The White Working Class: Impatient for Prosperity
Life + Money

The White Working Class: Impatient for Prosperity

Reuters/John Sommers II

Eight months ago, Kathleen Wilmink was a single mother, waitressing at night and coding fees for a medical billing company by day. Her pay: $10 an hour. Today she works 12-hour shifts at a steel plant, tending a ladle that pours 300 tons of red-hot liquid metal into molds. It is a sooty, sweaty task. "We wear leather gloves," she said, "so our hands don't catch on fire." Her pay: $21 an hour plus incentives, bonuses and generous medical benefits.

Wilmink's new job is good news for President Barack Obama. ArcelorMittal, the global steel giant, is hiring again at the century-old mill that straddles the Cuyahoga River. Orders are up, thanks in part to a revival of the U.S. automobile industry for which the Obama administration claims credit.

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In recent decades the white working class has steadily morphed from blue to red: Al Gore, John Kerry and Obama all lost the group to GOP opponents. Two years ago the midterm elections marked a landslide. Hammered by the recession and revved up by the Tea Party, white working-class voters - men and women without college degrees who earn middle-income wages - swung Republican by a stunning 30 points across the country. For many, change hasn't come fast enough, dampening hope. They remain impatient for prosperity.

In Ohio, these voters, who make up more than half of the electorate, are showing little enthusiasm for either the president or Mitt Romney, the presumed Republican nominee. As of this week, white working-class voters across the Rust Belt leaned toward Romney, with 44 percent of respondents in a Reuters/Ipsos poll saying they would vote for the Republican if the election were held today, versus 30 percent for Obama. (For purposes of the poll, the Rust Belt includes Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and parts of New York and Pennsylvania.)

That is a far narrower spread than between GOP and Democratic candidates in the midterms. But if the president is to make headway with this group, he'll need more voters like Wilmink, 29. "Obama is for jobs," said the newly minted steelworker. "He is eager to get the economy going again."

In 2008, Obama carried Ohio by five percentage points against John McCain. He captured other industrial belt states, too, including Pennsylvania, Michigan and Illinois. Even Indiana, which had not voted for a Democrat for president since 1964, narrowly embraced Obama's message of "hope and change."

This year the wobbly economy offers Romney a powerful opening, but he has struggled to relate to blue-collar voters. That's hardly surprising. His fortune is estimated at $250 million, he once penned a New York Times op-ed headlined "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt," and he regularly complains about "union stooges."

Both campaigns unleashed ads this month aimed at working-class voters in battleground states. In Obama's two-minute TV spot, steelworkers blamed Bain Capital, the private equity firm Romney once ran, for profiting from the bankruptcy of a Kansas City, Missouri mill, calling the Republican "a job destroyer."

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Romney responded with a 60-second Web video praising Bain's investment in Steel Dynamics Inc, an Indiana company that grew from 1,400 to 6,000 employees, describing its success as "the American dream." Amid these conflicting scenarios, a swath of blue-collar voters remains angry, anxious and undecided. Many supported former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, the grandson of a coal miner, in Ohio's Republican primary, which Romney won by less than a percentage point. In the Reuters/Ipsos poll, fewer than a fifth of manufacturing workers approve of Obama's overall job performance, with almost 40 percent expressing "mixed feelings."

On a spring Saturday, members of the United Steelworkers bowling league crowded into Cloverleaf Lanes south of Cleveland. An American flag hung on the wall. Budweiser flowed freely. T-shirts sported slogans such as "Steelworkers Forever" and "Tough Enough." In the 1990s the league had 44 teams. Today, after corporate bankruptcies, consolidations, and restructuring, there are 17.

Jerry Roop, 52, worked for 30 years as a skilled tool and dye maker before losing his job in 2007 when his employer, Metaldyne, moved some operations to China. Since then he's been laid off twice by other companies. Like so many factory workers, Roop is a victim of automation. Once he made $90,000 a year. Now he earns $50,000 at a plant that makes bearings for windmills. 

"Before, you had to figure out what a machine should do," he said. "A lot of math was involved. Now a computer creates the pattern. You push a button."

Silver-haired with a bushy mustache, Roop sports an eagle tattoo on his arm. He high-fived and fist-bumped his teammates after rolling a strike. The mood was jolly, except when the conversation turned to politics. Like almost 70 percent of white Rust Belt workers in the Reuters/Ipsos poll, Roop thinks the U.S. is headed in the wrong direction. "They want this country to turn into a Third World nation, with a few haves and everyone else a have-not," he said. Roop didn't vote for Obama in 2008 and doesn't support him now. "I just never knew where he came from," he said. "I couldn't identify with him."

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He doesn't trust Romney, either: "He reminds me of a televangelist with a diamond ring and a Cadillac."

In the next lane over, Frank Cassano, 61, echoed the pox-on-all-pols sentiment. A mechanic for the city of Lorain, he is a lifelong Democrat who voted for Obama four years ago. He wishes he hadn't. "Politicians used to work for us," he said. "Now we work for them. Obama hasn't created the jobs he said he would."

Cassano's views on issues are more liberal Democrat than conservative Republican. "Wealthy people get away with murder," he said. He would trim the deficit by cutting military spending: "We send billions of dollars to Iraq and Afghanistan - and they hate us." But to Cassano the incumbent represents the status quo. He plans to vote for "the new guy." "It will take him a couple of years before he figures out how to screw the American people," he said.

Such expressions of cynicism are common. For decades after World War II high school graduates found jobs in heavy industry that allowed them to work their way into the middle class, earning enough to buy homes and send their kids to college. Many had union-negotiated health benefits and pensions.

That path has not disappeared, but it has narrowed. Since 1992, northeastern Ohio, the state's most heavily unionized and Democratic region, has lost nearly 40 percent of its manufacturing workforce, mostly because of outsourcing, job consolidation and technology that replaces workers with sophisticated machines.

ArcelorMittal, Wilmink 's employer, is a case in point. Its Cleveland Works mill sprawls across hundreds of acres, smokestacks piercing the sky, locomotives hauling cars full of dusty coke. Blast furnaces glow orange 24 hours a day. From the outside, it appears to have changed little over the years. Inside, though, the plant is a triumph of modernization, producing a ton of steel for less than one worker-hour invested. The mill's blue-collar workforce has dropped from 3,200 a decade ago to 1,500.

Even so, ArcelorMittal has not been immune to recession. In October 2008, as demand for steel slumped, executives idled the plant's furnaces. Yet within a year they were calling back laid-off workers. Today the mill operates at full throttle and is training 150 new hires.
"I lost my job under Bush, and I got it back with Obama," said Mary Jo Vitale, an ArcelorMittal lab technician who had been laid off for three years. "It's been slow, but considering what Obama was tossed into he's doing a good job picking up the pieces."

Ohio's economy appears to be stabilizing. The state's unemployment rate, 8.6 percent when Obama took office, was 7.4 percent in March, below the national average. Down the road from ArcelorMittal, Alcoa has spent $100 million on a new forging press to build aircraft parts.

An hour away, General Motors Co added two shifts to its Lordstown plant, boosting its workforce there to 4,500. With one out of eight Ohio jobs tied to the auto industry, Obama's rescue of GM and Chrysler is likely to resonate with voters. His campaign's pointed slogan: "Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive."

In visits to the state, the president extols his efforts to promote vocational education, lower corporate taxes on domestic manufacturers and rescind tax breaks for companies that move jobs overseas. Obama may also benefit from anger over a 2011 state law restricting the collective bargaining rights of 400,000 Ohio firefighters, teachers and police officers. The law, passed by the Republican-controlled legislature, was repealed in a referendum, 61 percent to 39 percent. Obama had attacked the bill. Romney had endorsed it.

Still, the president faces resistance, even among staunch union members such as James Ciomek, who stopped by the United Steelworkers Local 979 on a recent afternoon. Ciomek, an ArcelorMittal quality inspector, said Democrats take union members for granted. His two big issues: the $15 trillion national debt and "the so-called fair trade agreements that aren't." 

Ciomek, who backed McCain in 2008, may vote Republican again. He said he doesn't mind that Romney, whom he called "bright, sharp," is a "rich dude." Romney argues that his background as chief executive officer of Bain Capital better qualifies him to rein in federal spending and promote economic growth.

"We're about 5.5 million jobs short of where we were before the recession," he told a college audience in suburban Columbus last month. Obama, he said, has been "unable to get the job done." Romney also promises to slap tough sanctions on China for unfair trade and currency practices, a stance that appeals to blue-collar voters.

Healthcare is an issue that might seem to work in Romney's favor. The Reuters/Ipsos poll shows mosts Rust Belt workers disapprove of Obama's push for the 2010 reform law and many bristle at the idea of Americans being forced to buy insurance. Romney says he will press for repeal if the Supreme Court does not strike down the law first. However, Democrats are only too eager to point out that "Obamacare" was modeled on "Romneycare," a 2006 Massachusetts law that Romney backed as that state's governor.

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Opposition to the law comes from left and right. If many see it as big government intrusion, others fault the president for being too timid in asserting a strong federal role.

Audrey Wahl, an ArcelorMittal electrician, called Obamacare "a good start" but said she would prefer a single-payer system run by the government rather than a mandate to buy private coverage. "To hell with bloodsucking insurance companies," she said. Steelworkers here bitterly recall the 2001 bankruptcy of LTV Corp, Cleveland Works' previous owner. More than 47,000 retirees and laid-off employees, many too young for Medicare, lost medical coverage. At 56, Wahl has diabetes, lupus and a wrenched back from falling off a greasy motor. She wants to retire but says she can't afford to lose the health benefits.

"These huge companies own our politicians," she said. "They want to privatize everything so they can scoop up the profits. They take home the bacon and leave the drippings for everyone else."  Last year, when Occupy Cleveland protesters camped out in a city square, Wahl brought them coffee on cold nights. She sees "justice - economic and social" as the campaign's No. 1 issue. "Rich people don't need tax cuts," she said.

Obama's effort to eliminate Bush-era tax cuts for those making more than $250,000 is popular among Rust Belt voters: Three-quarters of them in the Reuters/Ipsos poll want the wealthy to pay more. The steelworkers union hands out buttons that read, "USW: We are the 99 percent." Romney argues that keeping the tax cuts will boost economic growth and help small businesses.

As important as such policies may be, white working-class voters are as susceptible as others to emotional issues. Romney's Mormonism makes some Christians uncomfortable. Others view him as too rich to be a "regular guy." Obama, an Ivy League-educated former law professor, is seen by some as an elitist. His religion is also questioned. "Obama didn't do anything wrong," said David Chiccine, an Alcoa metalworker, as he nursed a beer at Gino's, a popular bar. "I don't like him because he's a Muslim."

The misconception - Obama is a practicing Christian - may stem from discomfort with a black President. "Race has something to do with it," said Ed Goans, a ArcelorMittal electrician. "I hear a lot of people say he's Muslim. He doesn't look like they want him to look."

The Goans family boasts three generations of steelworkers. Ed's father was a crane operator at the plant. His brother works on the caster, which molds metal into slabs. His daughter is Kathleen Wilmink, the new ArcelorMittal hire. A lifelong Democrat, Goans supports the president. His wife, Donna, a registered Republican, says, "There's no candidate I like."

She thinks Obama is not "spiritual" enough and sees Romney as "out of touch with society." Still, the Goanses - Ed, Donna and Kathleen - agree on one thing: This election is about jobs. Wilmink had to go on Medicaid and move back in with her parents before she landed at ArcelorMittal. Now, with health benefits and enough income to support herself and her daughter, she said, "I have an opportunity to get on my feet." Her father has a message for the presidential candidates: "People are struggling... They have to eat and take care of their families."

This is the second article to run as part of American Mosaic, a yearlong Reuters-Ipsos polling and reporting project that focuses on the diverse groups and competing views at play in the 2012 presidential race.