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Workers wonder whether Bernie Sanders’ fight for them will really help them compete

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally at the Indiana state Capitol on Friday in Indianapolis.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally at the Indiana state Capitol on Friday in Indianapolis.

(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

Union steelworker Doug Fuller came here for a rally to protest plans to close a Carrier Corp. plant here and move jobs to Mexico. But Fuller has his own troubles: His plant in Granite City, Ill., has been temporarily shut down by U.S. Steel because of a bad market, idling more than 2,000 workers.

“It’s coming back, is what they’re saying,” said Fuller, 58, the doubt showing in his voice.

He and hundreds of other union workers gathered at the statehouse steps Friday to hear from union leaders and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who has tried to win over labor’s rank-and-file with his attacks on trade deals and calls to return a bigger share of income to workers.

But Fuller isn’t sure.

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“I like what he says, but can he do anything?” Fuller said, noting that union leaders have said the Carrier employees will be replaced by Mexican workers making about $3 an hour. “You can’t compete with that,” he said.

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The plans to close the Carrier plant here, costing 1,400 jobs, became notorious when a video of the plant closing announcement went viral. “This is strictly a business decision,” a company executive says, to jeers from the crowd of workers, explaining that the move is the “best way to stay competitive.”

The Carrier plant closing has since become a hot issue in the presidential election, a symbol of the long decline of American manufacturing and the argument by some that trade deals like NAFTA have badly hurt American workers. At Friday’s rally, Sanders called Carrier’s decision “the kind of corporate behavior that is destroying the middle class of this country.”

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Sanders, hoping to upset Hillary Clinton in Tuesday’s primary in Indiana and keep his fight for income inequality relevant in the presidential race, called out the high salaries for executives of United Technologies, Carrier’s parent company. He said the company should lose all its defense contracts if they don’t reverse the decision and keep the jobs in Indiana.

The Carrier plant closing also has been a favorite theme for Donald Trump, who began criticizing the company at the first GOP debate in August and has kept it up since, saying he would impose a 35% tax on goods the company imports into the U.S. Trump even made a campaign ad incorporating the plant video with excerpts from his speeches.

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“There have to be consequences when they leave, and there are no consequences,” Trump said at a rally at the Indiana State Fairgrounds last week.

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The rally pointed out the split in the labor’s ranks during this primary, in which Clinton is piling up delegates and endorsements but has failed to excite a lot of workers on the factory floors. One longtime union member and Sanders supporter said that’s because many unions believe Democrats take them for granted and don’t fight for their cause.

“They say enough to get our money,” said Chuck Deppert, former president of the state AFL-CIO. “I don’t think they trust the Clintons.”

Some of those disaffected workers will end up supporting Trump, he acknowledged. “He’s just transferring what the guys on the shop floor are saying,” he said. “They don’t take a worldview. They’re worried about their jobs.”

One of those Carrier workers, 57-year-old Robert James, has worked at the plant 18 years and now makes $22.53 an hour, working the second shift. When he started, he said, he made half that.

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“I’m not getting rich, but I can pay my bills and support my family,” he said. His wife suffers from pulmonary disease, and requires an oxygen supply, he said: “I have a need for healthcare, and I’m going to lose it.”

One 17-year Carrier worker, Richard Gorbett, said he wanted to hear from Sanders but hasn’t made up his mind whom to support.

He and his co-workers are still angry. When he heard the announcement about the plant closing, he said, “I kind of wanted to fight somebody, but I didn’t know who.”

Twitter: @jtanfani

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