Neenah, Wis.- Part One

This is the story of small midwestern town that prospered as a factory town in the years following the Second World War, rich in paper production and iron foundries. Since then, foreign competition, from which the town’s industry was not protected, has led to wage stagnation and factory closings. Thus the townspeople, traditionally Democratic (“the workers’ party?”), voted in the last election for the presidential candidate who promised to bring back their jobs from abroad and protect them with tariffs from unfair competition. Will he deliver? Does anyone in Washington care?

The story of Neenah, the town in question, can be multiplied a hundred times throughout Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, the three traditionally Democratic-voting states that went Republican in the last election. Someone had better start listening to these Americans and making good on promises before they become irretrievably lost and embittered.

Because of the length of the original article that appeared in The New York Times, we have broken it down into three consecutive postings, of which this is the first. 

 

Feeding paper into a giant cutter inside the Neenah Paper mill, a survivor in the region’s declining paper industry.

By NELSON D.  SCHWARTZ  Photographs by DAMON WINTER  Nov. 25, 2017 for The New York Times

NEENAH, Wis. — In Winnebago County, they’ve seen the paper mills close, one by one.

While Kimberly-Clark, founded here in 1872, still employs several thousand people locally, abandoned mills dot smaller towns in the region. Paper production has moved to cheaper locales overseas with less stringent pollution rules. That has left a pall — and a sense of fear and insecurity — hanging over places like Neenah, even as factories in other industries are still humming.

For many, the villain is trade.

Take Neenah Foundry, a 145-year-old operation that employs nearly 1,000 workers here. Its employees have watched in frustration as cheap manhole covers and sewer grates flood into the country from India and elsewhere, where competitors are eligible for government subsidies and face fewer environmental regulations.

“For a long time, trade hasn’t been fair,” said Jeff Lamia, who started work at the foundry earning $5.35 an hour, fresh out of high school nearly 40 years ago, and now makes $27 an hour.

“They can build stuff for pennies in China with no environmental rules,” he added. “Our foundry has an ungodly amount of emissions controls and that costs big money. Overseas, they throw it out into the air and we have to compete. That’s not a level playing field.”

Employees have watched in frustration an influx of cheap manhole covers and sewer grates from foreign competitors.

More than a year after Donald Trump’s victory, it’s easy to forget that the seemingly tectonic electoral shift came largely from 80,000 voters in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania who moved those reliably Democratic industrial states into the Republican column.

Few places embody the underlying economic and political dynamics of that switch more than Winnebago County. Almost a third of Wisconsin’s 72 counties flipped from blue to red, and like most of them, Winnebago is heavily dependent on manufacturing, whether in gritty blue-collar towns like Oshkosh and Menasha or in Neenah, which is home to both factories and corporate offices downtown.

Indeed, with one-fifth of its jobs in the factory sector, Winnebago is more dependent on manufacturing than over 90 percent of the nation’s counties. As a result, residents worry about foreign competition for locally made products like Oshkosh trucks or the fire engines built by Pierce in Appleton and exported around the world.

And with the North American Free Trade Agreement hanging in the balance, and the possibility of a trade war rising, White House decisions on trade in the months ahead will reverberate here and in other Midwestern states — and may determine whether last year’s political shift becomes more enduring.

Mr. Trump’s attacks on free trade and promises to bring back good-paying jobs from overseas resonated deeply here — even with lifelong Democrats like Mr. Lamia. Those issues, along with a growing disdain for politicians in general and Hillary Clinton in particular, prompted Mr. Lamia to choose Mr. Trump after voting for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Other foundry workers like Jeff Olejnik, a Democrat who couldn’t bring himself to vote for Mr. Trump in November and reluctantly supported Mrs. Clinton, admits that his message on trade was compelling.

 

An employee in a filtration suit uses a heavy grinding wheel to smooth down rough edges on molded parts

“People in the Midwest don’t ask for much,” he added. “They want to take a vacation once a year, have decent health care and enough money to pay their bills and save for retirement. That’s our life, but pretty soon there won’t be no middle class.”

For many who have made a life in Neenah, it has been a place where a worker without a college degree can secure the middle-class security and comfort that have slipped out of reach elsewhere.

Mr. Lamia and his wife own a home 10 minutes from the foundry, have three cars between them, and a decade ago they purchased a summer place in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

In many respects, economic data for the area still paints a sanguine picture. At 2.8 percent, the county’s unemployment rate is more than a full percentage point below the national average. Help-wanted signs hang from local factories, and Neenah Foundry recently raised hourly wages for chippers and grinders, an entry-level job, to about $12.25 an hour from $11.25.

But there is a creeping sense of having to work harder just to stay in place, as salaries and lifestyles erode amid pressure from globalization and the unceasing demand for ever-rising profits in corporate America.

“People are working similar jobs to what their parents did but are not able to maintain the same lifestyle,” said Mark Harris, a former mayor of Oshkosh who is now the Winnebago County executive. “That’s causing anxiety.”

And while unemployment may be low now, older residents have seen factories and mills close in town after town, with Wisconsin losing 120,000 factory jobs over all since 2000, including 20,000 in the paper industry alone. Not only has that kept wages in check, but it has also prompted doubts among blue-collar workers about whether they — or their children — have much of an economic future here.

“We had eight kids in our family, and my mother didn’t have to work,” Mr. Olejnik said. “Grocery stores weren’t open on Sunday and you spent time with your family. Now, the mall is open on Christmas Eve. We’ve lost a lot.”

To be continued
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