The Last Shift: What Really Happened To Those Carrier Jobs Trump Saved
Carrier made air conditioners and other equipment at a plant in Indianapolis for 60 years. When they announced it was moving to Mexico, the president stepped in. A year later, this is what remains.
Factories have no windows. It’s a mind-your-own-business kind of architectural gesture.
You could stand on South Girls School Road on the far western edge of Indianapolis, under the slate-cloud ceiling of an Indiana winter, and regard the sizable Carrier air-conditioner plant for days on end, and you’d never see a thing that was going on inside. You’d be out there looking at the end of things.
The end of a half-century of work in fan assembly for commercial and residential air-conditioning. The end of work, or a certain kind of work. Labor. Assembly. Manufacture. You’d be looking for the sense of what was lost over there when the company decided that they could do this work better somewhere else. Or maybe something was gained. Maybe something really was saved by the president when he claimed he protected the Carrier workers in the weeks before he took office. You try to keep an open mind out on South Girls School Road.
"No warning. It was like a punch in the jaw. Direct."
You’d come to know the fingery reach of chain-link fence surrounding the place. You’d learn the signage demarking Carrier and its parent company, United Technologies Corporation (UTC). Come to know the arrivals of the truck still running between here and the United Technologies Electronic Controls (UTEC)—another UTC company—facility 105 miles away in Huntington, the other plant affected by layoffs. Up there, 700 more manufacturing jobs will be lost, the last of them in just a few more weeks.
“It’s almost impossible to explain what they did to our membership,” a union representative says.
When a large company decides it just can’t go on another day manufacturing its goods in the U.S. of A., things get messy. The company comes up with a plan, and they announce it with euphemistic corporate-speak (“separations,” not “layoffs”), and they try to execute it with no fanfare. It happens all the time. Only this one got caught in the political crosshairs of a presidential election, in part because you had an incoming president who wanted to make “Made in the U.S.A.” one of his stumpable causes, and his vice president happened to be the outgoing governor of the state of Indiana, and the Carrier stuff was all going down right about then—so, they picked it. Made a spectacle, announced that they had stepped in and said “No way!” and saved the jobs.
That was late 2016, early 2017. It’s now early summer 2018. What do things look like there on South Girls School Road, and in the rest of the small universe these layoffs have touched?
The Indianapolis Factory
Be clear: There are still jobs at the fan-coil assembly plant in Indianapolis. The workers who survived the layoffs, the senior-most members of Carrier’s Indianapolis assembly process, are there. These are the jobs President Trump claims to have saved. About 700. “There were five production lines there before the announcement,” the local union head says. “There are three now.”
According to the union the workers belong to, these jobs are being shifted to Carrier’s furnace lines. Fan-coil assembly is completely shut down. The union contract for the workers involved runs through 2020. (Editor’s note: We contacted Carrier, UTEC, and UTC repeatedly and persistently in reporting this story. We asked for facts and interviews, and requested to visit the facilities discussed in this story. They declined most requests but did provide limited statistics. The story is based primarily on visits to Indianapolis; Huntington, Indiana; and Monterrey, Mexico; as well as interviews with union leadership and current and former employees in both countries.) Some mornings, around 11:50, one of the remaining workers jogs over to Sully’s, a bar across the street. Sully’s is mostly just a pool hall with nested flat screens and a pretty standard cast of American and Irish beers, plus an incongruous all-you-can-eat, M–F Vietnamese lunch buffet. You might approach the lunch runner and ask, How is it in there? You’ll identify yourself. Your concern. But the lunch runner will just look at you, put up his hands. “No,” he’ll say, waving his hands in front of his ears. “No, no, no, no.”
Tammy, Sully’s hard-edged daytime bartender, will remind you not to bother the customers, especially the Carrier customers. Sully’s wants to keep what’s left of the lunch business. “It’s been hard on them, too,” Tammy says of the workers who remain.
The Laid Off
Susan Cropper, 57
Worked as a: Pace line assembler, electronic controls
I was loyal to that company. Seventeen years of perfect attendance, never called off work. That was unheard of. I helped build that business. I participated in all the little committees, all the little games they played.
I have two master’s degrees now. How many more degrees do I need? When you’ve done the same job for 31 years, your body’s toned to only do, and lift, so much weight. I physically can’t go do what these 20-year-olds do. I’m not even gonna try.
I’ve had a difficult time. I have been out now—my last day of work was three weeks ago. I don’t sleep right because I stay up later, yet I’m still geared to get up at 4 o’clock in the morning.
Hell yes, we have skills. We are dedicated workers. We always met shipments. We always did whatever it took to satisfy that customer because that’s the way we were brought up.
“Seventeen years of perfect attendance—never called off work. I helped build that business.”
I learned what work is on that job. When there were bills to pay, I put them on the table before I left for work and I went to work to pay them. If the bills were big, I stayed at work longer. I taught myself what money is that way. I wanted to be relied on. And I loved relying on the company.
Trouble is fine. I’ve had trouble. No one is protected from it. But this is more. This is tearing something out of this place, something that really works, that taught a generation. We worked. We didn’t fail them. And they made money. Seriously.
It’s all so that they can finance that and put all their money in the Pratt & Whitney [another UTC company]. And it’s because of who’s running the corporation, Greg Hayes—I mean, he was zoned in on the Carrier aspect from the start. It used to always be Carrier that was the money horse. He’s a financial guy. Not manufacturing. You just have to listen to him, just watch him with his buddy Jim Cramer. Two days ago. You can see. He’s selling.
The Huntington Factory
Huntington, Indiana, looks paused in the moment that New England met the frontier. There is something western about the three-story facades of buildings that line the street. The pace is unhurried, the parking free. Past the downtown strip, the shuttered strip mall and combination Subway–Hardee’s, a four-lane road leads out to the city’s industrial park and the UTEC factory.
There are only a handful of empty spots between the cars and trucks that fill the UTEC plant parking lot. The plant here isn’t emptied out yet. It’s said to be “transitioning.” The last floor workers are moving machinery out and manufacturing the last chips before the place is staffed only by salaried workers doing things like research and design, customer service. Not making. By summer 2018, the line will be shut down. In the lobby, a plaque on the wall celebrates the building’s environmental friendliness, LEED Gold–certified in 2011. A poster shows a few hundred employees gathered in front of this very building, wearing matching shirts, waving toward the camera. The script beneath their feet reads, “UTEC welcomes you.”
The Union Boss
United Steelworkers Local 1999 sits side-straddle to a railroad switch on an obscure side street, in a neighborhood crammed with single-floor, single-family homes propped up and solid on their waist-high foundations. No one in the yards or on the porches in the morning. A Hispanic synagogue in a storefront by the tracks, and a restaurant a block away, not quite open, not quite shut down, with a handwritten sign pinned to the door that just says, “Monday.” Today is Thursday.
The broken glass door flops open to the world if you don’t wedge it shut behind you. Inside, in a conference room just off the honest-to-God Union Meeting Hall—linoleum floor, caged windows, folding chairs, bulletin boards thumbtacked willy-nilly with notices—sits the chief of the United Steelworkers Local, Robert James, 59 years old, wearing a dinged-up Members Only jacket, flannel shirt, jeans, boots. He’s quiet as a pond. James worked in materials for Carrier for 19 years before taking over union leadership last year in the middle of the layoffs and the Trump thing. He lights a Salem menthol, and stares down every question. James says the union was not given notice in February 2016 before the announcement that the Carrier factory would close and every member was about to be laid off. “No warning. It was like a punch in the jaw. Direct,” he says. He pinches his hand on his chin, repeats himself, “Di-rect.” The one word sounds like two, something like: Die. Wrecked.
What about the meeting with Trump later that year? Were you offered any role in that? James shakes his head. “There was a lot of misunderstanding that went on about the day when the president-elect announced that 1,100 jobs had been saved,” he says. “Every worker in the plant went in there knowing there were 1,100 union jobs at the plant. Total. So they hear him say ‘1,100 jobs,’ every one of them thinks: My job is safe. And we heard it with them. But soon we knew that was wrong.” Trump had included the salaried employees of the Carrier office—400 jobs not in the previous count, positions never planned to be cut—as well as another 67 employees who would leave by attrition, in the number he mentioned on the podium.
Pinpointing the precise number of jobs saved, and the number sent away, is difficult. You have to account for a shifting number of seasonal employees, different figures provided by members of the union, the limited numbers shared by Carrier, and the political motivations of politicians. The union says it had 1,200 members at the Carrier plant. Trump claims to have struck a deal that saved 1,100. In May of last year, Carrier announced that it would lay off 632 factory workers, and continue layoffs until approximately 800 workers remained. Carrier told Popular Mechanics that 300 workers were laid off from the Indianapolis plant in July 2017, followed by 215 more in January 2018. One union leader says that 675 workers survived the layoffs. Another says 720 did. But 1,200 total jobs minus 720 jobs saved is 480 jobs lost.
Meanwhile, Robert James says 594 union members lost their jobs at Carrier. And we know that there were 738 layoffs at UTEC in Huntington. Our best tally is this: At the Indianapolis Carrier factory, it appears that 594 union workers were laid off and about 700 remain. Which adds up to nearly 1,300. That discrepancy between that and the original figure of 1,200 union members may lie in the number of transitional employees who were brought in and subsequently laid off.
Although Trump negotiated with UTC executives, he had no impact on the operation in Huntington. He never visited Huntington.
James calls the whole thing a “dog-and-pony show.” He holds his fingers out, dials them back and forth in the air. “I mean, I don’t want to sound ungrateful, because we have members who are truly grateful,” he says. “Many of them voted for him. People heard what they needed to hear that day.” He stubs out the cigarette. “So that left responsibility on the union to go back out and correct what President-elect Trump said. Jobs were still going. Plenty of jobs. Trump just wasn’t correct.”
As president of the union, James wasn’t offered any role in the meeting with Trump.