Neenah, Wis.- Part Three

Part three of this article about a small manufacturing town in Wisconsin concludes by comparing the political thinking of a long-time employee in one of its industries to that of his boss, who owns the factory.

Beginning an evening shift at Neenah Foundry with a mandatory stretching session.

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

‘Go to Where the Fish Are At’

Watching those changes heightens the anxiety at an old-school manufacturer like Neenah Foundry, but these companies and their workers are adapting. Mr. Lamia, the 57-year-old veteran employee who backed Mr. Trump after decades of always voting a straight Democratic ticket, is a case in point.

Although he complains that “it’s so hard to compete against Mexico,” he has reinvented himself more than once during his career at Neenah Foundry.

After his first job as a laborer was eliminated, he got a commercial driving license and drove trucks there. Looking to rise and avoid another layoff from the foundry, Mr. Lamia then spent one day a week for five years at Fox Valley Technical College and eventually became certified as an electrician. With overtime, he earns roughly $70,000 a year, a solidly middle-class wage here.

Indeed, for workers with two-year degrees in fields like automation, metal fabrication and advanced manufacturing, employers are offering $50,000 to $60,000 to start. “We call them gold-collar workers in the state,” said Susan May, the president of Fox Valley Technical College.

But even as salaries for skilled workers like Mr. Lamia have risen, the number of low-paid entry-level laborers at Neenah Foundry is shrinking.

His boss, Tom Riordan, is about to invest $15 million in robots, automating part of the process in which cast metal parts are removed from sand molds by unskilled chippers and grinders.

“American manufacturers need to take a tough-love approach,” he said, sitting in Neenah Foundry’s nondescript board room, not far from the noisy factory floor. “Sometimes you just have to suck it up, adapt, and serve your customers.”

Mr. Lamia favors another sort of tough love: tariffs aimed at the countries he feels are “feeding off the U.S. and don’t play by the same rules.”

To comply with new government regulations, for example, Neenah Foundry will spend more than $1 million over the next six months to reduce silica particles by half, to 25 parts per billion. In China and India, workers simply make do with masks, and Mr. Lamia doesn’t believe he and his colleagues should be at a disadvantage when environmental standards overseas lag behind those in the United States.

“If Neenah Foundry has to pay millions for emissions controls and China doesn’t have to, then they should have to pay more to export to the U.S.,” he said. “It’s got to be a level playing field, and this should have been done a long time ago.”

Mexico is a more complicated case, Mr. Lamia added, especially given the country’s role as a major importer of American grain and other products. “Trump’s got a lot on his plate, but he should impose tariffs on China for sure,” he said.

Tom Riordan, chief executive of Neenah Enterprises, the foundry’s owner, is frustrated by the influx of cheap products from overseas rivals but worries about the damage a trade war could inflict.

Appealing as the tough talk on trade might be at times, it wasn’t enough to persuade Mr. Riordan, a self-described moderate Republican, to vote for Mr. Trump. Instead, he cast a write-in ballot for a fellow Wisconsinite, Representative Paul D. Ryan, the House speaker.

Mr. Riordan doesn’t discount the appeal of Mexico to manufacturing executives like himself. But he’s not considering a wholesale move south of the border for Neenah Foundry — instead, he wants to find ways to supply American manufacturers who have relocated there. “A lot of our customers are heading south, and you go where the fish are at,” he said.

As for the Nafta trade deal now being renegotiated, Mr. Riordan favors keeping changes to a minimum, rather than ripping up the 24-year old agreement, as President Trump has threatened to do.

“There isn’t an easy answer, but my personal bias would be against that,” he said. “Let’s put some lipstick on this pig, and not make a whole lot of substantial changes.”

He knows that axles made here will go into vehicles exported to Mexico and other countries that are trade targets of the White House. What’s more, Mexico is a major importer of corn and soybeans from American farmers, who in turn buy tractors and combines from John Deere, a major customer.

“Do we really understand what we’re doing?” Mr. Riordan asked. “We have a big trade surplus with Mexico in terms of grain. If U.S. farmers are suddenly at a disadvantage, who is going to pay the price for that? American agricultural equipment manufacturers, which impacts us.”

As the steward of a manufacturer that has survived world wars, the Great Depression, the Great Recession and a couple of trips to bankruptcy court, Mr. Riordan is much more optimistic about his company’s ability to compete globally than many of his workers.

With the North American Free Trade Agreement being renegotiated, White House decisions on trade will reverberate in places like Neenah.

The same goes for the country’s ability to win in trade with the likes of Mexico or China.

“If rational minds prevail in Washington, over time the country will get it right,” Mr. Riordan said. “But Congress and the president need to get it right in the meantime.”

This concludes this three-part article

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