US ELECTIONS 2016

The ace up his sleeve: Trump uses factory shutdown to argue for tariffs

The Republican contender is winning voters thanks to his support for legislation that would protect American jobs

Donald Trump at a campaign event in Carmel, Indiana on Monday.
Donald Trump at a campaign event in Carmel, Indiana on Monday. AARON P. BERNSTEIN / REUTERS

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The day Carrier announced that it would move manufacturing operations for its air conditioning units from Indianapolis to Mexico, Dawn Martin had a severe migraine.

The 44-year-old mother of two and Carrier employee has been suffering severe headaches after sustaining a head injury in a car accident. That day, February 10, 2016, Martin did not go to work. She saw the announcement on Facebook. Until that moment, she had thought that her job was safe. She believed, as they had told her, that Carrier was making money and was number one because its factories were in the United States.

Dawn Martin earns $22 an hour at carrier. According to a local TV station, her Mexican counterparts make $3-6 an hour

“I didn’t expect it,” she says.

The Carrier factory in Indianapolis is located in an industrial park near the airport and it is a good place to come to figure out why Republican candidate Donald Trump has managed to seduce millions of working-class white people. This case has become the perfect argument for those who blame the free market and globalization for the ills of the American economy.

The plant will keep operating until 2019, Carrier said in a press release. The company said the factory is closing because providers and competitors are also moving to Mexico, which will affect costs and prices.

Dawn Martin has been working at Carrier for 12 years and she earns $22 an hour. According to a local TV station, her Mexican counterparts make $3-6 an hour. Carrier has not confirmed this information.

Trump has finally found the best case to illustrate the case that shows why globalization is a threat to American workers

Losing her job could mean being left without health insurance. All US citizens, except the very poor and those who are over 65 years old, must purchase private health coverage. Since Carrier provides healthcare for its employees, Martin receives nine Relpax pills for $300 for migraines, and other medication for her 20-year-old daughter, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia.

In just a few days, Carrier’s closure has gone from being a local issue, a personal matter for people like Martin, to being a hot topic of national debate. A cellphone video of a Carrier representative announcing the layouts is freely circulating on the internet.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump is proposing building two walls: a concrete wall to keep Mexicans from crossing the border into the United States, and a trade barrier – protective tariffs to keep out foreign products. Trump has finally found the best case to illustrate the point he has been trying to make for months, a case that shows why globalization is a threat to American workers.

He talks about Carrier at debates and press conferences and promises to slap the company with a 35% tariff rate for air conditioning units manufactured in Mexico. Indiana, a state with a 5% jobless rate and a growing economy, is holding its primary today and it could put Trump on the Republican ticket in November.

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Union leaders who traditionally supported Democrats do not trust Trump – because of his racism, misogyny, and right-wing rhetoric – but they are happy to see him put the debate over free trade at the center of the presidential campaign. No union leader can defend the brand Made in America as well as this multimillionaire New York businessman. No one speaks more fervently of defending American jobs and punishing those who, like Carrier, move operations abroad. Only the left-leaning Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders comes close to Trump’s passion.

But there’s more to Trump’s success than his stance against immigration.

“There are two candidates, one on the left and the other on the right, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, who have broken the silence around trade,” says Thea Lee, vice-chief of staff at AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest federation of unions. “Let’s be clear: Donald Trump is repulsive, dangerous and dishonest. He has opened the debate but we don’t trust him.”

Trump and Sanders reflect a kind of consensus on protectionism. Even the Democratic favorite Hillary Clinton – the epitome of America’s political elites and wife of former President Bill Clinton, the man who initiated trade agreements with Mexico and Canada in the 1990s – is skeptical about new trade deals.

No one speaks more fervently of defending American jobs and punishing those who, like Carrier, move operations abroad

The office of the United Steel Workers (USW) local 1999 in Indianapolis is a one-story brick building in a crumbling neighborhood filled with Mexican businesses: Taquería la Posada, Antojitos Morelia, Pollo Michoacano, Princesas Beauty Salón... A railroad line runs through it.

“A person’s job is his last line of defense against the dangers of life. A job is one of the most precious things he has,” says Wayne Dale, a former Alcoa steel factory worker and one of the leaders of this chapter.

Dale will vote for Sanders. Well-paid work is one of the pillars of economic and geopolitical power, he says. The 63-year-old union leader remembers that when he was little “there was money for the highways, for the schools, for the military.”

The Midwest, the industrial belt that includes Indiana, was once what the Federal Republic of Germany was in Europe. Industrial jobs were good jobs. The worker was protected by unions and he could live a comfortable middle-class life: vacation, house with a garden, two cars, healthcare and savings to send his children to college.

In the 1970s, everything started to fall apart. Factories closed and people started to move out of the cities. The new jobs, if you could find one, did not offer good salaries or benefits.

A person’s job is his last line of defense against the dangers of life. A job is one of the most precious things he has Wayne Dale, a former Alcoa steel factory worker

It’s the difference between working at General Motors or Carrier during the good years and working at a fast-food restaurant, going from middle class – the American Dream – to the class of the working poor.

Dawn Martin’s father lived through a similar experience. When she was 12 or 13 years old, he lost his job because his employer, Chrysler, closed the factory. She hopes Carrier will reconsider its decision to move operations abroad. Otherwise she will have to start over at another company, maybe without health insurance, without the medication for her migraines and treatment for her daughter.

Without the health plan that covered her stay at a Florida treatment center, “maybe she wouldn’t be here today,” Martin says at her USW chapter. “Maybe she would have killed herself.”

English version by Dyane Jean François.

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