Coming Home to a Michigan County Where Life Has Shifted

BAY CITY, Mich. — When the United Auto Workers went on strike against General Motors last fall, Robby Lamas and those left at the massive engine plant in this Michigan city walked the picket lines day and night. Mr. Lamas, who, at 30, was the youngest at the plant by a decade, was unsure how the public would react to the walkout, his first strike.

After all, employment at the plant is now a fraction of what it once was. And not far from anyone’s mind was the fact that Bay County flipped to Republican in 2016, against the wishes of the U.A.W. The county was one of 12 former Democratic strongholds in Michigan that delivered parts of the once impregnable industrial Midwest to Donald J. Trump.

Almost four years later, Bay City, the county seat, still has the feel of a traditional labor town. For the 40 days of the GM strike, nearly every car that passed the strikers honked. A steady stream of residents and businesses kept dropping off food, firewood, tents and other supplies. “People were donating stuff all the way to the end,” Mr. Lamas said.

But fissures are never far from the surface. Mr. Lamas and some other workers were infuriated that President Trump did not offer support for the strikers. The union instructed them not to talk politics on the picket line, especially after a scuffle broke out between fellow strikers when one of them showed up carrying a Trump 2020 flag.

The strike, the longest national walkout against GM since 1970, symbolized the contradictions and tensions in places like Bay City as Michigan prepares to vote on Tuesday, one of six states holding primaries or caucuses.

Mr. Trump often touts a “blue-collar boom.” But there is a sense that residents in Bay County are barely hanging on. The poverty rate increased to almost 15 percent in 2017 from under 10 percent in 1999. Real median earnings for men working full-time and year-round fell about $7,000 in that time, as an ecosystem of factories that held up the Midwest was hollowed out, said Gabriel Ehrlich, director of the University of Michigan’s Research Seminar in Qualitative Economics. The plant where Mr. Lamas works now employs fewer than 400 workers, down from nearly 5,000 at its peak.

Barreling down I-75, the north-south expressway that runs from the northern tip of Michigan to Florida, many drivers barely notice Bay City. Anchoring a flat landscape of factories and farms north of Detroit and Flint, this small, unassuming city is perhaps best known for being Madonna’s hometown.

It happens to be my hometown as well.

I graduated in 1984 from Garber High School, about three miles from the GM plant. Back then, mid-Michigan was just emerging from a recession so severe that some parents of my high school classmates lost their jobs.

Michigan came back then and, like the auto industry, has a history of booms and busts — and surprises. Political observers thought Michigan was a lock for the Democrats in 2016 because it had leaned that way in six previous presidential cycles and because President Barack Obama defied Republicans and bailed out GM and Chrysler during the financial crisis. Many still profess shock that the state went Republican instead. Even nearby Saginaw County, where more than 42 percent of residents are African-Americans, went for Mr. Trump.

As the political stakes rise for Michigan, I found myself drawn to my hometown for signals about how 2020 will unfold.

In a polarized nation, places like Bay City do not fall into a neat script. Democrats tend to favor gun rights and oppose abortion, which leaves them feeling out of step with the national party. Though young people like Mr. Lamas tend to be strong supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders, others prefer former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., worried that a far-left candidate would not fare well in the general election.

“This isn’t Ann Arbor or Lansing,” said Jim Barcia, referring to the state’s most liberal college towns. Mr. Barcia, a Democrat, was pressed back into service as Bay County’s county executive in 2016 after retiring after five terms in the House of Representatives.

Not long ago, he watched as more than 100 angry residents crowded a meeting demanding that Bay County be declared a “Second Amendment sanctuary” amid talk of an assault weapons ban. “One 70-year-old lady had tears in her eyes,” recalled Mr. Barcia, an avid hunter who has two bucks mounted on his office wall.

Asked how Bay City is doing these days, Mr. Barcia, a lifelong resident, points to the 1993 passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement and a most favored nation trade pact with China. He estimates that Bay County has lost 7,500 jobs since 2000, almost a tenth of its population.

“Much of what we feared ended up happening. I saw our manufacturers disappear,” said Mr. Barcia, who voted against both while in the House. “When Trump talked about trade, it really did resonate with working families.”

With fewer jobs with benefits in traditional industries like autos, many people are working multiple jobs just to get by, a grueling working-class calculus to stitch together enough work to pay the rent and bills. Of the five most common occupations in Bay County, only one — a registered nurse — averages more than $25,000 a year. Manufacturing does not make the top five.

“I don’t know anyone who isn’t working two or three jobs or has a side gig,” said Kim Coonan, the owner of Coonan’s Irish Hub, a neighborhood restaurant and bar down the street from the GM Powertrain plant, a backbone of the city since it began making parts for Chevrolet in 1916. “The middle class is gone.”

Recently, there has been talk of more layoffs. Most of the stores in the Bay City mall have shuttered. Downtown is dotted with empty storefronts, between restaurants and condominiums that reflect budding efforts to remake the riverfront city into a destination.

There are not a lot of Trump signs or MAGA hats visible here. Yet there is evidence of a quiet support for Mr. Trump for being willing to take on China, even if the results have been mixed. Support for labor runs so deep that what is expressed behind closed doors is often different than what is said in public, making political opinion hard to gauge. “People wear masks here,” said one business executive, who asked not to be identified by name.

One exception to this rule: the area’s farmers, who are proudly supportive of the president. “In my group of friends, I don’t know anyone who won’t support Trump,” said Brian Johnson, who this year took over the family farm in Pinconning, north of Bay City. He received $80,000 in federal compensation from lost sales in soybeans to China last year, an amount he said prevented him from a financial disaster. For now, it seems that the people who are fortunate enough to have one job — and only one job — are thinking about politics more than others.

Jeffrey Bulls works at Nexteer, a Chinese company that bought Saginaw Steering Gear, an auto supplier and a symbol of the shift toward a new global economic order. Purchased by the Chinese out of bankruptcy in 2009, it now employs about 12,000, down from 20,000 at its peak. Mr. Bulls started a podcast in his downtime, “Independent Jeff,” that focuses on issues of concern to African-American voters. “We get taken for granted too much,” Mr. Bulls said.

In this swing region of a swing state, Mr. Bulls senses that any outcome is possible in November, and that much may rest on the struggle so many people have to make ends meet. As I wandered through the region talking to people, it was those stories of getting by that emerged again and again. Uncertain still is which politician gets blamed for that and who benefits. “I don’t know what way it’s going to go this time,” Mr. Bulls said.

ImageJeffrey Bulls started at Saginaw Steering Gear in his 20s and met his wife, Kim, at the plant.

Bill Harris has seen a lot of changes in his 26 years as a guidance counselor at Garber High School in neighboring Essexville, where I graduated. Perhaps the biggest one is college.

“It’s flipped,” Mr. Harris said.

“Until eight to 10 years ago, 60 percent went to a four-year college,” Mr. Harris said. “Now 60 percent go to community college instead.”

The biggest reason, he says, is the cost. Michigan has a strong system of state universities. But with tuition and living expenses between $20,000 and $30,000 a year, attending a four-year college is simply not an option for many families.

“I get out my phone and start showing them the figures. I tell them, ‘This is the amount of money you will owe,’” Mr. Harris said. “Somebody is going to go into debt. Some of them are shocked.”

More than half of the 129 members of the class of 2019 are attending Delta College, a community college where many qualify for aid. Fewer than one-third are attending four-year colleges — and only a small handful are at the state’s top universities. On his bulletin board, Mr. Harris has a sticker touting the University of Michigan’s tuition guarantee for qualified students whose parents make under $60,000. Few students meet both the financial and academic requirements.

On a recent day, he called in one of the high school’s high-achieving juniors to talk about possibilities, including the University of Michigan scholarship. “Do you know how much your parents make?” Mr. Harris asked Jessica Albrecht, who is 17. She told him that her father is a truck driver, and her mother works in the school district.

“I’m smart here, but I’m not sure I would be there,” Ms. Albrecht said of the possibility of the University of Michigan. Still, she seemed intrigued. If her parents’ combined income is under $60,000, Michigan could be a real option, Mr. Harris told her. If not, he said, pausing, as he tried to balance encouragement with reality, it is tougher.

For years, young people in this area did not feel a lot of pressure to go to college. They could graduate and get a job at “the shop.” The U.A.W.-negotiated salary was a gateway to a middle-class life that supported places like Bay County, allowing people to marry, have a family, buy a house and, if they could eke out 20 years of service, even own a home or a boat “up north.”

“You could have a very nice life,” Mr. Harris, who grew up in Bay City, recalled.

There is hardly a better place to watch today’s job shuffle than Coonan’s, where office workers, teachers, mechanics and others come to work extra hours as a second, third, even fourth job.

The unemployment rate in Bay City is 4.7 percent, but that masks the fact that many jobs simply pay too little to make ends meet.

Erin Sitkowski works as an account manager at the F.P. Horak Company, a prominent printing company in Bay City. But when she gets out of work at 5 p.m., she drives as fast as she can across town to reach Coonan’s within 15 minutes.

“I knew it was time to get a second job when I was borrowing from my family to make ends meet,” said Ms. Sitkowski, who struggled financially after getting a divorce.

There were layoffs at the printing company the other day, and Ms. Sitkowski was upset to see 12 co-workers lose their jobs. She remains nervous that there could be more reductions.

Arianna Whisman is here at Coonan’s, too. This is but one of her four jobs, to pay for college at Saginaw Valley State University. And Kimberly Matula makes $15 an hour as a cook, but that does not go far as a single parent.

“I worked two jobs for years, just to make ends meet,” Ms. Matula said. “Really, my kids raised themselves.”

She recently took out a high-interest loan to buy a car, but said she was trying to hold things together for her 15-year-old daughter. “We are the blue-collar workers who make the country go around,” she said.

Mr. Johnson’s father, Raymond, who is 65, owns more than 800 acres of farmland in nearby Pinconning. Asked on a recent blustery afternoon whether he was pleased that his son chose farming, too, he did not hesitate. “No, I wish he hadn’t farmed.”

Brian Johnson, 31, is figuring it out. He was hit hard by the loss of soybean sales from China and is trying to figure out how to adjust his plantings for this year. Yet he feels that Mr. Trump is watching out for farmers like him.

The future feels far from certain, both of the Johnsons say.

“No question about it, we are one disaster away from having to give up the farm,” Raymond Johnson said. “I hope he can make it,” he said of his son. “Someone has got to do it.”

His brother recently sold part of his holdings to a marijuana company that is building about 100 acres of indoor greenhouses.

Mr. Lamas, the GM worker, “fell in love with math” in high school and went to college at Michigan Tech University. He dropped out after a year because he was $40,000 in debt.

Like many at the plant, he comes from an auto family. His father works in the same engine plant. He did two temporary stints at the GM engine plant, but was let go. He worked in bar and restaurant kitchens for eight years and was paying $200 a month to share a home with friends.

“You were basically working to live, just scraping by,” said Mr. Lamas.

One day, GM called, offering him a spot.

Mr. Lamas feels as if he won the lottery, though he barely sees family and friends. He works the third shift — 10:30 p.m. to 6 a.m., getting lunch at 3:30 a.m.

As a millennial and budding labor activist, he feels a generational difference with the other plant workers.

“They call it a retirement home,” Mr. Lamas said. “The average age at that plant is ridiculously high.”

Mr. Lamas makes about $63,000 a year, and his wage will soon equal the level of more senior workers. That was one of the gains from the recent strike. But Mr. Lamas will not receive a pension.

Many of his friends are not so fortunate, and Mr. Lamas is determined not to forget that. One of his close friends and his wife can’t afford to get their wisdom teeth pulled.

Mr. Lamas is an avid Sanders supporter. But as he watches his peers desperately searching for work in an increasingly automated economy, he thinks that Andrew Yang, who dropped out last month, was addressing an important issue. “When you have people struggling and are working two to three jobs just to get by, that’s not a strong economy.”

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