Postcards From Ohio
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Three weeks before the primary there was hardly a yard sign to be seen for any of the presidential candidates. On the rise of frozen grass in front of Steel Workers Local 1123 bold red, white and blue letters urge Elect Hiles, State Representative. The Local's president, Randy Feemster, wore a T-shirt sporting the same message for Richard Hiles, who worked at the Timken steel plant here for thirty-eight years. "There are Democrats, and there are labor Democrats, you know what I mean?" Feemster said. He is a big man with a thick, powerful build. But "to tell you the truth," he said when we first met, "I feel like a little bird that was flying, flying and then hit the glass, and now I'm just lying there by the window, stunned." The Steel Workers had backed John Edwards, and when he dropped out, Feemster says, "we had our heart broken."
Across town at Communications Workers Local 4302, four out of five workers I spoke with were similarly dashed and undecided. Edwards had shown up on picket lines and at union rallies, embracing issues that, they said, involved them mentally, emotionally, financially. No other candidate has yet picked up that baton with the same conviction, and the CWA International has not endorsed a candidate because its membership is split. One of the workers I met, Blanche McKinney, 59, is backing Hillary Clinton, as is the Local's vice president, Bob Wise. Experience. Problem-solving. Day one. The reasons McKinney gave for her choice are bullet points of the Clinton campaign. And then there's Bill. "I feel Bill gave me eight good years," she said.
The standard narrative of 1990s prosperity, and thus Bill Clinton's most important remaining legacy, is on the line in Ohio's primary. That, as much as Hillary's flagging electoral fortunes, is why Ohio is a must-win for the Clintons. In the same way that South Carolina shattered the myth of Bill as America's first black President, Ohio could shatter the myth of generalized Clinton-era good times.
Other states' primaries might have done the same; Virginia and Wisconsin broke Hillary's presumed lock on the white working-class vote. But for myriad reasons, earlier primaries did not searingly confront the campaigns with the issue of working-class decline. Decline is everywhere apparent in Ohio, where as a direct result of the North American Free Trade Agreement, 45,734 jobs were lost between 1995 and 2003. That only skims the surface of loss, because for every shutdown factory there are concentric bands of devastation, from direct support industries to the small businesses that depended on the custom of hourly workers to the schools that can't win new levies because people are taxed out. NAFTA sliced the skin, and the bleeding continues. After LTV Steel closed in Cleveland in 2001, according to Don Singer, a former official who worked with the state labor department, 3,100 businesses went down with it. Between November 1999 and November 2003, according to Policy Matters Ohio, the state had a net loss of 244,000 nonagricultural jobs. Today Ohio is the seventh-worst state in the country for finding a job.
Local 1123 is down to 2,400 members, while also servicing 6,000 retirees, and neither Obama nor Clinton has an answer for Feemster and other union leaders who again and again concede on wages to maintain company-paid health benefits and retiree pensions. Even before Edwards dropped out, the Democratic Leadership Council was congratulating itself that none of the top contenders favored a single-payer health insurance system, which Feemster supports. Nevertheless, he was waiting to be wooed by one of the candidates.
It is remarkable that, when we met in mid-February, he hadn't been. Stark County is an important swing county, and Feemster has long been key to mobilizing labor support in elections. Elsewhere I met other experienced election organizers whose only contact with the campaigns has come through robocalls. My requests to both campaigns for their county coordinators' contact information went unanswered. It is as if no one had thought that Ohio would matter, that industrial unions would matter; as if these workers who say they often feel forgotten actually have been, even for the cynical aim of vote-rustling. In such circumstances, it is hard to know what might tip a vote. In Feemster's case it was a talk with Bill Clinton versus a meeting with Obama surrogates. The one, he said, gave specific answers to specific questions, even if Feemster didn't always agree; the others, no way as close to their candidate, danced around the issues. "Will Obama do away with NAFTA?" They waffled about legalisms; Bill said Hillary will fix it, and expounded beyond what Feemster had already heard about both candidates from the TV news shows that have become the background music in his house. Local 1123 cannot endorse a candidate, but with two weeks to go it rented part of its hall to the Clinton camp: "They were the first to ask." With less than a week to go, no one had yet shown up to work.
No question, Election '08 enlists white men in identity politics for the first time. What will lead them, their skin or their dick? A vote for Hillary might cover both propositions. Amid the arcing conveyors of splashy Chevy Cobalts and Pontiac G5s at the GM Lordstown plant, some of Hillary's white male supporters ticked off her plans, her ability to "hit the ground running." But sooner or later, usually sooner, it was Bill they admitted they'd be voting for. Bill will guide her. No one is as experienced as Bill. Because of their past failures, "the Clintons" are better positioned to get it right next time. NAFTA was a good idea that was badly implemented. In 2006, when Sherrod Brown swept away the Republican incumbent in the Senate race by hammering on trade deals, no Democrat called NAFTA a good idea. But the rationalization now is not as bizarre as it first seems. Organized labor rallied for Bill Clinton and the Democrats after he strong-armed Congress to pass the trade agreement, arguing in 1994 and again in '96 that he and the party could best control the downside. And the stock market bubble meant that, for a while at least, the economy expanded and some people had more money in their pockets.
Hillary reminded 200-plus assembled workers at the plant of those good days. They handed her a pair of boxing gloves, and she promised to fight the bankers, the corporations, the credit card companies, Wall Street, China. Afterward, as "She's an American girl..." blasted from the speakers, some workers said she had made the emotional connection they sought: "She actually seems like she's got feeling. Maybe it's because she's a woman. Women don't lie," said a white millwright named Mike. He has worked at GM for thirty years, and for thirteen of those, beginning in the '90s, he worked "seven twelves," twelve hours a day, seven days a week. "You don't make money unless you want to live here," a white man named John said. "You're kind of a slave." GM now wants to outsource most of Mike's work. Last year the United Auto Workers agreed to let the company hire new employees at about $13 an hour, half the rate of veteran workers, and rolled the dice by taking control over retiree health and pension benefits. In her speech, Hillary had said, "Some may call this the Rust Belt. That's not what I see. I see those shiny new cars. They look like the future to me." As Mike was explaining why he voted no on the GM contract, a company flak ordered him back to work and me off the premises.