Residents in Wisconsin still waiting for President Trump's 'blue-collar boom'

The controversial Foxconn project was supposed to generate 13,000 manufacturing jobs, but three years later, residents are not sure if the jobs will come.
President Trump Attends Groundbreaking Of Foxconn Factory In Wisconsin
President Donald Trump speaks during a groundbreaking ceremony for the $10 billion Foxconn factory complex on June 28, 2018 in Mt. Pleasant, Wisc.Scott Olson / Getty Images file

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By Corky Siemaszko

President Donald Trump boasted of a “blue-collar boom” in his State of the Union speech, but in one corner of Wisconsin where residents were promised a swell of much-needed manufacturing jobs, they have been left waiting.

Three years ago, Taiwan-based electronics giant Foxconn was lured to the Milwaukee suburbs by former Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, and his GOP allies, with $4 billion in tax breaks.

In return, Foxconn promised to hire 13,000 people, the bulk of whom would work in a factory assembling high-tech liquid crystal display screens at a new plant in the town of Mt. Pleasant.

The facility is scheduled to open in just a few months and Wisconsin residents are still unclear what kinds of jobs will be offered by Foxconn. In recent years, the company has said it might turn the facility into a research hub staffed with scientists and engineers instead of factory workers.

Lawmakers like Wisconsin Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz said they are increasingly skeptical that Foxconn will live up to its promises.

“We’re three months from the opening of something that the state is hoping will be a success and we have no idea what they’re going to do there,“ said Hintz, who is a Democrat.

Foxconn’s hiring is “far, far behind the timeline of the original plan and there is no evidence the company will create anything close to the 13,000 jobs promised when the project was announced,” wrote Marc Levine, professor emeritus and founding director of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center of Economic Development, in an email.

“Nor does anyone know precisely what the company will even do in Wisconsin,” Levine added. “It is, by any reckoning, an economic development mess.”

Despite this, Racine County Executive Jonathan Delagrave said there are visible signs of progress on the ground, namely the construction of $372 million Foxconn plant that is expected to open in three months.

“We remain encouraged about the progress we’ve seen and continue to see on the ground in Racine County,” Delagrave said in statement published by local news outlet Wisconsin Examiner. “Our focus is on positioning our residents and businesses to benefit from this unprecedented opportunity in our community.”

NBC News reached out to Foxconn spokesmen Simon Hsing and Jimmy Huang by email to clarify what types of jobs will be created at the new facility, but they did not immediately reply.

But in earlier interviews, Louis Woo, the special assistant to Foxconn’s CEO, said the company had discussed scaling back its plans for the plant and warned it might not build display screens in Wisconsin because U.S. labor is too expensive and “we can’t compete.”

That runs counter to Trump's goal to add more manufacturing jobs. He has repeatedly tried to position himself as a pro-worker president, especially in the Rust Belt states he needs to win if he wants to be reelected in November.

Some 460,000 manufacturing jobs were gained during the first two plus years of Trump’s presidency, but just 9,000 have been added since June, according to U.S. Department of Labor Statistics.

Overall growth slowed from 2.9 percent in 2018 to 2.3 percent in 2019 as U.S. companies — spooked by Trump’s trade war with China and his tense relations with the European Union and other allies — scaled-back both investments and manufacturing.

“Wisconsin has lost hundreds of manufacturing jobs the last five months due to his tariffs,” said Hintz. “There is a major disconnect between what Trump says and what the reality is.”

Michael Strain, director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank in Washington, told The Financial Times before the State of the Union speech, “the sad reality is that some of the president’s policies were harmful.”

“Manufacturing is doing very badly so I think the president’s rhetoric on this is very much out of step with the reality of the situation,” Strain said.

President Donald Trump participates in a groundbreaking for a Foxconn facility at the Wisconsin Valley Science and Technology Park on June 28, 2018 in Mount Pleasant, Wisc.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images file

Trump was a major cheerleader for the Foxconn project, which was announced at a White House ceremony in 2017 and was promoted as proof of his supposed ability to revive American manufacturing.

Trump even took part in the in the June 28, 2018, groundbreaking ceremony with Walker and company founder Terry Gou at the site of the firm’s LCD manufacturing campus.

Then in January 2019, Woo told Reuters that Foxconn was reconsidering plans to build liquid crystal display panels at the new plant.

Meanwhile, Trump personally reached out to Gou and the company quickly reversed itself, issuing a statement that said it was “moving forward with plans to build an advanced manufacturing facility.” The project, Foxconn said, would include a “liquid crystal module backend packaging plant” and a “high precision molding factory.”

Trump tweeted out the news.

Hintz, in a column published in the Wisconsin State Journal Monday, said taxpayers have already shelled out $151 million — mostly for new roads and infrastructure — for the Foxconn project. But the company has not given any indication it intends to create the kind of manufacturing jobs that people in Wisconsin desperately need.

“The longer Foxconn is vague about its plans for any viable project in Wisconsin, the more Wisconsin taxpayers should be concerned,” he wrote.