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Blue Collar Job Losses Likely to Sway West Virginia Voters - 2004-09-22

The presidential election could be decided in the steel mills of places like Weirton, West Virginia. Weirton is a small industrial city in a narrow part of the state sandwiched between two other so-called battleground states, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Industries in the area, especially steel, have been hurt by cheap imports and voters here want to know what the candidates will do to help them.

It was no accident that at a campaign rally last month in Wheeling, West Virginia, a steelworker from the mill in near-by Weirton introduced George Bush. Rick Casini told the crowd the president has stood up for the industry in its long running battle against global competition.

"He's heard our concerns [George Bush] and addressed them," said Mr. Casini. "As a steelworker and a union member, I see that every day. President Bush took action when no other president did. To help this industry."

The steelworker community is a vital voting block in the region, but it's been a steadily shrinking group. Twenty-five years ago the Weirton mill where Mr. Casini works had three times as many employees as it has now. Nationally, more than 40 steel firms have filed for bankruptcy since the late 1990s. In a move popular with the remaining steelworkers, Mr. Bush imposed tariffs on imported steel in March of 2002. But retired Weirton steelworker Rocco Mancanno says the president didn't follow through.

"I feel betrayed, big time betrayed,' he says. "Bush running for reelection, I am totally against him. The tariffs was set to go for three years, and he cut them after 18 months, because of the pressure from them Europeans."

The extra tax raised the price of imported steel, making the U.S. industry more competitive. Which was good for steelworkers, but not for the industries that use steel. After they protested, the White House issued a series of exemptions to the levy. Then, under pressure from the European Union, the president ended the remaining tariffs early. That about-face cost him the support of many here in West Virginia, including the independent Steelworkers Union (ISU). Four years ago, Weirton's biggest labor organization endorsed then-Governor Bush. This year, ISU president Mark Glyptis says the union's executive committee voted overwhelmingly to endorse John Kerry, because they feel Mr. Bush mislead them.

"I shook the hands of the president, and talked to him about steel imports," he notes. "And he said he was going to stay the course. And three days later he rescinds them. So how can you respect someone who does that?"

While both major candidates promise to save jobs, they also say they largely support free trade agreements such as NAFTA and GATT. And, as the district's congressional representative explains, a president who supports free trade will usually not be able to deliver what threatened industries like steel want. Democratic Congressman Alan Mollohan says Mr. Bush is not the first to disappoint his constituents.

"It was this feeling of betrayal that the steelworkers had with President Clinton and Vice President Gore's administration," he explains. "Both of those gentlemen were up in the northern panhandle, in their rolled-up sleeves, no ties, sitting on stools, talking to steelworkers, assuring them that they were, were with them, every step of the way, and I think they meant it at the time. But what they meant by that, and what a steelworker understood that to mean were two very different things."

West Virginia has lost some 18,000 jobs since Mr. Bush took office, most of them high-paying manufacturing jobs like those in the steel mills, many of them in industries with sharp-edged foreign competition. But according to West Virginia Wesleyan College history professor Robert Rupp, that is not Mr. Bush's fault. He says voters often expect their leaders to change things that are out of their control.

"We're faced with the reality of an election every four years, in which voters expect a candidate to offer them help to a chronic, immediate economic problem, even though 90 percent of the economy that affects American citizens, the president of the United States can't do anything about it," he says. "Ironically, the long range problem may not be what the president does in Washington, but what the global forces do."

Currently, the price of steel is up because of increased demand in China and India, but few are willing to guess how long that will last. Observers in West Virginia think dissatisfaction over the steel tariffs will benefit Senator Kerry, but not by much. Congressman Mollohan says voters in his district will probably end up basing their decisions on other issues. He expects this working class, historically Democratic group to consider the war in Iraq and health care costs.

"The steelworkers, when they look at the whole universe of issues that they are concerned with, are not so impressed with the fact that the president imposed tariffs, to disregard their best interests on all these other issues," adds Mr. Mollohan.

He predicts that will translate into votes for John Kerry. Both the senator and the president will be making frequent trips to West Virginia over the next month to talk about these issues. Mr. Bush won the state by a comfortable 40,000 votes in 2000, but the polls now vary widely here and the race could be razor close.