John Feltner might be the most famous factory worker in America. The Indianapolis Star wrote up his life story in February, and earlier this month he had breakfast with a U.S. senator before two TV crews followed him to an afternoon job fair.
Felter is about to get laid off. His notoriety is the byproduct of last year’s presidential campaign, during which Donald Trump railed against free-trade policies that allowed companies like Rexnord, Feltner’s employer, to shift production to countries with lower labor costs.
“When you see people being done continuously wrong, something’s got to change,” Feltner said. “It may be my job today; it’ll be yours tomorrow if we don’t do something.”
While Trump has succeeded in bringing attention to the plight of people like Feltner, he hasn’t yet followed through on campaign promises to change the political and economic forces that make Feltner’s firing profitable.
Trump said repeatedly during the campaign that as soon as he became president, he would protect American workers by ripping up bad deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement. In his “Contract with the American voter,” Trump said he would announce his intention to withdraw from or renegotiate NAFTA within his first 100 days. That’s partly why Feltner, who’d previously supported Democrats, voted for Trump.
And yet, as the 100th day of his presidency nears, on Saturday, Trump hasn’t made a definitive move on NAFTA. He’s still saying the same thing he said before he got elected.
“I am going to either renegotiate it or I am going to terminate it,” he told The Associated Press this week.
The president must give Congress 90 days’ notice before beginning to renegotiate an existing international trade agreement like NAFTA, so to fulfill his promise to revise the treaty in his first 100 days, Trump would’ve had to inform lawmakers of his intentions by the first week of February. Instead, the closest the Trump administration has come to issuing this notification is drafting a letter that leaked at the end of March but has yet to reach Congress and was later disowned by the White House.
The draft pulled back from some of Trump’s hard-line trade positions and rhetoric. It omitted any discussion of cracking down on currency manipulation and used vague language about achieving higher labor and environmental standards.
I am going to either renegotiate it or I am going to terminate it. Donald Trump on NAFTA
By contrast, the letter called for bolstering aspects of NAFTA that protect the interests of multinational corporations that invest in Canada and Mexico. It proposed lifting barriers to digital commerce that NAFTA did not address and, in some cases, strengthening intellectual property protections. The intellectual property provision could entail measures to create patents on new medicines like biologics, a feature of the now-defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership that was controversial among global health advocates who believed it could make medicines less affordable.
“That letter described TPP,” said Lori Wallach, a leading trade deal skeptic and director of global trade watch at the left-leaning group Public Citizen. “It was quite telling. They’d take the pieces of TPP that Mexico, the U.S. and Canada had agreed to and enact them bit by bit through the NAFTA renegotiation.”
(The TPP had already stalled in Congress, but Trump fulfilled one campaign promise by formally withdrawing the U.S. from the agreement.)
The e-commerce and intellectual property aspects of the letter were “encouraging” to Monica de Bolle, a proponent of major trade agreements and senior fellow at the centrist Peterson Institute for International Economics.
“NAFTA was practically 25 years ago. At the time it was negotiated, none of these things was an issue,” de Bolle said. “Modernizing NAFTA requires taking on some of these things that came up as issues during TPP negotiations, and they do start to make the agreement more robust.”
It is not clear what stage of editing the draft letter was in when it was leaked. The draft is not an “accurate statement of where we are at this time,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said in response to its release.
Even if the draft resembles what the administration will ultimately send to Congress, however, it is broadly worded enough to leave room for significant changes to NAFTA.
The president has taken several executive actions directing various federal agencies to review U.S. trade policies. He signed a memorandum last week ordering a sweeping investigation into whether steel imports threaten national security and an executive order calling for an interagency review of the government’s “Buy American” preferences for when it doles out contracts.
The study would only elicit a report within 220 days, though ― and the president has the power to act much faster. He can unilaterally lift waivers that the U.S. has given to dozens of countries that effectively exempt their goods and services from Buy American requirements in federal procurement, according to Wallach of Public Citizen.
In addition, companies that send jobs offshore continue to make up more than half of the top 50 federal government contractors, according to a study released Tuesday that Wallach co-authored.
“What to me is shocking is if you look at what he said on the campaign trail and what authority he has, he has not used his executive authority to make offshoring U.S. companies lose by cutting them off contracts if they offshore,” Wallach said.
Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing ― an advocacy group funded by both the United Steelworkers union and steel companies ― said he didn’t know whether last week’s actions or any previous ones would amount to a big change in trade policy.
“At this point it’s hard to tell which of the actions is going to have the most consequence because a lot depends on which is going to have the most follow-through,” Paul said.
One of Trump’s most consequential moves may have occurred before he took office. In November he bullied manufacturer Carrier Corp. into scrapping its plans to close a plant in Indianapolis and shift production to Mexico. That factory was about a mile from the one where Feltner works, and Trump said that he would be able to replicate the tactic with every U.S. company that might have similar plans.
Trump’s success with Carrier gave hope to Feltner and other Rexnord workers, though that hope dimmed when Trump feuded with the president of the United Steelworkers Local 1999, which represents workers at both Carrier and Rexnord, over the number of Carrier jobs Trump had saved. Feltner told HuffPost in December he figured that Rexnord would still move forward with its Mexico plans, which it has.
Feltner, a 47-year-old machinist, started speaking to reporters late last year, several weeks after Rexnord announced it planned to shift its bearings operation from Indianapolis to Monterrey, Mexico. In February, The Indianapolis Star wrote a long profile of Feltner that revealed his life had been upended by a layoff only a few years earlier.
Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), who has been a vocal advocate for Indiana workers getting laid off this year, read part of the story during a Banking Committee hearing in March, criticizing Rexnord for laying off workers even as the company was so profitable it was buying back its own stock. Donnelly reached out to Feltner for a breakfast meeting earlier this month.
Donnelly wasn’t the only official to take an interest. Chuck Jones, president of the Local 1999, said the profile prompted an official from the White House to reach out to the national office of the United Steelworkers seeking additional information about Rexnord. Jones said that Local 1999, of which Feltner is an official, hasn’t heard anything back since providing details about the 300 workers losing their jobs in the coming months. A White House spokeswoman didn’t deny or confirm the administration’s interest in Rexnord.
On April 11, the same day as his breakfast with Donnelly, two news crews accompanied Feltner and a former colleague to a job fair in Indianapolis. The organizer of the job fair, Marilyn Pfisterer, a Republican member of the Indianapolis City-County Council, approached Feltner and told him the cameras couldn’t come in.
“She told me to my face that the reason they wouldn’t allow filming was that a lot of illegals were going to be at the job fair,” Feltner said.
“I couldn’t believe it. I think that is what’s wrong with politics because not only our local officials but our national elected officials are choosing ― that’s one thing that Trump said that resonated with me. Put America first.”
Councilwoman Pfisterer told HuffPost that she and the pastor of the church hosting the job fair had decided in advance not to allow TV cameras, partly out of concern for undocumented immigrants afraid of deportation.
“I’m not Hispanic and I’m not embedded in the Hispanic community, I just know that there is a sense of fear and discomfort that they’re being singled out,” said Pfisterer, who has represented her West Indianapolis district since 2004.
Feltner had mainly come to the job fair to help a former Rexnord colleague who had already been laid off. He said that most of the companies at the event were offering low-paying jobs that he wouldn’t have wanted anyway, since he lives about an hour outside of Indianapolis, in Greenfield. If he’s going to get stuck with a job that pays less than the $25 an hour he’s making at Rexnord, he’d rather stay closer to home.
Feltner is helping Rexnord wind down operations at the plant and expects his job to end next month. He has a grim view of the future.
“Guys that are working until they’re 75, 80 years old,” Feltner said. “What kind of life is that? To me, working 30 years and retiring, that dream is gone. That’s no longer a reality. I’ve kind of put it in my head that ‘Know what, old boy? You’re just going to have to work the rest of your life.’ There is not going to be any retirement. And to me, that’s frustrating.”