Donald Trump swept into the Carrier furnace plant in Indianapolis on December 1, 2016, just weeks after his Election Day victory, with his vice president, former Indiana governor Mike Pence, at his side. Touring the factory, Trump patted workers on the shoulder and gave an awkward thumbs-up to the cameras before striding to a podium to make his “Mission Accomplished” speech: As he’d promised on the campaign trail, Trump was there to tell the workers that Carrier would not be closing the plant, which the company had decided to shutter nearly a year before. Even as he downplayed his original promise that “Carrier will never leave,” Trump congratulated the CEO of United Technologies Corporation, Carrier’s parent company, for being a “great executive” and announced that over 1,100 jobs would remain at the plant. UTC, meanwhile, would get $7 million in tax breaks.
The workers erupted in cheers, says Chuck Jones, the president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1999. But to him, “it was sickening.” Jones had met with Carrier’s executives as Trump was glad-handing on the shop floor, and he’d learned that despite the celebrations, Carrier would still be moving 550 jobs to Monterrey, Mexico. Sitting in Local 1999’s low-slung brick union hall three months later, his voice roughened by decades of Marlboro Reds, Jones speaks in a high-decibel growl when he declares that Trump was “lying his ass off.”
The emptiness of Trump’s made-for-reality-TV moment becomes painfully clear a few miles southwest of the union hall, where the Carrier plant sits, amid a cluster of factories and warehouses, in one of the last industrial districts in the United States. On my visit in early March, signs of the workers’ struggles aren’t immediately visible, though they’re easy enough to find. Just across the street from Carrier, workers from the Sumco plant are walking a picket line. Less than a mile away, some 300 workers at the Rexnord plant await layoff notices as the company prepares to shut down and head south.
All in all, some 850 jobs will disappear from this square mile over the next few months, and with them 850 union members from the rolls of Local 1999—with more likely to follow. As the city braces for the shock, the workers are facing this fate largely on their own. The national media briefly made Jones a star for challenging Trump’s version of events, but their attention span isn’t much longer than Trump’s, and few reporters have returned to the area. Then again, the coverage of Carrier has always been incomplete. Carrier workers were among the key symbols of the so-called “wave” of white working-class voters who swept Trump into power. Many of the Carrier workers did vote for Trump, as did many at Rexnord, who haven’t received nearly as much media attention. Yet their story is all too often oversimplified as emblematic of white suffering in the age of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The anger over NAFTA is real, but the outsourcing of factory jobs is only one of the ongoing attacks that have whittled away the stability of what we once considered the American middle class, and the anger that stews in places like Indianapolis is the anger of people who have fought for what they had, only to see it yanked away. It’s the slow-simmering rage of those who have made concession after concession, suffered the ravages of the 2008 crash, watched antiunion laws strip away their bargaining power, lost jobs to automation as well as to outsourcing, and still hear no one in power offering them solutions.