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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

The union boss who took on Trump

Steelworkers' president will not go into retitrement quietly

United Steel Workers local 1999 union president Chuck Jones speaks during his retirement party in the union hall in Indianapolis. Michael Conroy / AP Photo
United Steel Workers local 1999 union president Chuck Jones speaks during his retirement party in the union hall in Indianapolis. Michael Conroy / AP Photo

When Chuck Jones joined the United Steel Workers (USW), unions flexed their power to strike and crossing a picket line could be met with brute force.

That is now a distant memory, says the retiring president of USW Local 1999, who grabbed headlines in December after he publicly accused then US president-elect Donald Trump of lying about how many jobs he was saving in a deal with the furnace and air conditioner maker Carrier .

Like unions across the United States, the Indianapolis local, which represents workers from Carrier and the bearing manufacturer Rexnord , has shed members as factories downsized or shuttered. Many are moving to Mexico, where labour is cheaper.

"You want to leave a job better than you got it. But working-class people in general – we're not doing good," says Mr Jones, 65, whose thick, grey moustache, artful use of profanity and ever-present cigarette wedged between his fingers give him the appearance of union boss straight from central casting.

Mr Jones became a steel worker straight out of high school in 1969 during a high tide of the US labour movement that helped to propel a generation of blue-collar workers into the middle class. He says his retirement at the beginning of June was "bittersweet" after decades of declining fortunes for working people.

Elected as the local's vice president in 1985, just before the union went on strike, Mr Jones at one point could command workers to shut down their machines if labour issues were not resolved. He was made president in 1996, two years after the president Bill Clinton finalised the North American Free Trade Agreement, which led to a big increase in trade among the US, Mexico and Canada, but also encouraged US manufacturers to relocate operations to Mexico to take advantage of cheap labour there. Mr Jones' union has also been affected by changes in Indiana that made it easier to replace striking workers and by passage of a right-to-work law that made union membership optional.

"I used to have a little bit of power," Mr Jones says. "Now the story is completely different. First off, the guy is going to say: '[Expletive] you, I ain't shutting nothing down.'"

In recent years, contract negotiations have been aimed at trying to give up as few benefits as possible while making sure wages keep pace with inflation. Helplessness has set in, he says.

Last year Carrier, its parent company United Technologies and Rexnord all announced plans to shut down at least part of their Indiana operations. All told, about 1,700 jobs are expected to be cut, including about 850 union workers at Carrier and Rexnord.

"If they woulda come to us and said: 'Hey, you guys are making too much money, we need you to work with us on being more competitive,' could we have got there? I don't know. But we sure as hell would have tried," says Mr Jones, who feels that people have unjustly blamed unions as uncompetitive. "Neither company came to us."

The US senator Joe Donnelly, the lone Democrat elected statewide in Indiana, agrees that the union is not to blame.

"What happened with Carrier and what happened with Rexnord and what is happening around the country isn't because the workers didn't keep their end of the deal," Mr Donnelly says. "Chuck and his team, they basically got thrown under the bus."

Rexnord issued a statement standing by the relocation of its Indianapolis operations, saying "difficult decisions are a part of today's business environment".

As for Carrier, the workers' plight drew the attention of Mr Trump, who brokered a deal with the company, setting the stage for a moment of fleeting glory for Mr Jones as he prepared to retire.

During a hyped-up announcement at its Indianapolis factory, Mr Trump inaccurately said that 1,100 jobs would be saved. The number was closer to 800.

Mr Jones was not having it and told reporters Mr Trump had lied about the numbers. Mr Trump attacked the union boss on Twitter for doing a "terrible job representing workers" while suggesting that "if United Steelworkers 1999 was any good, they would have kept those jobs in Indiana".

In the frenzy that followed, Mr Jones received flowers as well as hate mail. He still stands behind his words, but admits that he could have "toned it down".

"How [Mr Trump] feels about me, I could care less," Mr Jones says. He went on to add that it is not that he is tough, using another expletive, "because I'm not. I'm an old man. But I've been around here some 30 odd years. I've had people threaten to burn my house down. People threaten to shoot me when I leave".

At his retirement party, gifts included a carton of cigarettes and a framed image of Mr Trump, featuring his tweets about Jones.

Since then, relations between Mr Trump and USW appeared to have warmed up. Last month, the union posted the following on its website: "In April, we stood with president Trump when he called for an investigation to examine the importance of steel to our national security.

"We said then and believe now that it’s about time we have actions such as this from the White House to remind people that a strong steel industry, from the mines to the mills, is the backbone of our country, our infrastructure and our military.

"We want to let president Trump know we’re still with him on this action and urge him to keep his promise to America’s working people to protect and create family-sustaining manufacturing jobs," and offered a link urging members to "Click here to send the president a note letting him know you support this investigation".

Not something one can imagine the union's former leader would have readily uttered.

Now Mr Jones plans to spend more time with his 13 grandchildren. He is also contemplating a run for local office, although he will not say which one.

"If I could help people out, especially working people, I'd consider it."

AP with The National