It was a frigid 15 degrees on the picket line along the railroad tracks in Wilmerding, Pa. More than 100 union members and activists chanted slogans of solidarity and in favor of a fair contract with Wabtec Corporation — a company that builds freight train locomotives. It turned out to be the final hours of a nine-day walkout by 1,700 workers.
The manufacturing jobs based in Erie, Pa., that they were defending have been threatened for a while. But President Trump promised this constituency a more secure future, and he made significant inroads with the white, working-class vote in a county that has both factories and lots of farmland.
Trump carried Erie County — just barely — in 2016, following easy victories there by Barack Obama in the previous two presidential elections. Erie was one of 206 counties nationwide that flipped from supporting Obama to backing Trump.
It's impossible to know exactly how union households in Erie County voted in 2016 (national exit polls showed Hillary Clinton winning about 51 percent of voters in union households, down 7 percent from support for Obama in 2012). But with Trump taking Erie County by fewer than 2,000 votes and the state by fewer than 50,000 votes, he can't afford to lose too many supporters.
Union members remain divided, not just on whether to support a Democrat in 2020, but on whether Trump is delivering on his promises.
Sixty-year-old union member Sharon Ruperto twice voted for Obama for president, but in 2016 she cast her ballot for Trump. She said Democrats have moved too far to the left. "They're socialists," says Ruperto, a materials handler at the plant. Asked if she's happy with Trump, she says, "Yes, I am."
But Ruperto admits to having some misgivings early on. "I didn't think Trump was the great one either, but he's proved to be a lot better than what I thought he was." She adds, "I thought he was going to be like any other president." Ruperto says she was wrong about that, and instead she's pleased that Trump has been so determined to shake up Washington and not play by the usual rules. She applauds how he's taken on China on trade and has pushed companies like Ford and GM to bring manufacturing back to the U.S.
The unemployment rate in Erie County has improved by about 2 points since January of 2016 when Trump took office. It's now 4.7 percent. But Kenneth Louie, an economist with Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, says the picture isn't as rosy for manufacturing jobs in the county. Louie says if you only look at the two years Trump has been in office, "manufacturing employment has still been falling," though at a slower rate of decline.
It's a long-term trend, according to the economist. Twenty years ago, more than 1 in 5 jobs in Erie County were in manufacturing. Now, it's down to about 1 in 8 jobs.
Much of it, Louie says, is due to technology. It takes fewer workers to achieve the same level of production. The Wabtec plant in Erie, previously owned by GE Transportation, once employed more than 10,000 workers. Now its unionized workforce is 1,700, and there's no sign of that number growing significantly.
Union member Ron Dombkowski said he was a rally-going Trump supporter "because I wanted to keep jobs in America."
Today, he sees pressure to cut wages at his own plant. Dombkowski sees the big General Motors Lordstown assembly plant closing nearby, in northeast Ohio. He sees his son, even with a college degree, struggling to make a decent wage.
Asked about Trump, Dombkowski spoke softly, saying he expected a lot more from the president. He explained that it's not all bad when it comes to Trump. Dombkowski noted that, as a military veteran, he thinks Trump has been good for veterans and for the armed forces. "So I mean, yeah, there's still things I like about Donald Trump, but I think he's letting the American worker down," he said.
Dombkowski said he doesn't see the president fulfilling his promise to restore good manufacturing jobs, so Trump no longer has his vote.
Union member Dale Meyer, 60, said it's a divided union, plain and simple, when it comes to the president. "I mean, there are some of us that do agree with Trump, and there's a lot of people that don't agree with Trump," he said. Meyer explained that he and his wife split their vote. He was for Trump, while she cast her ballot for Hillary Clinton. "Yes she did. I didn't know that until after the fact," Meyer said, then added with a smile, "but we still love each other so that's something."
Meyer paused before answering whether he is still with Trump. Then, an affirmative reply — sort of: "I'm not against him." But he confided that he is not yet committed to a candidate for 2020, adding that there's lots of time to sort that out. And while he was happy to talk that day on the picket line, Meyer said he tries to avoid the topic.
"I stay out of politics because it's just too polarizing anymore," he said. "It's tearing our nation apart. It really is."
Scott Slawson, president of the UE Workers local in Erie, was not surprised by the disparate opinions about Trump among his membership, even among people who voted for the president. This part of the world was once a Democratic stronghold. But after 2016, Slawson said, Democrats better have learned an important lesson: Never to take votes for granted.
"I think one of the fatal mistakes that was made was the Democrats just simply overlooked this county," he said.
The last presidential campaign season, the UE endorsed Bernie Sanders. He's still a favorite of many of its members, but Slawson said it's too early to know if they'll formally back any of the Democrats running in 2020. As for union members who voted Trump, Slawson said they've always made up their own minds.