Manufacturing losses weigh heavily on Ohio

It's late morning on a workday, a time when these men would normally be found on the factory floor. But that was before the factory packed up and moved to Mexico.

Now they sit around a table in a one-story steelworkers union office and wonder what they'll do with the rest of their working lives.

After more than 60 years in business, their employer, Amweld Building Products, announced in October that it was closing two local plants and shipping the work to Monterrey, Mexico. Some workers got the news when armed security guards swarmed the assembly line and ordered them away from their machines. Many who had worked at the plant for decades mourn the loss of good-paying jobs, which around here are about as common as icebergs in the Sahara. "Some of the best-paying jobs in the United States aren't in the United States anymore," says Bob Ulrich, 58, idled after working at the plant since 1969.

The cost of current trade policies is a key issue in Tuesday's Ohio Democratic presidential primary. But the issue is far more complex than political rhetoric suggests.

Ohio's Mahoning Valley once was emblematic of industrial America, thickly populated with auto and steel plants, employing men whose strong backs and high school diplomas were their chief credentials.

Ohio lately has been bleeding such jobs; more than 257,000 factory positions have evaporated since the beginning of 2000. Less than a mile from the Amweld plant, 54 General Electric workers lost their jobs last month when the company halted light bulb production. Indalex Aluminum Solutions is closing in neighboring Girard at the end of March, putting 150 people out of work. An additional 450 workers will lose their jobs in April when Johnson Rubber in Middlefield, about 30 miles away, shuts down.

On Main Street in Niles, there's a memorial to local hero William McKinley, the nation's 25th president, a modest Army-Navy post (advertising a fish fry on Fridays) and a block-long string of empty stores bearing "For Rent" signs. Many people here blame the silent, steady erosion on a series of trade deals that began with the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Sensing a link between trade-related anger and votes in the Ohio primary Tuesday, Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have assailed the trade strategy pursued by both Republican and Democratic administrations for nearly two decades.

The rivals last week promised to renegotiate NAFTA's terms with Mexico and Canada, add tough labor and environmental requirements to any new accords and re-orient trade policy from the needs of Wall Street's moneyed elite to the protection of hard-hit workers.

These are not the first comforting election-year promises these men have heard. Experience has taught them to be skeptics. Craig Plant, 34, jobless after eight years making steel doors at Amweld, is dismissive of Clinton's and Obama's vows to fix the controversial trade pact. "It's just a smokescreen for, 'We're pretty much not going to do anything,' " he says.

The road to closure

Economists disagree about how much of Ohio's manufacturing plight is due to trade. The state's manufacturing employment of 989,400 actually increased slightly after NAFTA took effect in January 1994 and didn't begin declining for more than seven years.

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