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.
The Laid Off
Sharene Weaver, 44
Worked as a: Material specialist and team leader
I was there 19 years at UTEC, 15 as a material specialist. I was over being in the manufacturing work. I wanted to switch gears. So that’s when I started going to school. I didn’t do it because of the plant closing, I didn’t see that coming. When the housing market collapsed and GM was laying off big-time, we were still standing. I never would have imagined in a million years UTEC would close. Especially in Huntington. Because we put out good products.
I went to work, took care of a family, and did online classes. It was not easy. I got an associate’s degree in health information technology, then a bachelor’s in business administration with a concentration in healthcare administration. They asked me to go to Mexico and train. I declined. They weren’t offering any incentives for me to teach anybody to do my job. So, they brought Mexican workers to the plant—that was kind of a slap in our faces. But it’s not the people in Mexico’s fault. They’re just trying to survive and eat too.
UTEC paid for my schooling, I thank them for that. I thank them that I was able to provide for my family, keep food on the table. But we made them millions and billions of dollars. How much more do you need? I just don’t understand it. We did everything we were supposed to do. I guess the top just wants more and more.
I tell anybody, get your education now. Because going to work and taking care of the family and being a full-time student, I lost a lot of sleep. Get it done so you won’t have that struggle.
The Mexico Factory
In Monterrey, the spring air is vaguely sweet with blooms you can’t see anywhere nearby. In the city, sunlight falls in large yellow panels on the central square in the early morning. But the light is more blue at the western edge of town, where the new Carrier plant sits—where the fan-coil assembly has been relocated—surrounded by miles of empty desert flats. Carrier sits at a remove from the main road, so that at the end of their shift, Carrier workers mostly hump it alongside the quarter-mile or so of new asphalt, walking toward two semi- official bus stops, which stand unadorned around otherwise unmarked lamp poles. Simple, sandy low spots with no curb—you wouldn’t know they were bus stops if you didn’t watch for a while. And you wouldn’t know they were Carrier workers unless you observed them exiting the plant a few minutes prior. No logos. No name tags here. Like many working Mexicans, they wear T-shirts with writing on them—Lakers shirts, soccer jerseys, shirts advertising a local ferretería (hardware store), or something about bowling. Otherwise, it’s jeans and boots. Almost everyone carries a backpack, which makes them look something like college sophomores. Except they do not talk.
"Every one of them thinks: My job is safe. We heard it with them. But soon we knew that was wrong."
They say they don’t go to bars after work, or even restaurants. There is nowhere they gather. Around here, they say, Mexicans are inside on Saturdays, and inside at night. There is nowhere to meet. “I go home after work,” one 29-year-old Carrier employee says. “Or I go to my other job. That is all.” Some local plants have charter buses that leave from their grounds at the end of a shift. But Carrier workers ride the public buses to distant villages in either direction. They can flag down a bus anywhere along its route, really, by extending an index finger. And there are a lot of public buses, so no one waits long. Approach them in this moment, their first respite after a ten-hour shift, and they find you a puzzle.
Why would anyone want to know what goes on in there? They ask. It is work.
They have phones, but don’t look at them incessantly. No one uses earphones or reads. They are moving, engaged in the work of commuting. Generally no less than an hour. For some, two.
As the light begins to fail in the mouth of the Carrier driveway, the rectangles of sun are replaced by a sepia tone as the light is filtered by dust and exhaust in the post-industrial air. Light poles, charger panels, stanchions reach upward. Phone lines crisscross the sky. Street lights that illuminate the drive to Carrier flick to life just before dinnertime. It is not ugly. Not all. It is the diminishment of color with the passage of a day. There is a hue of exhaustion to the twilight in Monterrey.
The local guy we’ve hired as a fixer is a young entrepreneur educated in sociology at a University of Texas. He likes the dust. He credits the condition to the presence of “particulates produced in the production of cement.” This is fair, he says. “These are not toxins we are breathing. They are not chemicals. This is stone that was already here. Having it in the air, it is something that tells us there are jobs here. It is good.”
Monterrey is the ninth largest city in Mexico, and the third largest metropolitan area. Carrier has multiple facilities across the city, but even so it is hardly the dominant corporate presence. Monterrey is without question an industrial center, home to production facilities for dozens of international corporations: Siemens, GE, Caterpillar, LG, Nokia, Dell, Samsung, Daewoo, Whirlpool, Kia, Sony, and a score of Mexican companies.
A group of Carrier workers sits in a roadside lunch tent, eating pork tacos. They wear the company logo on their chest. Follow one of the public buses that a group of workers take to their homes, and you come to the expansive, cement village of García, where the Saturday flea market is set up alongside a fenced arroyo. Many Mexicans are outside, selling clothes, kitchen items, shoes, work gloves, rolls of paper towels, and the like at folding tables. At one table, a woman says her brother has worked at Carrier for several months. He loves the job, she says. They hold on to people.
According to Robert James, Carrier informed the Steelworkers union that the average Carrier worker in Monterrey makes about $3 an hour, plus some associated benefits and production bonuses, many of which commence after 11 months of continuous employment. The most common official estimate of the pay package to these workers is nearly $6 an hour, inclusive. The pay at the time of the shutdown announcement at Carrier in Indianapolis was $20.31, according to James, with benefits pushing the total compensation to $36 an hour.
Some Mexican workers are nonplussed by the wages reported at the Carrier plant in Indianapolis. They realize it is several times the scale of pay in Monterrey, but they are fuzzy on the specifics. “Clothing costs so much in the United States,” one worker at Cemex, a cement plant that quarries in the Monterrey valley, says. “And food. When I hear the numbers, so much, so much dollars, I feel they must fear for their jobs more than we do. It scares the heart, you know?”
On a later afternoon stop in a store in the village of Villa De Garcia–Casco, the shopkeeper allows that there are many people who work or have worked at Carrier in the neighborhood. His son worked there. He lives nearby, the shopkeeper says; maybe he would speak to us. Twenty minutes later, the son, 34, shows up, sheepish and sleepy from a weekend nap. Yes, he’d worked at Carrier for nine months, he says. “I was working in Gearbox Assembly A, Carrier Commercial. It was a good place to work. I got a good wage. The work environment was calm. I also worked in different areas of the plant over that time.” He valued the job, he says. And felt the company was fair to him. He doesn’t know what Americans made at the Carrier plant in Indianapolis. He’s told.
“Is it really $40 an hour?” He professes not to care. It does not seem unfair to him. “I have only heard about that.” He left Carrier of his own accord, he says, and is now an electrical assembler at another plant. “I went to technical school for three years and I left because since I studied more, I get a little better wage than I did at Carrier. About 100 pesos more a day.” Five dollars. Enough, apparently, to make a difference.
Mayor Brooks Fetters fills his chair. He’s an imposing man with a sober expression, as if he were listening with his eyes. The hood of a Lincoln MKS spans the wall of his office, the distinct beaver-tooth nose pushing the body panel slightly up so that it points toward the ceiling. The hoods are made here in Huntington.
A table is covered with other products made in Huntington County: Ecolab soaps, the lid of a Huntington grill, the shell of a Glade plug-in. Goods no longer made in Huntington have a place beneath the table: an ice cream tub, a car-wash roller, asbestos brake pads. The next item added to that pile will be the chips from United Technologies Electronic Controls. UTEC is shifting its chip production to Mexico. A letter to the mayor from UTEC, dated January 5, 2017, described the transition like this: “738 employees in total will be affected over time . . . The separations are expected to be permanent.” At the Life Church Café of Hope, two rows of pilly blue-fabric chairs and about ten rows of orange folding chairs fill a sort of conference room off a café, which is off a church. Before 7 a.m. it is already standing room only for the mayor’s State of the City address. Local businessmen chat, a representative from Congressman Jim Banks’s office stands stiff in her skirt suit, and firemen and police chiefs lean in the back. The chatter quiets as Steve Kimmel, executive director of the Huntington County Chamber of Commerce, introduces Mayor Fetters. He takes center stage, standing in front of a folding table that serves as his podium.
He tells the crowd of about 100 people that there is a lot to celebrate in Huntington. Despite the layoffs, unemployment is below 4 percent. There is the new dog park, the new pump track for BMX bikes, and business is growing in northeast Indiana. A slide on the screen behind him reads, “Big Challenges of 2017.” “UTEC was a kick in the gut,” he says. Among all the challenges facing mayors across America—a downtown fire, a growing opioid crisis—UTEC is a purely Huntington challenge. Mayor Fetters commends the fire department and community leaders for tackling the first two challenges, but calls upon the city as a whole to help with the third: “We need to continue to come alongside our friends and neighbors affected by this trauma and help them find a hopeful, productive path forward.”
The Laid Off
Kelly Schlotter, 55
Worked as a: Machine operator and team leader
I was a machine operator. And then insertion—I inserted components and resistors into the boards.
They told us it was not our quality of work, we were the best around. We were told it was not our people, we had the best workers around. They called everybody in and told us our product was great, we couldn’t ask for better quality. I thought I would retire there. Now I’m in a class for entry-level programming. TAA [Trade Adjustment Assistance] paid for it because my job relocated, but it’s hard. The math I learned 40 years ago is not the math they use today. I go four days a week. Fridays are my day off, but I don’t do anything but homework.
I’m not proud of what I’ve left for the next generation. No jobs, higher taxes. You’re either going to be able to live on McDonald’s wages, or you’re going to have to be a doctor. There is not going to be any in between. This country is going to have to think about the people instead of the money or we will be a third-world country. I hope UTEC can live with their decisions. I hope that every time they drive by the American flag, they think about what they did.