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Wisconsin manufacturing workers divided on Trump, despite broken promises

Trump's tariff war and the coronavirus pandemic have exacerbated layoffs — but manufacturing worker allegiances remain as divided as they were four years ago.
Operations At Jones Sign Co. Production Facility Ahead Of ISM Manufacturing Figures
A worker uses an angle grinder while constructing a base plate for a sign pole at the Jones Sign Co. manufacturing facility in De Pere, Wisconsin, on Jan. 21, 2019.Patrick Mouzawak / Bloomberg via Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s promises of a manufacturing comeback have fallen flat in the key battleground state of Wisconsin. Despite his pledge to boost manufacturing and prevent factories from closing or moving overseas, the opposite has occurred.

“He ran on bringing all these jobs back to America. None of it has materialized. Fewer jobs materialized. He’s proven he’s not a friend of labor. He’s not a friend of workers,” said Ross Winklbauer, a sub-district director for the United Steelworkers labor union in southeastern Wisconsin.

In 2016, Trump was able to narrowly win the Badger State on a promise to increase manufacturing jobs, keep plants from closing, and make factories return operations to U.S. shores. But since he took office — and even before the pandemic hit — manufacturing jobs were up by just 3.2 percent, trailing the national average by nearly one full percentage point.

“I don’t think he’s fulfilled it all. There have been plant closings: Telsmith, Briggs & Stratton, all the steelworks are closing or have been diminished,” said Chris Chappelle, a welder at the Komatsu mining equipment manufacturing plant in Milwaukee and president of the local chapter of United Steelworkers.

“I have an aptitude for manufacturing,” Trump said in June at Fincantieri Marinette Marine in Marinette, Wisconsin, where several new smaller class naval combat ships are being built. “And I said it’s got to come back, and it will come back. And we were doing great. And we’ll do now even better.”

But Trump's biggest manufacturing promise in Wisconsin has also been his most controversial. At a White House ceremony in 2017, Trump announced a $10 billion deal with Taiwan-based electronics producer Foxconn to create a massive plant outside Milwaukee, brokered by former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. The package included a 20-million square foot factory, a mini-village, 13,000 jobs — and $3 billion in tax incentives for Foxconn.

However, the company has so far only hired 281 people. According to government records requested and reported on by The Verge, the central manufacturing facility shows no sign of production and “may be better suited for demonstration purposes.” Last month, Wisconsin denied the first part of the tax credit.

“He brought in this Foxconn deal and made a big deal out of it — and it’s sitting empty,” Chappelle said.

When Covid-19 hit, 40,000 manufacturing jobs in Wisconsin disappeared. Only half of those positions have since been regained. Mining customers in South America stopped or reduced operations as the virus exploded across the continent, forcing manufacturers to come up with a solution for their thousands of workers. At Komatsu, union and management negotiated for 13 unpaid days off in order to protect both working families and the business so it didn’t have to scramble to find talent when orders resume.

“Before Covid-19, things were going pretty well,” said Chappelle. “It’s been pretty bleak since.”

Chappelle, 44, is old enough to remember a different Milwaukee, when cathedral-sized factories employed thousands of people. An able-bodied individual could walk down National Avenue and have multiple job offers, even if their literacy or numeracy skills were below average, and a path to the middle-class life, Chappelle said.

The largest plants acted as “generators,” supporting a network of supply chain jobs across the area. As they have left, so too have the shops that supplied them.

Now, many of those industrial giants are leveled and turned into strip malls. A former Briggs & Stratton gasoline engine factory that employed 8,000 is now a Lowe’s home improvement store.

Other former factory sites have been converted into hip lofts with roof decks where young professionals in the banking and food service industries can clink beers while gazing over a post-industrial landscape in transition.

As part of Trump’s promise to protect American steel production, he imposed a 25 percent penalty on foreign steel imports and 10 percent on aluminum in 2018. But that move only served to further accelerate job loss, said Mike Rosen, a retired economics instructor from Milwaukee Area Technical College.

“The tariffs caused steel and aluminum to go up, the basic material these shops need,” Rosen said.

Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes are key to both candidates' strategies for getting 270 electoral college votes. Both have campaigned repeatedly in the state.

But despite Trump’s failure to deliver, and his mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak that has exacerbated layoffs, manufacturing worker allegiances remain as divided as they were four years ago: narrowly favoring the Democratic presidential contender, Chappelle said.

Among Trump’s base in their ranks, union activists saidthe president’s failure to fulfill his economic promises aren’t what matters most.

“In the red camp, it’s not economic issues, it’s abortion and guns and God,” said Chappelle. “Guys who are for Trump are for Trump and will be for Trump forever.”