This is Trump country: crushed by China, Ohio’s struggling workers embrace billionaire candidate

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 September, 2016, 1:16pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 September, 2016, 8:52pm

Losing out to Chinese competition and feeling betrayed by mainstream politicians, workers in the hills of eastern Ohio are embracing billionaire Donald Trump and his tough talk on trade.

For decades, they and others living across the Ohio River in West Virginia found work in coal mines and at a local aluminium plant — union jobs, with good pay and generous benefits.

But those jobs are going, if not gone.

Coal is being wiped out by stricter environmental rules and competition from cheap natural gas. The Ormet aluminium plant? It’s out of business, doomed by China’s domination of the global aluminium market.

In an angry election year, some of America’s angriest voters live in places like Monroe County where local economies have been punished by price competition with China.

“This is Trump country,” says John Saunders, an official with the United Steelworkers in nearby Martins Ferry, Ohio.

Trump leads Hillary Clinton by 5 percentage points in a Bloomberg Politics poll of Ohio, a gap that underscores the Democrat’s challenges in critical Rust Belt states after one of the roughest stretches of her campaign. Trump is also cutting into Clinton’s lead nationally. A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday showed Trump with 43 per cent of the vote and Clinton with 48 per cent among likely voters in a head-to-head race.

Monroe County’s unemployment rate is Ohio’s highest at 10.2 per cent. Families have moved out to find work. The number of children in the local school district is down 223, or nearly 10 per cent, since 2013.

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“You’re going to have to travel to find a job,” says Fran Poole, whose husband, Cecil, worked at the Ormet plant here for 37 years before being laid off when it closed.

Some laid-off workers chose to retire early. Others found work in the energy business, only to see those jobs melt away, too, as oil and gas prices fell. Some are doing odd jobs — cutting grass, hauling gravel.

Much of the damage to this region can be traced to China’s decision to become self-sufficient in aluminium production.

Aluminium producers went into overdrive: In 2000, the United States had produced a world-beating 15 per cent of all aluminium, China 11 per cent. By 2015, China had escalated its output nearly 1,200 per cent — and held 55 per cent of the world’s share.

As Chinese aluminium flooded the world, prices collapsed. A kilogram of raw aluminium now fetches US$1.63 — down from US$2.75 five years ago. US production has tumbled 56 per cent since 2000, according to the US Geological Survey. And America’s share of world aluminium is below 3 per cent.

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Since 2011, US aluminium companies have closed or idled nine of the 14 US smelters, where aluminium oxide is turned into raw aluminium. Two surviving plants are running at half capacity or less.

Hundreds of workers in New Madrid, Missouri, lost their jobs when Noranda Aluminum Holding Corp sought bankruptcy protection in February.

“If you take metal prices back to where they were before China started flooding the market, you’re looking at somewhere between 90 cents and US$1.10 a pound,” says Cameron Redd, a laid-off Noranda employee. At those prices, he says, the Noranda plant still “would be hiring.”

Relief hasn’t come. At this month’s G-20 summit, US and Chinese officials agreed to work together to reduce overproduction of aluminium, but the Chinese have long balked at cutting aluminium output — and jobs.

Longtime residents recall how vital the Ormet plant here was for the area’s economy and for supporting middle-class lifestyles. Workers regularly vacationed and bought houses and boats and all-terrain vehicles to tear up the Ohio countryside.

“If you didn’t go to college or the military, you went to the coal mines or Ormet,” says Bill Long, a former Ormet laborer who is a supervisor at the county’s Department of Job and Family Services.

The factory drew workers from the hills of West Virginia and eastern Ohio, paying them about US$40,000 a year before overtime. Overtime was “sporadic,” recalls Carl Davis, a former Ormet worker who is now a Monroe County commissioner. “But a few were known to gross around US$100,000.”

“Even though the work was hard back then, it was best job I had ever had, and the most money I’d ever had my hands on,” says Francis Blackstone, a 70-year-old Ormet retiree. “And the benefits were just unheard of” — including free health care.

“We were all family,” says Danny Isaly, an Ormet worker who became the plant’s head of industrial relations. “Everybody had a relative here.”

After the plant closed, Isaly received unemployment benefits until they ran out. Then he retired at age 59.

Trump is viewed as a champion to many in Monroe County who say America’s political leaders have stood by while competition from China and other countries has wrecked communities like Hannibal.

“He says what a lot of people would like to say,” says Cecil Poole, who feels the national Democratic Party has abandoned blue-collar workers.

Job openings are now scarce, the pay and benefits no match for what Ormet offered.

“It’s embarrassing what’s out there,” says Bill Long, who counsels the unemployed.

Peeking out from one jobseeker’s file in his office is an application for a position at Dairy Queen. Long says some of the old Ormet workers seem in denial about their prospects. He recently ran into one.

“He said, ‘I keep hoping the plant’s going to fire back up,’” Long recalls. “I said, ‘That’s not going to happen, buddy.’”

Additional reporting by Bloomberg