SOUTH MILWAUKEE - Maurice King worked for Joerns Healthcare, a medical furniture manufacturer, for nearly 43 years. Until suddenly one day, he didn’t.
Joerns shuttered its plant in Stevens Point, Wis., in 2012 after years of gradually outsourcing work to China. It cut loose 175 workers. Now the 62-year-old former local steelworkers union president works a 2-11 p.m. shift at a fan factory.
No more local fish fries on Friday nights with his wife, or his side job for 25 years as town chairman in Dewey, population 975. He hasn’t yet earned a week of vacation. As for retirement? That’s been pushed back.
“You had the job, you figured you were planning out how things were going to go,” King said. “Now you’ve got to back up and rethink.”
Establishment voices of economists, government and business officials argue that trade deals are critical in a global economy, and great for America. But critics such as organized labor call them “death warrants.”
And in blue collar communities in Wisconsin and across the industrial Midwest, that economic angst, coupled with some sense of betrayal, helps explain the roiling politics of 2016.
Wisconsin votes Tuesday. But soon after come other industrial states, including Pennsylvania. And all could be battlegrounds this fall in the general election.
And a lot will look like Milwaukee, once known as “the machine shop to the world,” now grappling with a new economy.
Wisconsin has lost more than more than 68,000 manufacturing jobs since the mid-1990s and the first of several controversial trade pacts with Mexico, China and others took hold.
Additionally, the U.S. Department of Labor has certified about 76,000 Wisconsin workers in various fields as having lost their jobs due to either imports or the work they do being shipped overseas.
Not all of the layoffs and plant closings can be attributed solely to free trade. Some are due, at least in part, to slowdowns in specific industries such as housing and mining.
That’s the case here in South Milwaukee, a community of more than 20,000 people whose economy is built around the sprawling Caterpillar plant, which builds huge steam shovels and other mining equipment. Its predecessor, Bucyrus International, built shovels that were used to dig the Panama Canal.
Now, Caterpillar has laid off about 600 of its 800-plus workers over the past two years because of a business slowdown.
“It’s had a pretty large impact,” said Brad Dorff, an assembler at Caterpillar and the local Steelworkers Union president. “Whether it’s small grocery stores, a hardware store down the street, local taverns; they used to get a lot of business from the people that live in this community who were making a good living, a good wage working here.”
Wisconsin’s heavy manufacturing sector, once one of the country’s strongest, has been taking a lot of punches in recent years. General Motors, General Electric, Chrysler, Joy Global Surface Mining and Manitowoc Cranes have all cut jobs or closed operations in recent years for a variety of reasons.
Hometown companies such as Kohler, the plumbing supply manufacturer; and Trek Bicycles have offshored jobs to India, China and Taiwan.
Meanwhile, Madison, the state capital, will lose 1,000 jobs over the next two years as the 100-year-old iconic Oscar Mayer meat processing plant shuts down. And just east on I-94 in Jefferson, Tyson Foods will cease operations at its pepperoni processing plant, cutting 400 jobs.
“Change is hard,” Jefferson Mayor Dale Oppermann said during a conversation in City Hall, just across the railroad tracks from the plant. “Something that unexpected like this is a challenge for people. A lot of the people I know haven’t filled out a job application for 30 years, much less done it online.”
The turmoil feeds into a debate over trade that’s playing out in the 2016 campaign.
“Politically, it’s an easy point to make: it isn’t totally untrue at all to say that globalization has hurt American workers,” said former Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat who served from 2003-2011, during a period of economic churn. “What you do about that is a lot harder to figure.”
Billionaire developer and leading Republican contender Donald Trump, and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders have been the most outspoken about trade. Both lambaste trade deals.
But factory workers are dubious of anything a politician says.
“We’ve had promises from some of the presidential candidates,” said a skeptical Wynn Sandahl, a machinist at the South Milwaukee Caterpillar plant.
In Wisconsin, voters are about evenly split on whether free trade agreements have helped or hurt, according to a recent Marquette University Law School poll. In Michigan and Ohio, a majority of primary voters in both parties believed trade kills jobs in the U.S. rather than creates them.
That’s the feeling inside union halls and communities that lie in the shadow of shuttered factories. Trade deals like NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) spell only uncertainty and distress.
“We’ve watched a lot of our friends lose their jobs,” said Dorff, inside the local steelworkers union hall just blocks from the Caterpillar plant. “They have homes that now they can’t afford. They have families they have to support. They lost their insurance. Their kids have diabetes and they’re trying to get medication. It literally breaks your heart.”
The Business Roundtable, an association of corporate executives of major companies, say that international trade supports 1 in 5 Wisconsin jobs, and that cheaper manufacturing costs overseas lowers prices for consumers in this country.
“It is an economic fact of life that both businesses and their employees benefit when we sell more products overseas, and consumers enjoy a wider range of products at lower prices,” Jerry Jasinowski, former president of the National Association of Manufacturers, said in a recent statement.
But since NAFTA, which removed tariff barriers between the U.S. Canada and Mexico, went into effect in 1994, and Congress’ granting of permanent normal trade status to China in 2000, a key question has been how much have those decisions contributed to job losses at home.
Economists generally say that overall, trade creates more prosperity, and that displaced workers will find other work. But competition from China has meant the loss of 2.4 million jobs, according to a recent report by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private nonprofit research group.
It pointed out that industries are often concentrated in certain parts of the country – the Midwest, for instance – and that local economies have not had the capacity to absorb those workers the Chinese competition has displaced.
Julie Granger, senior vice president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, said that in a global economy, the notion that “free trade encourages the loss of local jobs … is not always the most responsible way to look at it. If we are not engaged in the global economy, we will lose more jobs. There’s no going back. It’s the same story in Milwaukee as it in other cities: many of lowest skilled jobs simply were disappearing.”
So is organized labor, long the backbone of the working class, a force in Wisconsin politics and a persistent critic of the trade deals. From 2014-2015, union membership as a percentage of the Wisconsin workforce fell to 8.3 percent from nearly 12 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But organized labor has been under siege in Wisconsin for a while.
Take the General Motors plant in Janesville, Wis. GM wrung significant concessions out of the United Autoworkers to help keep the plant open. But the automaker closed it eventually anyway in 2009, putting 850 people out of work.
“Take it or leave it,” is how Roger Hinkle, once a Milwaukee factory worker, now an employment training specialist for the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO Labor, Education and Training Center, characterized management attitudes in an era when offshoring can be an alluring option.
“We can’t get wage increases. They took away our benefits. The overarching sense is these agreements are basically written and built for improving profitability for corporations. That’s that’s the interest that’s being served.”