China and the Lore of American Manufacturing

Attachment A to the letter, citing the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, or WARN Act, was flinty and straight to the point. There were two columns: one listing job classifications, the other, the number of “impacted employees.” At the G.E. Lighting factory in the city of Bucyrus, in northern Ohio, the positions included unit attendants, machinists, and a group called Q.P.A.s. At the facility in Logan, about a hundred miles to the south, there were plant team leaders, a warehouse lead, and a furnace manager, among others. “Positions will be permanently eliminated beginning on or about September 30, 2022,” the letter read. The factories would close for good, and two hundred and nine people would lose their jobs. As a result, residential light bulbs will no longer be made in the United States: production will move to China, despite the best efforts of local unions. Savant, a Massachusetts company that bought G.E. Lighting two years ago, blamed a drop in sales. Ohio’s senior senator, Sherrod Brown, who’s known for his working-class, bread-and-butter style of Democratic politics, blamed “decades of misguided tax and trade policies” that ceded “the products of the future to China.”

A week after the layoff notice went out, I met with six workers, all leaders of their union, in the parking lot of the red-brick factory in Bucyrus. The central furnace was making its constant music, and a morning rain had interrupted a stretch of ninety-degree days. Bucyrus is small, about eleven thousand people, and hosts a bratwurst festival inherited from the German immigrants who once filled its foundries. Patricia Horsley, who was just off her overnight shift putting a white coating on fluorescent tubes, wore a pink headband over her hair and savored a cigarette. “This week, we’re having our eightieth anniversary,” she said, with some bitterness. Already, the plant had shrunk and lost a contract to produce A19 L.E.D. bulbs, which Walmart had sold as part of a “Made in America” initiative. The production of those light bulbs, too, had gone to China, putting eighty-one employees out of work. “I think that’s where most of the manufacturing jobs are going,” Melissa Martin, who has the same position as Horsley, told me. “I would probably feel better if they would be staying in the United States.”

Ohio’s recent industrial history is largely one of departure. Factories of all kinds have been lost not only to China but to the right-to-work South. “NAFTA” is still a bad word. Government officials at all levels have tried desperately to keep manufacturing jobs in place, mostly by awarding subsidies to firms. One result has been an uncomfortable kind of onshoring, such as when the Chinese glassmaker Fuyao took over part of a shuttered General Motors facility in Moraine, Ohio—as depicted in the 2019 documentary “American Factory.” The Taiwanese electronics giants T.S.M.C. and Foxconn, and South Korea’s SK Hynix and Samsung have cashed in on taxpayer-funded manufacturing incentives to establish footholds in Texas, the Midwest, and the Southwest.

Though twice as many Ohioans work in health care, education, and retail than in manufacturing, factory labor persists as a Rust Belt obsession. Seemingly every politician since the nineteen-seventies has promised to bring back manufacturing to the region, or at least stop the bleed, and restore some period of glory. The particular spin of this vow has changed over time, and, right now, it’s structured as a wager against China: freedom versus Communism; manufacture here or die. President Barack Obama attempted to form a trans-Pacific trade pact that pointedly excluded Beijing. President Donald Trump made China-bashing something of a sport, imposing tariffs, scapegoating Chinese American scientists, and racializing COVID-19. (Remember “kung flu”?) And President Biden promoted the two-hundred-and-eighty-billion-dollar CHIPS and Science Act, a bill he signed in early August to revive high-tech manufacturing in the U.S., as a way to beat back the Chinese.

America’s economic nationalism du jour is clearly on display in Ohio. A few months ago, Tim Ryan, a Democratic congressman who’s now running for the U.S. Senate—in one of the closest and most closely watched midterm races—released a campaign ad titled “One Word.” The ad blamed “China,” or “Communist China,” for job losses and the general misfortune of Ohio’s working class, a theme Ryan has repeated at many campaign appearances. He tried, unsuccessfully, to stop the closure of the light-bulb factory in Bucyrus. He tried, and succeeded, in persuading Intel to break ground on a twenty-billion-dollar advanced-semiconductor plant outside Columbus—and voted to give the company access to several billion dollars under the CHIPS Act to do so. Ryan’s Republican opponent in the Senate race, J. D. Vance, an acolyte of Trump and Peter Thiel, has been similarly critical of China and supportive of Intel. Thousands of high-tech manufacturing jobs are supposedly on their way to Ohio, but they will make up a tiny fraction of those held by the state’s 5.6 million workers.

In the Ohio Senate race, Democrat Tim Ryan released a campaign ad blaming “Communist China” for job losses and the decline of the state’s middle class.Photograph by Drew Angerer / Getty 

The casting of China as an economic and ideological foe is a rare area of bipartisan consensus. But even as the U.S. lambastes China and other East Asian nations for propping up private industry and violating labor standards, American policymakers are pursuing a similar strategy. In their haste to strengthen the domestic supply chain, they tend to overestimate the quality of factory jobs (and the good will of factory owners), while neglecting other parts of the economy. And the Sinophobic tint of their rhetoric risks alienating certain constituents—or far worse. When Ryan launched his China ad, Asian Americans in Ohio condemned it, citing a wave of harassment and assaults since the start of the pandemic. “Of course, I’m not for any violence,” Ryan told me. “But we also have to have a conversation about what China’s trying to do. . . . We need Asian Americans to help us and participate in making sure that a Communist government like China does not displace the United States.”

This election year, Ohio is reprising its role as litmus test, or harbinger, of a divided nation. Ohio went twice for Obama, and then twice for Trump: a formerly purple state that has reddened on account of deindustrialization. It’s also a state with an irreversibly globalized supply chain and a long record of international trade that nonetheless harbors profound misgivings about globalization. In central and northeast Ohio last month, I met with frustrated workers in a range of industries, and with politicians fixated on a bygone economy. Fifteen per cent of the state’s workforce is employed in manufacturing, compared with thirty-two per cent in education, health care, wholesale trade, transportation, and utilities. The largest private employer is Walmart; the second-largest is the Cleveland Clinic hospital system. Yet factory lore dominates the Ohio psyche: the monument to rubber workers in downtown Akron, the steel museum in Youngstown.

In Ohio and elsewhere, the nostalgia for manufacturing is based on a mid-century moment when work was plentiful, reasonably safe, and high paying; unions could check corporate power; and America made what the world needed and desired. This was arguably true between the forties and about 1970, after mass strikes prompted the creation of a New Deal regulatory state and before the fissuring caused by neoliberal globalization. Today’s factory jobs are less likely to come with security and benefits; they pay fifteen dollars an hour, not thirty-five.

Shane Divine, a thirty-four-year-old Ohioan, has worked for a medical-tubing manufacturer for the past seven years. On a recent Sunday, I met him outside his factory, near Kent State University, which smelled of warm rubber. He was just off a twelve-hour shift, and his T-shirt was dotted with globs of gunk. Divine operates the brominator, a machine that smooths out latex by running it through a chemical solution. Like many Ohioans, he comes from a family of makers: his dad was a union electrician; his grandparents were rubber workers for Goodyear and Goodrich. Unlike most Ohioans his age, he has a United Steelworkers union card and a fixed-benefit pension.

That night, I had dinner with Divine and his husband, Phyl, a tax lawyer, in their boxy, gray house in Stow, a suburb of Akron. Both are active in the local Democratic Party and had just voted in Ohio’s second primary of the year, which drew less than eight per cent of registered voters. The couple despaired of how their party, and liberals in general, have handled, or failed to handle, the state’s economy since deindustrialization. “Low-income jobs are everywhere—and old infrastructure,” Divine told me. “The jobs we lost are being replaced by low-wage jobs forty years after the plants closed.”

Youngstown, an hour east of the Divine residence, near Tim Ryan’s birthplace of Niles, is a national avatar for stunted post-manufacturing development. When the steel mills closed, in the seventies and eighties, a General Motors plant in nearby Lordstown became the area’s largest industrial employer. Thousands of people worked for G.M. until it, too, shut down, in the spring of 2019. A few months later, the company announced plans to bring new and advanced manufacturing to northeast Ohio—in electric vehicles and batteries—with the help of East Asian investors. Not far from the former G.M. site, Ultium, a joint venture between G.M. and LG, the South Korean conglomerate, built a battery plant more than four times the size of Ohio Stadium (incentivized by public grants and fifteen years’ worth of tax abatements). An Ultium spokesperson told me that production began in August, with some eight hundred employees paid between fifteen and twenty-two dollars per hour—about the same as an Amazon warehouse worker.

The old G.M. factory, meanwhile, has had an ironic epilogue. In 2020, G.M. sold it for twenty million dollars to Lordstown Motors, a local startup dedicated to making an electric pickup truck called the Endurance. Then, this past May, Foxconn bought the same plant for two hundred and thirty million dollars. On a recent morning, a creased banner reading “Foxconn” was wrapped around the tall metal sign in the parking lot of the former G.M. factory, which was entirely empty. Mine was the lone car on Ellsworth Bailey Road, the four-lane street leading into the plant; the only traffic was going to and from a HomeGoods warehouse and an Amazon delivery station. Foxconn has said that it will use the enormous facility to build the Endurance as well as electric tractors and the PEAR, a vehicle for “young urban innovators.” None of this manufacturing has yet begun, though a representative of Foxconn assured me that it will very soon. For historical reasons, the company has many skeptics. It is notorious for its factories in mainland China, where workers who assemble iPhones have died by suicide. The company also failed to follow through with a multibillion-dollar project to make LCD screens in Racine, Wisconsin.

However speculative northeast Ohio’s high-tech renewal may be, the area has another recent economic driver: multiple prisons. As I drove through a Lordstown neighborhood of weathered homes and crumbling concrete, the supermax Ohio State Penitentiary announced itself with a pitch-dark, freshly tarred road and a wide, deep-green lawn. Razor wire enveloped the facility like a mesh tent. Statewide, nearly twenty thousand people are employed in what the journalist Eyal Press has termed (morally) “dirty work”: the housing, feeding, punishment, and treatment of Ohio’s roughly forty-eight thousand incarcerated people. In the town of Girard, I visited Alice and Staughton Lynd, a married couple who spent decades representing steelworkers and writing books on the labor movement, such as “Rank and File.” When it became clear that the mills weren’t coming back, they turned to litigating cases on behalf of local prisoners. “We are hanging on doggedly in this area”—both are ninety-two years old—“because we want to wait out the shysters who are promising economic revival,” Staughton told me at their apartment. “New electric cars being made in Youngstown? That’s baloney.”

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