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Stuck Between Clinton And Trump: Rust Belt Union Voters Face A Tough Choice

Union members at the regular monthly meeting of Local 1123 in Canton, Ohio, before the United Steelworkers national office gave its official endorsement to Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Don Gonyea

The battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump for the White House is likely to center on the Rust Belt — the industrial Midwest where trade is a big issue for many voters and where the presumptive Republican nominee is predicting he will be able to cut into the Democratic Party's traditional dominance among members of labor unions.

A key part of Trump's pitch on the campaign trail focuses on the trade deals that he says have hurt the U.S., and with the general election contest now taking center stage, that part of his message is resonating with a lot of union workers — even longtime Democrats.

You can get a taste of the discussions, debates and even arguments taking place about the choices in this election at the United Steelworkers union hall in Canton, Ohio.

At the regular monthly meeting of Local 1123, union officials were talking about the need to mobilize on behalf of candidates who support labor's agenda on trade, the right to organize and pushing for an increase in the minimum wage nationally.

And there was lots of talk about the presidential race. This meeting took place before the United Steelworkers national office gave its official endorsement to Democrat Hillary Clinton.

But even with that backing still pending at the time, Keith Strobelt, who heads the political Rapid Response team for Local 1123, told the room, "We know who we're against." He was talking about Donald Trump.

That sums up the view of 55-year-old Cathy Mottice, a steelworker who has spent 18 years in the plants. When I asked her about the big push Trump is making for white, working-class voters like herself, she had a quick and terse reply:

"Don't vote for him. Don't vote Trump."

She continued, "To me, he's so fake. He is saying whatever you want to hear. I just don't think he's honest. That's my opinion."

She added that Clinton is far from being a perfect candidate, but compared with Trump, it's an easy decision for her.

Mottice is the kind of voter that Democrats count on in Ohio and that Clinton needs if she is to carry the state. When Democrats win in Ohio, it's because they built up a big margin in the urban and blue-collar strongholds in the northeast corner of Ohio, offsetting Republican strengths elsewhere in the state. It's the dynamic that has made Ohio the most prized and hard-fought battleground state of all in presidential elections.

It's important to note that union members don't always follow the advice of their leadership when it comes to the ballot box. As a group, these voters are more likely to back Democrats, but that vote still needs to be earned. Democratic candidates usually count on winning a solid majority of labor votes.

"To me, he's so fake. He is saying whatever you want to hear. I just don't think he's honest. That's my opinion." says 55-year-old Cathy Mottice, a steelworker who has spent 18 years in the plants.
Don Gonyea / NPR
"To me, he's so fake. He is saying whatever you want to hear. I just don't think he's honest. That's my opinion." says 55-year-old Cathy Mottice, a steelworker who has spent 18 years in the plants.

This year, they'll have to work especially hard if they want the vote of union member Barry Allison, a 37-year-old crane operator at the Timken Steel plant. He voted for President Obama twice. Pondering his choices this year, he said, "I'm not sure yet. I'm not sure." Then, "My main concern is with Hillary Clinton. I don't know if I trust her. And with the Benghazi thing, I don't know." He said between Clinton and Trump, "I don't think there's much of a choice."

That's a refrain that's not limited to union members. But one area where Allison sets his dissatisfaction aside is when he listens to Trump talk about trade issues.

He agrees with the candidate when Trump says he'll scrap the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Many blue-collar workers in places like Northeast Ohio see TPP as a scary follow-up to the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, which they feel is a major cause of the loss of tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs in their communities.

Trump regularly exclaims that U.S. trade negotiators — and those who approved such deals, including American presidents — are stupid, or are serving some interest other than American workers. He promises all that will change with him in the White House. And he insists he'll impose a 35 percent tariff on the import of any goods built by companies that moved those jobs to factories outside the U.S., even though the president doesn't have such authority.

But such talk pleases steelworker Allison, who said, "We do need a 35 percent tax on imports. Maybe companies will start coming back here."

And while both Clinton and Trump are on record opposing TPP, it's clear that Trump's blunt talk on trade is more appealing to workers like Allison.

Seated at the same table as him at the union hall in Canton was another veteran steelworker, 53-year-old Trisha Hostetler. She jumped in with a litany of concerns she has about Trump, starting with his comments about women and minorities.

"If he's openly being so brazen against the Mexicans, against the women, what will he be like when he has full power of the presidency?" Hostetler said.

She warned that Trump is not labor's friend. "I mean c'mon, he's been against the unions in Vegas. His actions are not friendly to labor," Hostetler added.

Allison listened, then reacted: "I don't know, it's tough right now. Then people say Trump has created thousands of jobs. Hillary's not created a single job."

And here's the thing to keep in mind when listening to this exchange — these are both longtime, loyal Democratic voters. Both said they wish they could vote for Bernie Sanders. Both said they were still undecided, though Allison suggested he'll be looking very closely at Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson. He encouraged Hostetler to do the same.

About an hour drive from Canton is the once-booming steel town of Warren, Ohio. Its economy has been decimated by closed factories and job losses over the past two decades. Retired steelworker Joe Shrodek stood by the side of the roadway and looked past a chain-link fence to the vacant lot where the steel mill he worked in once stood.

"This used to be the main gate," he said, pointing to the driveway that's still there. "When I started here there were 10,000 people who worked here."

Trucks still rumble by, but they're headed somewhere else.

Shrodek said his hometown became a classic, sad, Rust Belt story and it's not going to return to its former glory. He has never voted Republican — until Donald Trump.

On trade, he said Trump is "100 percent right. He's 100 percent right on that."

But when I pointed out that Shrodek himself just said this area is never coming back, that the jobs that are gone are gone forever, no matter what Trump says, he replied, "If he accomplishes 10 percent of what he says he's going to do, then that's 10 percent more than anybody else is gonna do."

The national office of the United Steelworkers has now endorsed Clinton, even as many of its members are still sorting out what to do this year. Unions are well aware that Trump sees his best path to victory through states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin by appealing to — and winning over — workers like these.

Back in that Canton union hall, Ohio AFL-CIO official Kathleen Kelly-Calcei had just finished talking to the audience about the importance of reaching out to individual members through phone calls, knocking on doors and conversations on the shop floor. In an interview, she acknowledged the concerns the union members have and that this is going to be a tough battle heading into November.

"People are frustrated and they're looking for somebody to blame. And [Trump's] giving them somebody to blame. But I think we need to be careful when somebody does that," Kelly-Calcei said.

Kelly-Calcei said that ultimately, her message will get through to workers. Trump, she said, is not a friend to these Northeast Ohio union members. But she and other union leaders are aware of the task they face over the next five months.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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