top of page

China and the Lore of American Manufacturing

In Ohio’s Senate race, both candidates are employing anti-Asian rhetoric and neglecting to hold corporations to account.

By E. Tammy Kim September 15, 2022

Attachment A to the letter, citing the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, or warn Act, was flinty and straight to the point. There were two columns: one listing job classifications, the other, the number of “impacted employees.” At the G.E. Lighting factory in the city of Bucyrus, in northern Ohio, the positions included unit attendants, machinists, and a group called Q.P.A.s. At the facility in Logan, about a hundred miles to the south, there were plant team leaders, a warehouse lead, and a furnace manager, among others.

“Positions will be permanently eliminated beginning on or about September 30, 2022,” the letter read. The factories would close for good, and two hundred and nine people would lose their jobs. As a result, residential light bulbs will no longer be made in the United States: production will move to China, despite the best efforts of local unions. Savant, a Massachusetts company that bought G.E. Lighting two years ago, blamed a drop in sales. Ohio’s senior senator, Sherrod Brown, who’s known for his working-class, bread-and-butter style of Democratic politics, blamed “decades of misguided tax and trade policies” that ceded “the products of the future to China.”

A week after the layoff notice went out, I met with six workers, all leaders of their union, in the parking lot of the red-brick factory in Bucyrus. The central furnace was making its constant music, and a morning rain had interrupted a stretch of ninety-degree days. Bucyrus is small, about eleven thousand people, and hosts a bratwurst festival inherited from the German immigrants who once filled its foundries. Patricia Horsley, who was just off her overnight shift putting a white coating on fluorescent tubes, wore a pink headband over her hair and savored a cigarette. “This week, we’re having our eightieth anniversary,” she said, with some bitterness. Already, the plant had shrunk and lost a contract to produce A19 L.E.D. bulbs, which Walmart had sold as part of a “Made in America” initiative. The production of those light bulbs, too, had gone to China, putting eighty-one employees out of work. “I think that’s where most of the manufacturing jobs are going,” Melissa Martin, who has the same position as Horsley, told me. “I would probably feel better if they would be staying in the United States.”

Ohio’s recent industrial history is largely one of departure. Factories of all kinds have been lost not only to China but to the right-to-work South. “nafta” is still a bad word. Government officials at all levels have tried desperately to keep manufacturing jobs in place, mostly by awarding subsidies to firms. One result has been an uncomfortable kind of onshoring, such as when the Chinese glassmaker Fuyao took over part of a shuttered General Motors facility in Moraine, Ohio—as depicted in the 2019 documentary “American Factory.” The Taiwanese electronics giants T.S.M.C. and Foxconn, and South Korea’s SK Hynix and Samsung have cashed in on taxpayer-funded manufacturing incentives to establish footholds in Texas, the Midwest, and the Southwest.

Though twice as many Ohioans work in health care, education, and retail than in manufacturing, factory labor persists as a Rust Belt obsession. Seemingly every politician since the nineteen-seventies has promised to bring back manufacturing to the region, or at least stop the bleed, and restore some period of glory. The particular spin of this vow has changed over time, and, right now, it’s structured as a wager against China: freedom versus Communism; manufacture here or die. President Barack Obama attempted to form a trans-Pacific trade pact that pointedly excluded Beijing. President Donald Trump made China-bashing something of a sport, imposing tariffs, scapegoating Chinese American scientists, and racializing covid-19. (Remember “kung flu”?) And President Biden promoted the two-hundred-and-eighty-billion-dollar chips and Science Act, a bill he signed in early August to revive high-tech manufacturing in the U.S., as a way to beat back the Chinese.

America’s economic nationalism du jour is clearly on display in Ohio. A few months ago, Tim Ryan, a Democratic congressman who’s now running for the U.S. Senate—in one of the closest and most closely watched midterm races—released a campaign ad titled “One Word.” The ad blamed “China,” or “Communist China,” for job losses and the general misfortune of Ohio’s working class, a theme Ryan has repeated at many campaign appearances. He tried, unsuccessfully, to stop the closure of the light-bulb factory in Bucyrus. He tried, and succeeded, in persuading Intel to break ground on a twenty-billion-dollar advanced-semiconductor plant outside Columbus—and voted to give the company access to several billion dollars under the chips Act to do so. Ryan’s Republican opponent in the Senate race, J. D. Vance, an acolyte of Trump and Peter Thiel, has been similarly critical of China and supportive of Intel. Thousands of high-tech manufacturing jobs are supposedly on their way to Ohio, but they will make up a tiny fraction of those held by the state’s 5.6 million workers.

In the Ohio Senate race, Democrat Tim Ryan released a campaign ad blaming “Communist China” for job losses and the decline of the state’s middle class.Photograph by Drew Angerer / Getty

The casting of China as an economic and ideological foe is a rare area of bipartisan consensus. But even as the U.S. lambastes China and other East Asian nations for propping up private industry and violating labor standards, American policymakers are pursuing a similar strategy. In their haste to strengthen the domestic supply chain, they tend to overestimate the quality of factory jobs (and the good will of factory owners), while neglecting other parts of the economy. And the Sinophobic tint of their rhetoric risks alienating certain constituents—or far worse. When Ryan launched his China ad, Asian Americans in Ohio condemned it, citing a wave of harassment and assaults since the start of the pandemic. “Of course, I’m not for any violence,” Ryan told me. “But we also have to have a conversation about what China’s trying to do. . . . We need Asian Americans to help us and participate in making sure that a Communist government like China does not displace the United States.”

This election year, Ohio is reprising its role as litmus test, or harbinger, of a divided nation. Ohio went twice for Obama, and then twice for Trump: a formerly purple state that has reddened on account of deindustrialization. It’s also a state with an irreversibly globalized supply chain and a long record of international trade that nonetheless harbors profound misgivings about globalization. In central and northeast Ohio last month, I met with frustrated workers in a range of industries, and with politicians fixated on a bygone economy. Fifteen per cent of the state’s workforce is employed in manufacturing, compared with thirty-two per cent in education, health care, wholesale trade, transportation, and utilities. The largest private employer is Walmart; the second-largest is the Cleveland Clinic hospital system. Yet factory lore dominates the Ohio psyche: the monument to rubber workers in downtown Akron, the steel museum in Youngstown.

In Ohio and elsewhere, the nostalgia for manufacturing is based on a mid-century moment when work was plentiful, reasonably safe, and high paying; unions could check corporate power; and America made what the world needed and desired. This was arguably true between the forties and about 1970, after mass strikes prompted the creation of a New Deal regulatory state and before the fissuring caused by neoliberal globalization. Today’s factory jobs are less likely to come with security and benefits; they pay fifteen dollars an hour, not thirty-five.

Shane Divine, a thirty-four-year-old Ohioan, has worked for a medical-tubing manufacturer for the past seven years. On a recent Sunday, I met him outside his factory, near Kent State University, which smelled of warm rubber. He was just off a twelve-hour shift, and his T-shirt was dotted with globs of gunk. Divine operates the brominator, a machine that smooths out latex by running it through a chemical solution. Like many Ohioans, he comes from a family of makers: his dad was a union electrician; his grandparents were rubber workers for Goodyear and Goodrich. Unlike most Ohioans his age, he has a United Steelworkers union card and a fixed-benefit pension.

That night, I had dinner with Divine and his husband, Phyl, a tax lawyer, in their boxy, gray house in Stow, a suburb of Akron. Both are active in the local Democratic Party and had just voted in Ohio’s second primary of the year, which drew less than eight per cent of registered voters. The couple despaired of how their party, and liberals in general, have handled, or failed to handle, the state’s economy since deindustrialization. “Low-income jobs are everywhere—and old infrastructure,” Divine told me. “The jobs we lost are being replaced by low-wage jobs forty years after the plants closed.”

Youngstown, an hour east of the Divine residence, near Tim Ryan’s birthplace of Niles, is a national avatar for stunted post-manufacturing development. When the steel mills closed, in the seventies and eighties, a General Motors plant in nearby Lordstown became the area’s largest industrial employer. Thousands of people worked for G.M. until it, too, shut down, in the spring of 2019. A few months later, the company announced plans to bring new and advanced manufacturing to northeast Ohio—in electric vehicles and batteries—with the help of East Asian investors. Not far from the former G.M. site, Ultium, a joint venture between G.M. and LG, the South Korean conglomerate, built a battery plant more than four times the size of Ohio Stadium (incentivized by public grants and fifteen years’ worth of tax abatements). An Ultium spokesperson told me that production began in August, with some eight hundred employees paid between fifteen and twenty-two dollars per hour—about the same as an Amazon warehouse worker.

The old G.M. factory, meanwhile, has had an ironic epilogue. In 2020, G.M. sold it for twenty million dollars to Lordstown Motors, a local startup dedicated to making an electric pickup truck called the Endurance. Then, this past May, Foxconn bought the same plant for two hundred and thirty million dollars. On a recent morning, a creased banner reading “Foxconn” was wrapped around the tall metal sign in the parking lot of the former G.M. factory, which was entirely empty. Mine was the lone car on Ellsworth Bailey Road, the four-lane street leading into the plant; the only traffic was going to and from a HomeGoods warehouse and an Amazon delivery station. Foxconn has said that it will use the enormous facility to build the Endurance as well as electric tractors and the pear, a vehicle for “young urban innovators.” None of this manufacturing has yet begun, though a representative of Foxconn assured me that it will very soon. For historical reasons, the company has many skeptics. It is notorious for its factories in mainland China, where workers who assemble iPhones have died by suicide. The company also failed to follow through with a multibillion-dollar project to make LCD screens in Racine, Wisconsin.

However speculative northeast Ohio’s high-tech renewal may be, the area has another recent economic driver: multiple prisons. As I drove through a Lordstown neighborhood of weathered homes and crumbling concrete, the supermax Ohio State Penitentiary announced itself with a pitch-dark, freshly tarred road and a wide, deep-green lawn. Razor wire enveloped the facility like a mesh tent. Statewide, nearly twenty thousand people are employed in what the journalist Eyal Press has termed (morally) “dirty work”: the housing, feeding, punishment, and treatment of Ohio’s roughly forty-eight thousand incarcerated people. In the town of Girard, I visited Alice and Staughton Lynd, a married couple who spent decades representing steelworkers and writing books on the labor movement, such as “Rank and File.” When it became clear that the mills weren’t coming back, they turned to litigating cases on behalf of local prisoners. “We are hanging on doggedly in this area”—both are ninety-two years old—“because we want to wait out the shysters who are promising economic revival,” Staughton told me at their apartment. “New electric cars being made in Youngstown? That’s baloney.”

Youngstown is now Trump country and could very well go for Vance in the Senate, despite Tim Ryan’s local roots. On August 19th, Vance held a rally in Girard boosted by Ron DeSantis, the Florida Governor with Presidential ambitions. Both men are well-to-do lawyers with Ivy League degrees and corporate backing who engage in a practiced folksiness. They are creations of the modern G.O.P., having discovered in the “great right-wing groundswell an easy shortcut to realizing their ambitions,” as Thomas Frank wrote in the book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” At the rally, Vance and DeSantis waged not class war but culture war. “I think that we need people in Florida, Ohio, all across the country, to say we are not going to let this woke-mob virus run over our institutions,” DeSantis said, referring to government agencies, businesses, and schools. “We’re not going to surrender to woke.”

Republican J. D. Vance, like his Democratic opponent for Ohio’s open Senate seat, believes that U.S. manufacturers have unfairly lost ground to China.Photograph by Gaelen Morse / Bloomberg / Getty

In early August, I went to see Vance at the Ohio State Fair. He was there, the sleeves of his periwinkle dress shirt cinched up just so, to meet with farmers’ groups and participate in a rib-eating contest sponsored by the Ohio Pork Council. The Columbus teachers’ union was threatening to go on strike, so at a press conference, I asked for Vance’s opinion on collective bargaining. “As an abstract matter, yes, I support collective bargaining. Do I support the teachers’ union shutting down the schools for two years? No, I don’t,” he said. (Columbus schools have gone online intermittently during the pandemic.) In a state with a proud union history, a Republican candidate must be selectively critical of organized labor. It’s safe to appear with the Teamsters or the United Steelworkers, but not with the teachers’ or nurses’ union, regardless of the weight they pull in the economy. Many Rust Belt cities that once depended on a single industrial employer now rely on revenue from meds and eds(hospitals and schools).

East Liverpool, on the Ohio–West Virginia border, is one such city. It was home to some two hundred dishware factories—including Knowles, Taylor & Knowles, whose ironstone, bone china, and Lotus Ware porcelain were celebrated around the world. The city’s kilns were mostly extinguished by the early nineteen-thirties, though a couple of ceramics makers are left. Local industry has otherwise been confined to a pair of nuclear power plants and a coal plant (reportedly slated for closure next year) that’s owned by Energy Harbor—formerly known as FirstEnergy, a utility infamous for bribing politicians. Today, East Liverpool’s largest employer, and one of its largest buildings, is the local hospital.

Melissa Cain was born and raised in East Liverpool and now works at the hospital as a registered nurse. She has been in the profession for sixteen years and earns thirty-five dollars per hour, less than half the going rate for fill-in travel nurses in the region. The hospital was taken over by a California-based conglomerate in 2016, part of a trend in health care toward consolidation, especially in rural areas. Ohio’s own Cleveland Clinic, which employs fifty-two thousand workers in the state, has aggressively bought out and stripped down smaller hospitals and clinics. Since the takeover of the East Liverpool hospital, Cain told me over breakfast, understaffing has become much worse. At the height of the pandemic, so many people quit that “new nurses were training new nurses,” she said.

Cain is a member of the Ohio nurses’ union, which is pushing for legislation to establish minimum nurse-to-patient ratios. (Ryan’s support of safe-staffing legislation earned him the union’s endorsement.) An employee of the union told me that registered nurses are leaving the profession in large numbers, creating a dire labor shortage in Ohio hospitals and nursing homes. A West African immigrant who works as a licensed practical nurse in a Columbus nursing home (and asked not to be named for fear of retaliation) told me that she often looks after twenty to thirty patients on her own—a standard ratio for long-term care. “I’ve never worked as a nurse in a union workplace,” she told me. “I’m definitely in favor of one.” She is paid around twenty-nine dollars per hour, and works sixty hours per week to support herself and her young child. The average nursing-home employee in Ohio earns much less: just thirty-five thousand dollars per year, compared with thirty-eight thousand in Indiana and Illinois and forty thousand in Pennsylvania. The health-care sector is critical to Ohio’s economy and has the advantage of being impervious to offshoring; yet it fails to inspire the same civic pride or collective identification as factory work. Perhaps this is because the industry is so feminized. In the Senate race, neither Ryan nor Vance has prioritized health care, with the exception of abortion. Hours after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, in late June, Ohio instituted a near-total abortion ban, which has proved to be unpopular and led Democrats to emphasize their pro-choice qualifications. Ryan, who until recently opposed abortion himself, has called out Vance for praising the fall of Roe.

In the contest for Ohio’s governor, which will also be decided this November, abortion is an increasingly urgent concern. Nan Whaley, the former mayor of Dayton, is challenging the incumbent Republican governor, Mike DeWine, and has framed abortion in terms of workforce development. Whaley recently held an event with Black elected officials and entrepreneurs at A Cut Above the Rest, a barber shop and community center in Columbus. During a question-and-answer session, a man standing next to an old-fashioned barber chair asked what the candidate planned to do about abortion. She explained that she would try to re-legalize the procedure, not only as a matter of public health but, just as important, to retain and attract young Ohio workers. “Health access is a jobs issue,” she said.

On a Wednesday night, Ryan arrived late to a town hall for undecided voters in Lancaster, a small city in south-central Ohio. Forty or so people, overwhelmingly in the A.A.R.P. bracket, sat in an air-conditioned lodge overlooking Lake Loretta. Ryan, wearing jeans, a polo shirt, and sneakers, gave an opening speech that focussed on jobs and economic development and pleaded for unity across party lines—a unity facilitated by challenging China. “I want this race to be about us recognizing that the people who are most happy with us fighting with each other is the Communist Chinese,” he said.

I asked him after the event about the pushback from Asian American groups in Ohio, who’d called his rhetoric against China “dangerous and unacceptable” and accused him of scapegoating “Asian countries and Asian people” instead of holding corporations to account. Did he worry that his language might inflame public sentiment against Asian immigrants? “I certainly hope not,” he said. “If you’re an American and you’re here, you are on the team, which means a lot of Asian America is on the team.”

A few days later, I visited Noppadol and Kanokwan Mangmeesub, a couple in Dayton who both emigrated from Thailand. Last January, someone spray-painted “Fuck U China Virus” on the exterior wall of their Vietnamese and Thai restaurant, Xuân, near the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. A few weeks later, someone set the roof on fire. (No one was ever arrested.) The Mangmeesubs told me that they hadn’t closely followed the reports of Chinese, Korean, Thai, and Filipino Americans being beaten and even killed since the start of the pandemic. “I was surprised I was a victim. There’s a lot of Asian people—why would that happen to me?” Noppadol remembered thinking.

The couple shuttered their restaurant after the arson and looked for a new location. They eventually opened HomeStyle Thai Bistro, a stall in the 2nd Street Market, a repurposed freight hall in downtown Dayton. Business was good when I visited for a late lunch of tofu pad Thai. Kanokwan told me at the register that they’re much busier now. Noppadol took a break from prepping a pot of chicken stock to sit and chat. He and his wife had mostly recovered from the events of last year, and hoped to open a second restaurant. He didn’t want to connect the vandalism and arson to Trump—Noppadol is as much a patron of Fox News as MSNBC—“but this kind of stuff is coming from him,” he said.

J. D. Vance has periodically launched into his own tirades against China, but in a manner more Ryanesque than Trumpian. “Do we want to ship our jobs to China or keep them right here in America for American workers and the American people?” he asked after winning the Republican primary. Compare that to this statement by Ryan in a recent super-pac ad: “When are we going to have the guts to level the playing field? The guts to take on China? The guts to do what’s right so our kids and grandkids can thrive in the United States?” Some seven hundred thousand Ohioans were born abroad, and immigrants to the state are much more likely to be employed than non-immigrants. Yet neither Vance nor Ryan has much to say about the place of immigrants in Ohio’s economy, including its remaining factories. In the town of Springboro, just south of Dayton, I met with Hoai Nguyen, who works for a Vietnamese American company that builds car and airplane interiors. Nguyen, whose extended family settled in Ohio after the Vietnam War, took me around a beige, air-conditioned office, then past a steel door into a loud, sweltering factory. A few dozen people, mostly immigrants from Southeast Asia and Latin America, were operating machines that heat-molded carpet and stamped out wheel liners. The products were made in the U.S.A., for corporations like Chrysler, even if the people who made them were not.

Ohio has many such small and midsize factories, which cumulatively employ tens of thousands. But only a brand-name mega-project, like the Intel chip factory in New Albany, will attract the sustained interest of politicians—and a corresponding windfall of tax breaks and other public subsidies. Donning a fluorescent vest and hard hat, I went to see the Intel site with Jim Evers, a vice-president dispatched from the company’s offices in Arizona. It was August, and an array of yellow earthmovers was flattening what used to be fields of corn and soy that stretched to the horizon. A month later, Biden would stand at the same spot during a groundbreaking ceremony and declare “that the industrial Midwest is back.” Evers told me that this would be the first “fab,” or semiconductor fabrication plant, built from scratch in the U.S. in four decades. It is set to open in 2025, around the same time as additional fabs in Arizona and, possibly, Germany. Intel’s expansion was critical to “balancing the supply chain” and bringing semiconductors “back to the U.S.” from East Asia, he said. In the nineties, the U.S. produced nearly forty per cent of the world’s chips; now it makes just twelve per cent. Yet a purely domestic supply chain is impossible. Intel sources photoresists, a crucial chip-making material, from Japan and hundred-million-dollar lithography machines from the Netherlands; its finished microchips are assembled, tested, and packaged in China, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Costa Rica.

Intel and the state of Ohio say that the project will create seven thousand construction jobs and three thousand permanent positions for manufacturing technicians and engineers. Employees will reportedly earn an average of a hundred and thirty-five thousand dollars per year in salary and stock options, though the entry-level technicians at Intel’s plants in Arizona and Oregon start at a salary of around sixty thousand, working twelve-hour shifts in clean-room bunny suits. (Intel would not confirm exact pay or benefit packages.) The fabs will produce semiconductors directly for Intel and serve as a foundry for other companies. Because of the plant’s location and the skills needed for some of the jobs, Intel is likely to draw on graduates from Ohio State University, which is known for its program in materials science and engineering. The potential benefit for other kinds of workers is less clear, though Intel boasts of a significant multiplier effect. All told, Ohio has allocated more than two billion dollars to Intel and the wealthy suburb of New Albany, supplementing billions in federal funds under the chips Act. Tim Ryan and Sherrod Brown have praised the project for creating “good union jobs,” but the excavation workers I saw on site did not belong to a construction union, and Intel has not agreed to remain neutral in the event of a future organizing drive at the factory. During our tour of the site, Evers said only that the company would abide by human-rights principles and make a point of hiring Ohioans, women, veterans, and African Americans. Before Biden signed off on the chips Act, Bernie Sanders argued that any firm receiving subsidies under the law should agree to keep all jobs in the U.S., invest in operations rather than buying back stock to the benefit of shareholders, and respect employees’ right to unionize and collectively bargain. Lisa Malloy, a spokesperson for Intel, said that the company plans to spend more than forty billion dollars over the next three years in domestic semiconductor manufacturing and has a history of coöperation with construction unions.

Of the jobs Intel promises to bring to Ohio, how many might be filled by the people who’ve been displaced from sites like the G.E. Lighting factories in Bucyrus and Logan? A job making light bulbs does not automatically prepare a worker to inspect microscopic chips. Retraining takes humility, time, and money; and not everyone can uproot themselves for a new career. Before the light-bulb workers in Bucyrus received their final notice of termination, they managed to negotiate a decent severance package through their union—two weeks’ pay for every year worked, plus six months of health insurance—but none of the workers I met in August had found a new position yet. Barb Basore, whose extended family has given more than five hundred years of combined service to General Electric since 1941, felt pessimistic about landing anything in manufacturing.

Horsley, the coater operator on the overnight shift, told me that she was considering going back to school for hairdressing, a career essentially resistant to globalization. She identifies as a Republican, but intends to vote for Ryan in the Senate race because of his attempts to save their light-bulb factory. I asked how she felt about losing her job to China. She didn’t resent the Chinese workers, she told me: “They’re probably just trying to make a living as well.” She added that she, and her household, had no right to judge the nation of China, either. “I personally can’t, because my husband,” she said. Her husband works for a manufacturer of injection-molding machines, in a factory in central Ohio. The company’s North American division is based in the state, but its corporate headquarters is much farther away: in Guangdong, China.


bottom of page