In Ohio primary, campaign hinges on NAFTA
In a state that has lost 225,000 jobs since 2001, voters blame economic woes on free trade and globalization.
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The future, he says, is moving away from the classic assembly-line work that has employed so many people for so long. Any manufacturing that replaces it is focused on high-skill, value-added niches that employ far fewer people. "It's not commodities, not producing widgets, anymore," says Mr. Tuss.Skip to next paragraph
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For Earl Conley, recently laid off from his $19-per-hour job making car seats at a GM supplier, that's not much comfort. Mr. Conley has a high-school education and few marketable skills.
He goes every day to the county's Job Transition Center, set up to help people laid off because of factory closings, where he learned to use a computer – he'd never turned one on before – and applies for every job he can find online, including janitorial positions and jobs making barely more than minimum wage. So far, he's had no success. "Everyone wants skilled labor," he says sadly. "I'm 54 years old – it'd be hard to retrain me."
Conley's wife, Jill, is on disability, and both of them had operations last year. Watching bills stack up is terrifying, they both say, and they worry about losing their home.
"The manufacturing jobs are changing," Conley says. "I guess people are obsolete anymore and not needed."
US export: jobs
The Conleys are skeptical that any politician can help them much, but others are listening to what Obama and Clinton are saying about jobs and trade, and in some cases holding Clinton's own history with NAFTA – via her husband – against her.
"Clinton – there's that name again. I heard on the radio that she'll fight hard for unions," says Brian Rader, a forklift operator for Delphi for 21 years until he took their buyout package last April. "But you didn't do it. You didn't say anything to Bill back then. Now it's too late. The only thing we're good at exporting anymore is jobs."
Mr. Rader, who has a wife and three children, made $27 an hour at his old job. He says he's happy to take something that pays less than half that now, but is finding that many places don't want to hire a former union worker. Back when he started at Delphi out of high school, he remembers, "those were the jobs everyone wanted…. You were told, 'You have a job for life.' "
That story is hardly unusual in Dayton, where Delphi and GM have both had large layoffs in the past year, and even more jobs are seen as at risk.
It's people such as Rader and Conley and the many others who have either lost work or are feeling the pinch of rising mortgages or falling wages that Clinton and Obama are trying to reach as they offer plans for new jobs in green technology, renewable energy, or information technology. Both also propose renegotiating NAFTA to improve – and enforce – labor and environmental standards. "I would have a 'trade timeout'" until NAFTA is fixed, Clinton promised voters in the debate in Cleveland Tuesday night, in which she and Obama traded sharp words over how consistently anti-NAFTA each had been.
"I'd give an edge to Obama on this only because his last name isn't Clinton," says Bill Burges, a Democratic political consultant in Cleveland who worked on Senator Brown's campaign.
He adds that he expects voters in the end will be more swayed by personality – especially if Obama begins to seem more familiar – than by the trade issue. But focusing on NAFTA makes sense, he says, and isn't just about looking to mistakes in the past.
"These are major issues, and the people are blaming their government for not only the loss of their job but also their inability to pay their mortgage and the loss of their homes." Says Mr. Burges: "NAFTA matters."