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In One Pennsylvania County, Economic Woes Impact Political Leanings


One of the keys to President Trump's success in the 2016 election was his campaign promise to bring back American manufacturing jobs. This week, some 1,700 union members at a manufacturing plant in northwest Pennsylvania were on picket lines in a labor dispute with their employer. NPR's Don Gonyea was there. He spoke with them about the president, the economy and the 2020 presidential race.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Over loudspeaker) What do we want?


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Over loudspeaker) When do we want it?


DON GONYEA, BYLINE: This demonstration took place this week outside of Pittsburgh at the headquarters of Wabtec Cooperation. Many of the picketers with the Union of Electrical Workers came by bus two hours from Erie, Pa., where they had been on strike for more than a week. The issue - a concessionary contract that would include lower wages for new hires.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Unintelligible) is a union town. Stand up, stand down. Erie is a union town. Stand up, stand down.

GONYEA: The strike has since ended as negotiations continue, but it's where I talk with union member Sharon Ruperto.

Can I ask who you voted for for president?


GONYEA: You voted for Trump.


GONYEA: Are you still on board with Trump?

RUPERTO: Yes, I am.

GONYEA: Trump narrowly won Erie County, Pa., a place that had gone twice by wide margins for Barack Obama. Trump's win there and statewide in Pennsylvania was helped by votes from white working-class voters, many of them union members. Ruperto drives a forklift at the plant and says she's an Obama voter who switched to Trump. She thinks Democrats have moved too far to the left, and she doesn't know why union leaders are so quick to vilify Trump.

RUPERTO: Trump hasn't said anything about a union. I have not heard him try to break unions. They keep saying he's against unions, but I've never seen him go after a union.

GONYEA: The unemployment rate in Erie County has improved by two points since Trump took office. It's now 4.7 percent. But while the president pledged to bring back manufacturing, the share of the local workforce represented by manufacturing jobs continues to decline. That and the strike add to the anxiety of workers like 55-year-old Ron Dombkowski.

RON DOMBKOWSKI: I can show you pictures of me at the Trump rallies because I was a Trump supporter, a big Donald Trump supporter because I wanted to keep jobs in America.

GONYEA: Today, he sees pressure to cut wages at his own plant. He sees the big GM Lordstown assembly plant nearby in Ohio closing. He sees his son, even with a college degree, struggling to make a decent wage. I asked him about Trump.

You're kind of soft-spoken when you're talking about him, and is it disappointment with him?

DOMBKOWSKI: Well, I'm also a veteran, so I like what he wants to do, you know, for people in the armed forces and for veterans. So, I mean, yeah, there's still things I like about Donald Trump, but I think he's letting the American worker down.

GONYEA: Donald Trump no longer has his vote. Sixty-year-old union member Dale Meyer was also at the protest.

DALE MEYER: Yeah. 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.

GONYEA: OK. So you voted for Trump.

MEYER: I did. I did.

GONYEA: Are you still with him?

MEYER: I'm not against him, but I would be with him...

GONYEA: But he is far from gung-ho and says he's not sure how he'll vote in 2020. Scott Slawson is president of the Union of Electrical Workers in Erie. It's a union that endorsed Bernie Sanders in 2016. Slawson says Democrats better have learned this lesson - never to take votes for granted.

SCOTT SLAWSON: Back in 2016, Donald Trump took this county. And I think one of the fatal mistakes that was made was the Democrats just simply overlooked this county.

GONYEA: As for union members who voted Trump, Slawson says they've always made up their own minds. Slawson says there are signs of renewed union activism nationally. He points to all the teachers' strikes we're seeing. That, he says, is an opportunity, but you still have to do the work to convert it into votes in Erie, Pa., or anywhere. Don Gonyea, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Don Gonyea
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.