Simmons said the new jobs he's seen created in Illinois are not as well paid as the factory jobs of the past. (M. Spencer Green/Associated Press)

Before the pandemic, total employment in the U.S. steel sector fell by 12,000 jobs from 2014-2019, according to business data website Statista. 

U.S. manufacturing in general began to shrink in August 2019 for the first time in three years, and remained in contraction for the rest of the year.

Deloitte's outlook for 2020 noted that U.S. manufacturing added an average of 6,000 jobs per month in 2019, compared with an average of 22,000 jobs per month in 2018. The report cites the U.S.-China trade dispute as having an impact on manufacturing momentum, including "the ongoing uncertainty in tariffs and their subsequent impact on trade flows."

Many of the jobs added in recent years have been in pharmaceutical or computer manufacturing, centred in areas like Silicon Valley, fuelling concerns that assembly line jobs in the Rust Belt are never coming back

Simmons said the new jobs he has seen created have been largely with Amazon and "they can't sustain a family, they're low-income jobs." The company opened two depots in Edwardsville, Ill., 24 kilometres from Granite City in 2017, and has plans for another in nearby Madison

"[Trump] has not created the jobs that he promised."

'Take care of America first'

Earlier this month, Democrat nominee Joe Biden accused Trump of breaking his pledge to revive the manufacturing sector

Key components of Biden's plan include punishing companies that ship jobs overseas with a 10 per cent tax, and rewarding those that keep them in the U.S. with a "Made in America" tax credit.  

The CBC Presidential Poll Tracker puts Biden far ahead in Illinois, with 57.4 per cent compared to Trump's 39.2. The margin is similar to the 2012 result, when Hillary Clinton took the state's 20 electoral college votes with 55.8 per cent of the vote, versus Trump's 38.8 per cent.

But steel product manufacturer Keith McDonald said Trump "is doing the best that he can to create jobs, or bring jobs back even to the United States," and overcome the "hoops you have to jump through just to be in business."

McDonald is director of operations at a steel product manufacturer in Rockford, Ill. He is also the County Board Republican caucus chairman for Winnebago County.

When tariffs on steel pushed up manufacturing costs, McDonald said his company had to pass those hikes on to customers.

Keith McDonald thinks Trump is working hard to help U.S. manufacturing workers. (Submitted by Keith McDonald)

In order to maintain higher wages for workers, he said he had to improve "production efficiency" — having an operator run three machines instead of two — but is worried about competing with foreign companies that can hire cheaper labour.  

"I think we need to take care of America first," he said. 

"I think this is just bolstering the United States and being more quality conscious, being willing to pay more because we're supporting one another in growing our communities." 

Simmons said protecting U.S. industry is "a great statement to make, but you got to back it up."

Trump "didn't back it up," he said.

Illinois almost 'anti-business' under Democrats

McDonald said "taxes are crazy" under the Democrat-run Illinois legislature, and there is almost "an anti-business climate."

"There's tons of examples of businesses that have moved to Indiana, Wisconsin, just for the better tax situation," he said. 

Illinois' flat-rate income tax of 4.5 per cent is currently tied as the 8th lowest in the United States (Indiana's rate is 3.23 per cent, Wisconsin ranges from 4 per cent to 7.65 per cent).

But on Nov. 3, Illinois citizens will vote on whether the state's flat-rate income tax should be replaced with a graduated income tax. The new system would tax based on earnings, from 4.9 per cent on earnings under $100,000 US, to 7.99 per cent on single earners netting above $750,000 US. The move has been opposed by business owners, who say it would leave the state at a competitive disadvantage. 

McDonald said he intends to vote for Trump next month. 

"Being Democratically led in Illinois, I've seen the tax policies that we have in our state," he said. 

"I think Biden will create a country of Illinois, meaning that we'll just tax our way out of whatever problems we have — and that scares me."

Lay off inspires door-to-door canvassing

Recently laid-off manufacturing worker Laurie Thomas thinks most people don't understand the proposed tax changes.

"They think that it means their taxes is gonna go up, well [not] if you're not making over $250,000 a year," she said. 

"Eighty per cent of Freeport don't have to worry about that."

Thomas lost her job last month, as an inspector at the Honeywell plant, which makes airplane parts in Freeport, Ill. 

Her entire shift of 80 workers was laid off, in a "devastating" blow that came without warning. 

"There were people that were crying. There were people that were really angry," she said, noting some of her colleagues had worked there for almost 30 years.

Laurie Thomas was recently laid off work in Freeport, Ill. She thinks she'll have to move away to find a new job. (Martha Vivian McCall)

The pandemic has only made things worse for manufacturing employees. In a mid-year update, Deloitte noted that employment in U.S. manufacturing declined by 1.3 million (more than 10 per cent of total manufacturing employment) in April — wiping out 10 years of manufacturing job gains.

Thomas, who is a few years away from retirement, was working two jobs up until she was let go. Now she anticipates she'll have to take on three jobs to match the manufacturing wages she's lost, which will likely mean moving away from Freeport, where her elderly mother still lives.

Being laid off has given her some time to help her mother, but she said it's also given her some time to canvas for the upcoming election. 

"I would have voted because I've always voted, but it made me like: 'Come here, are you registered to vote?'"

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Ben Jamieson and Joana Draghici. 

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