Sunday, March 2, 2008

Winds of Change Blow Strong in a Rustbelt City

By Tim Wheeler

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio—Wade through a foot of snow to a voter’s door here and it doesn’t take long for the subject to turn to NAFTA’s carpet-bomb destruction of jobs in the Mahonning Valley.

The 30-year plague of plant closings is issue number one on voters’ minds as we plod from door to door getting out the vote for the March 4 Ohio primary. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have brought busloads of canvassers to go door to door here and both are facing those searching questions.

“I think NAFTA is horrible,” said Dorinda Anderson, who lost her union job at Delphi Packard that manufactures components for GM cars including the nearby Lordstown plant.

Delphi is still open, she said, but with only about 600 workers after a downsizing in which she lost her job. She had been a Clinton supporter until she heard Barack Obama speak at an overflow rally at Youngstown State University a few days ago. She was an instant convert to his message of hope and change.

She was working as a volunteer receptionist at Obama headquarters, the Greater Mill Creek Community Center when I spoke with her. “NAFTA is the reason we have lost so many jobs here in Ohio,” Anderson continued. “The steel mills have closed down. Everything is leaving, jobs are leaving, people are leaving. They don’t even give us any advance notice. Just recently we lost another 3,000 jobs at Delphi. Now its down to about 500 or 600 workers.”

If John McCain is elected in November, “we will have a third term of George W. Bush. It will be more of the same. I thought it was horrible that Bush was asked about $4 a gallon gas and he answered, ‘What! Nobody told me.’ Bush is a lame duck living in a bubble.”

To be accurate, the economic crisis here predates NAFTA enacted in 1994. Youngstown Sheet & Tube closed down it’s Campbell Steel works in 1978 destroying thousands of jobs.

But NAFTA, sold by President Bill Clinton as an antidote that would create millions of new jobs in fact destroyed three million manufacturing jobs. Hillary Clinton has a heavy burden to explain Bill Clinton’s role in signing NAFTA even if she now criticizes it, Anderson said.

The shutdowns and layoffs continue at a dizzying pace and the ruination is obvious in the thousands of empty and abandoned homes we plod past as we go door to door. Youngstown once had a population of 160,000. Now it is 60,000.

Willy Williams, a former Lordstown auto worker who likewise lost his job in a GM downsizing, is also campaigning for Obama. An active United Auto Worker retiree, he scoffed at Bush’s claim that the U.S. is going through a temporary “slow down,” not a recession.

“Its been a recession here for a long, long time,” Williams said. “But if we do the right thing, get the right President in there, I think we can bring it together, bring us out of the economic crisis we are in. Obama is the man.”

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich) warmed up the crowd of volunteers at Obama headquarters. “Ohio is going to go Obama, March 4,” Conyers said. “He is the ‘come-from-behind’ candidate. He has a ground operation all over the state of volunteers like you. We can change America and move in a new direction.”

That night, an Obama rally turned into a “Town Meeting” at New Bethel Baptist Church. It was sponsored by the Change to Win labor federation. Attendance was swelled by Teamster union members, and SEIU hospital workers. A busload of volunteers traveled from Baltimore and a delegation of 75 Penn State students.

Two young white students from Michigan State University in Lansing spoke. “Its spring break at Lansing and many of our classmates are down in Florida,” one of the MSU students said. “I have no regrets that I decided to stay here and not go to Florida. We found nothing but Obama supporters out there.” The crowd roared.

Massachusetts Governor, Deval Patrick, said that he, like Obama, is from Chicago’s south side and faced questions about his “funny name,” Some said “it is not your turn” to be governor, he said. “We are saying it is his TIME,” Patrick said. “We are going to decide who is electable.” The crowd cheered.

During an open-mike, Guy Djoken, president of the Frederick County, Maryland, NAACP hailed the grassroots movement that has sprung up for Obama. “What are we going to do with this movement after we get him to the White House?” Djoken asked.

Patrick said a November victory is just the first stage. A new stage “will start the day he gets to the White House,” Patrick said. “Its hard to govern with the grassroots. Its new to America.” But without that grassroots power, there will be no change, he said.

SEIU President Andy Stern likened Obama to a sailing ship skipper. “He can have all the navigational skills in the world but without wind in wind in the sails, the ship will just go in circles,” Stern said. “We are the winds of change in those sails, for equal rights, equal pay.”

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