Category Archives: Presidential Election 2012

Freeport Is Not a Democrat vs. Republican Issue

By Arun Gupta, November 2, 2012, The Progressive

The Rev. Al Sharpton, host of MSNBC’s Politics Nation, led a rally in support of Sensata workers in Freeport, Illinois on Saturday, October 20, 2012. Standing next to him is 16-year-old Karri Penniston, who was arrested in October protesting the offshoring of the Sensata factory to China by Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital, which will cost 170 workers their jobs, including Penniston’s mother.

FREEPORT, Illinois—The central business district in this city of 25,000 is lined with century-old brick buildings housing mom-and-pop shops – Edith’s Bridal, Christina’s Bakery, Mort’s Bar & Grill, Heinrich Accounting and Kunz Brothers Auto Parts. At Nine East Coffee, a block away from Classic Cinemas, the staff greets customers by name. The Stephenson County Farm Bureau office downtown attests to the thousands of acres of corn, wheat, soy, and hog and cattle farms that envelope this Northern plains city.

Freeport’s small-town feel is not all by choice. Its timelessness stems from being a backwater in the global economy. Locals say more than 90 commercial buildings and many more houses lie abandoned. An avenue downtown has been closed since September as the city struggles to find $100,000 to repair a crumbling bridge. Hip retailers have forsaken the town, and the chains sprinkled on the edges, Dollar General, Payless Shoes, McDonald’s and Walmart, specialize in squeezing profit from threadbare households. With a shrinking population and an unemployment rate near 12 percent, Freeport’s economy is so depressed that discount retailer Kmart plans to close its doors in January 2013 after 20 years in the town, throwing 45 employees out of work.

Right before Kmart goes dark Sensata Technologies will finish moving its production line from Freeport to China, leaving 170 more workers without jobs. The offshoring of the factory, which makes electronic sensors and controls for automobiles, would not raise eyebrows. Since NAFTA went into effect in 1994, millions of U.S. jobs have fled to countries with low wages and lax regulatory environments.

Sensata is different, however. It’s become an election lightning rod because it was created in 2006 by Bain Capital, the company founded by the GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. In October 2010 workers learned their factory and three others owned by Honeywell had been sold to Sensata. Newspapers quoted assurances from Honeywell that “all of the affected employees in Freeport … will be offered jobs with Sensata when the deal is closed.”

Cheryl Randecker, who’s worked at the Honeywell plant for 33 years, says in January 2011 the workers were ushered into a room where “a big spread of food” was laid out. Within three minutes, she says, “We were told, ‘Welcome to Sensata. We’re closing the plant and outsourcing to Malaysia, Mexico and China.’ ” The workers were resigned to getting the short end of the stick until a chance encounter in June with Chicago-based labor organizers galvanized them to make a stand against shipping jobs overseas.

After local protests and dogging Romney at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, workers built the “Bainport” encampment on the Stephenson County Fairgrounds across from Plant. No. 4 on Sept. 12 and have occupied it for more than 50 days. Liberals and labor have flocked to the camp, which has featured rallies and protests led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, and hosted live broadcasts by Democracy Now! and “The Ed Show.”

While grateful for the support, the Sensata workers and unions backing them are at a loss for how to stop offshoring that leaves part-time, low-wage jobs in its wake. They want American workers to “wake up,” but pin their hopes on the Democrats who encourage job flight abroad and McJobs at home as much as the Republicans. A few unions have taken up the challenge of organizing the Walmart economy, but the projects are in their infancy. So the Sensata workers and unions have retreated to a fortress of conservatism – mourning the lost “American Dream” appealing to national interest, and excoriating “Communist China.”


The Bainport protesters have two goals. Tom Gaulrapp, a 33-year-long employee at the plant, says at first they “hoped for a miracle that we would get our jobs saved. Now we’re trying to be an example. Maybe some other businesses planning to outsource will take a look and say we don’t want that publicity.”

The second goal is to get their full severance, which was cut from one year to six months for many longtime employees two years ago.

Adding insult to injury, workers were told they had to train their replacements if they wanted any severance. Dot Turner, who’s worked at the plant since 1969, says “it’s demeaning” to train the workers from other countries. “Normally a plant can just move an operation and train them over there. It tells you the jobs are highly skilled.” She says until the protests began, “They used to have 40 to 50 workers from Mexico and China at one time.” Now they’re all gone.

With cameras trained on their camp, the protesters also want to ignite a bigger movement. On a crisp Saturday afternoon, Turner told a rally of a few hundred people, “If we did this all over the country we could stop … the outsourcing to Communist China. We’re fighting the rich. The wealthy are trying to stamp out the middle class.”

Their defiance is matched by fear. Worry clouds Randecker’s face as she says, “I don’t know what the future holds. It’s lose-lose around here. There aren’t opportunities to make this kind of money.” A single mother, Randecker says her 20-year-old daughter moved back home from an out-of-state college to save money and now struggles as she works work part time and continues her nursing studies full time at a community college. Randecker says a friend started at Kmart the same week the store announced its closing.

Gaulrapp asks, “Who’s going to hire me?” Turner sums it up bluntly, “Most of the employees have concluded they’re going to be without jobs in a town without jobs.”

They’re aging workers in a dilapidated city that begins each day a little poorer and a little less relevant to the markets. Randecker, Gaulrapp and Turner decry greed, a community left devastated, and the lost ideal of secure jobs in exchange for hard work and loyalty. They pine for a time when products were “made in America,” manufacturing jobs were plentiful, and paychecks could support a family and their dreams.

Reflecting on 43 years of work at the factory, Turner says, “You know it’s got to be a nice place to work. The pay is good. My husband and I put three children through college. All three have master’s degrees.” When Turner started work there as a newly married 18 year old, she says, “I thought I died and went to heaven the conditions were so nice.” She had left a job at Structo, a long-gone local manufacturer of toys and barbecue supplies. Decades later Turner still winces at the memory of hoisting grills to overhead hooks all day. At Honeywell, Turner says, “You could take bathroom breaks, smoking breaks, as long as you made your productivity.”


The Sensata workers’ perspective is echoed by workers from as far away as Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin who’ve made the pilgrimage to Bainport. On a Friday night, as Ed Schultz prepared to broadcast, there were machinists, teamsters, autoworkers, electricians, government employees, aerospace workers and hundreds of steelworkers, who unsuccessfully tried to organize Sensata decades ago.

Jeff Scanlan, an organizer with the Sheet Metal Workers International Association, says, “I’ve watched the steady decline of manufacturing in this area for the last 30 years. We built it better over here.” The 55-year-old Scanlan adds, “I had a good career in the trades. I was able to send my two girls to college. But I’m scared to death they’re going to do worse than I did.”

Scanlan and others rattle off manufacturers that once thrived in Freeport: Structo, Burgess Battery, and the W.T. Rawleigh Company, which sold household and nutritional products, are gone. Honeywell, Newell Rubbermaid and Kelly Tire (now Titan Tire), remain but factories have been padlocked shut and workforces have been chopped by 50 percent or more.

As for how to bring back good-paying jobs, Scanlan says, “Put tariffs on everything coming in from overseas. … We used to manufacture it, now we just install it.” When asked what about slapping tariffs on the thousands of goods found on Walmart shelves, he reiterates, “Everything.”

Just as Freeport exemplifies a conservative ideal, so does organized labor at Bainport. They accept the language of the market, returning value, increasing productivity, keeping labor flexible, prizing the home-owning nuclear family as the social building block. They proclaim, “The American worker can work as hard as anyone.” In return they only ask for stable jobs that pay “fair wages.” Few oppose, much less question, the dominance of corporations.

The darker times seem, the harder labor clings to the fading memory of the social compact, oblivious to the fact that Wall Street’s agenda transcends party labels. When I mention Clinton bulldozed Congress to ratify NAFTA, the usual reply is, “He now admits it was a mistake.” So what about Obama pushing the Trans Pacific Partnership, described as NAFTA on steroids? Silence. Though Jeff Scanlan confides, “It’s tough out there. I don’t have the answers.”


Solidarity does cross borders at times. Randecker says Chinese engineers asked her about an anti-outsourcing sticker on her shirt. “We explained it to them. We said it’s not your fault. It’s our government, your government and the corporations’ fault.” But with few opportunities to build international linkages among workers, the path of least resistance is appealing to patriotic capital and flirting with China-bashing, just as labor in the 1980s blamed its woes on Japan.

Programs like “The Ed Show” reinforce this tendency by obscuring the issue in partisan fog. Schultz described Freeport as “the belly of the beast of Mitt Romney`s economy.” The show was devoted to blaming Republicans for decades of job loss. The mantra was: The problem isn’t capitalism; it’s unpatriotic businessmen cutting deals with Communist Chinese. The entire political system isn’t responsible; it’s Republicans.

The solution is voting for Democrats, who tried to pass the “Bring the Jobs Home Act” that Senate Republicans killed last summer. What does this bill do? It gives a tax break to companies “relocating” jobs in the United States. Never mind that such tax breaks are ripe for abuse by corporations and there’s little evidence they create new jobs.

Turning Sensata into a partisan bludgeon will not help the workers. On Sensata’s website are two lists of plants: one from December 2008, and the other dated October 2012. The factories in Brazil, the Netherlands and Japan have vanished, but new ones have popped up in the Dominican Republic, Bulgaria and Shanghai. It’s a worldwide race to the bottom, and trying to plug the holes in the porous homeland with scraps of legislation is futile.

Take the Freeport plant. Randecker claims GM directed Sensata to shift the line manufacturing automotive sensors and controls to an experienced factory in Changzhou. Of course this is the same GM saved by the auto bailout that will likely win Obama re-election by putting Ohio in his column because of support from autoworkers whose jobs were saved. Then again, GM is doing what it has to in the kill-or-be-killed coliseum of the globalized car industry.

In the meantime lights will disappear by Nov. 7 and a few weeks later so will the last jobs. Labor organizers vow to nurture the storm brewing in the heartland. If it joins with others it could reshape the landscape, but if it gets sucked into Washington’s dead zone, then it will dissipate.

As for the workers, Randecker says, “There are a lot of people floating around here.” Freeport will be one step closer to a ghost town, haunted by one more specter of manufacturing past.



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Romney Appeals to White Tribalism in Ohio

By Arun Gupta and Michelle Fawcett, The Progressive, October 15, 2012

SIDNEY, OHIO—At the Shelby county fairgrounds in Sidney, Ohio, on Oct. 10, a jumbotron showed a bus approaching. Image became reality as Mitt Romney’s bulbous white chariot glided into the rally of thousands. It was an impressive entrance, for those who are impressed by RVs.

Bounding up to a podium, Romney was ready to proselytize. Thousands of faces turned toward him in the chilly evening air. Word was that Romney’s conquest of Obama in the first debate had infused his robotic demeanor with passion. It was hard to see much evidence of that.

To polite applause, Romney blandly declared, “That’s an Ohio welcome. Thank you guys.” He tried to rouse the audience with a counter to Obama campaign chants of “Four more years,” and the crowd hesitantly recited “Four more weeks,” their tone as flat as the surrounding farmland.

No matter. Romney dove into his stump speech. It was the gospel of lower taxes, freer trade, stronger military, and drill, baby, drill, and the audience was receptive. He hit all the buttons, “jobs,” “small business,” “compete,” and “opportunities.” Some specifics drew hearty cheers: “Get rid of the death tax,” “get that pipeline in from Canada,” and “our military must be second to none.”

The crowd responded favorably because the ideas are presented simply and clearly. People are hurting, and Romney says he’ll create more jobs and put more money in your pocket. His message is he won’t do it through welfare, like Obama, but by encouraging American values like entrepreneurialism, strength, and self-sufficiency.

Author Thomas Frank calls this brand of politics “Pity the Billionaire … a revival crusade preaching the old-time religion of the free market.” Frank argues the post-Obama resurgence of the right is not about racism or culture wars, but a populist politics of resentment. The right, he explains, has effectively defined the economic crisis as “a conspiracy of the big guys against the little,” and their solution is “to work even more energetically for the laissez-faire utopia.”

It’s not either-or as Frank contends, however. The right is invoking “producerism,” telling Americans bruised by the downturn that your pain is due to social factors, which are presented as coded racial categories.

Political Research Associates, a group of scholars who study right-wing movements, defines producerism as a call to “rally the virtuous ‘producing classes’ against evil ‘parasites’ at both the top and bottom of society.” The concept stretches back to the Andrew Jackson era, and weaves “together intra-elite factionalism and lower-class whites’ double-edged resentments.” Today, the parasites at the top are liberals, bureaucrats, bankers, and union “bosses”; the ones below are “welfare queens,” teachers, Muslims, and “illegal aliens.” They are all taking money from the hard-working Americans in the middle.

By historical standards Romney should be a Walter Mondale, a candidate who has lost even before the race begins. But he is effectively utilizing the politics of white resentment because of Obama’s dismal economic record. Tens of millions of low-wage workers feel their world is coming apart and they don’t know whom to blame. To them, change may mean lower wages, fewer hours, no health care, or a lost home. Romney plays on fear by linking it to Obama. In Sidney he said, “The president seems to be changing America in ways we don’t recognize,” which elicited chants of “USA! USA! USA!”

It’s not that the United States is inherently right wing, as many commentators claim. In Ohio, autoworkers say there is almost universal support among their co-workers for Obama because the auto bailout saved their jobs. But the bailout affected less than 1 percent of all U.S. jobs. In a recent poll the president has the support of only 35 percent of white working-class voters compared to Romney’s 48 percent.

The Romney rally was stunningly white. Among the estimated 9,000 people, it was hard to find more than a handful who looked to be Black, Latino or Asian. Attendees complained about welfare and high taxes destroying the country. Romney fed the resentment by claiming Obama was going to “raise the tax on savings,” “put in place a more expensive death tax,” and raise taxes on “a million” small businesses.

Democrats dismiss Romney as a snake-oil salesman. Joe Biden pointed out in the debate against Paul Ryan that the GOP counts billion-dollar hedge funds as small businesses. That’s true, but it doesn’t account for the popularity of their ideas. You see, the Republicans have turned small business into a catch-all group the way “working class” once served that function for the left.

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, the number of self-employed and employer firms – those with employees other than the owner – numbered 15.7 million in 2009. It’s likely that most are kitchen table, garage or laptop operations, but that’s beside the point. Republicans are courting millions of Americans whose livelihood depends on unswerving faith in the market.

Of the five people we talked to who told us their profession, four said they were a small-business owner. They did not seem to think of themselves as workers, but as frustrated entrepreneurs. When Romney says he’s going to help small business expand and stop Obama from increasing taxes on small businesses they think he’s speaking to them. They hope Romney will return the nation to its natural free-market state – free from regulations, bureaucrats and welfare – in which hard-working Americans like them achieve the success they deserve.

Why shouldn’t they believe this rhetoric? The Democrats mimic the right even when they control all of Washington. Obama says he will make business more competitive, cut taxes, sign trade deals, bomb the world into democracy and drill, frack and mine for energy. The Democrats’ dilemma is they are in the pocket of Wall Street, but need votes from groups that want the economic pie to be sliced more evenly. The result is liberals worship the same free-market god as conservatives, but have no conviction about it.

Absent an alternative, many voters veer right because they are reaching for the only lifeline they see. “Energy independence” and “a military second to none” are not just catch phrases. They provide millions of decent-paying jobs for the white working class.

This is not to say Romney voters always understand what they are voting for. Talking to some was like walking Through the Looking Glass, where backwards is forwards. Supporters repeatedly ascribed to Romney positions that are the exact opposite of what he advocates. Or they swallow lies about Obama that contradict their own experience. This suggests that racial identity often outweighs rational self-interest. Romney again made this a direct appeal, capping his speech by saying, “We’re taking back America.”

Ron Elmore, a small businessman who sells education supplies, preferred Romney because he would “get America going in the right direction again.” Elmore said he was struggling to get by and believed Romney would help his business by increasing education funding.

Two 16-year-olds, Jennifer Poling and Caitie Johnson, called themselves Romney backers. Johnson said, “There’s too many people today who depend on the government.” Poling said her mother is a “hardcore Obama” supporter because Romney is against women’s rights. Poling, though, shrugged off the right’s explicit anti-abortion politics, saying, “I don’t think they [Congress] will let Romney pass any laws against abortion.”

Jeff Doresch, who owns a small business detailing cars, was angry. “Obama is shutting us all down. He’s destroying us with tax increases.” When asked how his taxes had fared under Obama, Doresch responded, “They’ve stayed the same.”

Eighteen-year-old Andy Egbert and 16-year-old cousin Troy Kloeppel’s family owns 5,000 head of beef cattle. Egbert said, “Romney is going to make more jobs for the middle class instead of sending them overseas to China.” Kloeppel supported Romney because he was opposed to welfare fraud: “It’s a great system if it’s not abused.” Egbert chimed in, “A lot of people are lazy and are paid to do nothing.”

Jason, a local soybean farmer, said, “I like everything about Romney.” Why didn’t he like about Obama? “No Obamacare,” he said before quickly departing.

A businessman worth a couple hundred million dollars was telling a white audience that a president who is changing the country “in ways we don’t recognize” was stealing their money for job-killing programs like Obamacare. In a warm-up talk, Ohio Gov. John Kasich railed against “bureaucrats” and “California rules.”

The audience knew what they meant. “We” – white America – are besieged by liberals using our tax dollars on undeserving poor, dark people. This attitude is often expressed as a crude or violent desire to eliminate the other, such as with the spate of “chair lynchings.” At the rally one vendor hawked toilet paper with Obama’s face on each sheet. Another sold buttons that read, “Forget your cats and dogs, spay and neuter your liberal.” Jeff Doresch said, “With Obama, if there’s another four years, it will be like when Hitler was here.” A few hours west of Sidney, near Fort Wayne, Indiana, a highway billboard showed a picture of armed commandos with text that read, “The Navy SEALs removed one threat to America … The voters must remove the other.”

But it’s not just about aggression. In his one effective moment, Romney painted a vision of a beloved, exclusionist community. He told a story about an American flag that went up in the Challenger, which was recovered intact after the shuttle exploded and that “was like electricity … running through my arms” when he touched it. He turned the secular symbol into a holy one that embodies “who we are.” Romney said, “We’re a people given to great causes. We live our lives for things bigger than ourselves.” That “who,” was people in the military, “a single mom,” “a dad taking on multiple jobs.” Finally, he said, “We’re taking America back.”

There’s little doubt that Romney will double down on decades of bipartisan policies that benefit plutocrats. But that’s not what the audience in Sidney heard. Romney offered an easy-to-grasp explanation that spoke to their years of suffering, their unease with the present state of affairs and their anxiety about the future.

An election or two down the road the appeal to white tribalism may no longer work due to shifting demographics, but it could triumph this November.

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