Early last year, the U.S. Postal Service awarded a contract to Oshkosh Defense, a manufacturer of military and other specialty vehicles, to build a new fleet of postal trucks. The contract, which could end up being worth eleven billion dollars, was greeted with euphoria in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where the company has its main assembly plants. Since 2012, the number of workers at the plants has been cut by nearly half; the new contract promised at least a thousand well-paid jobs for a decade or more. But, a few months after the announcement, the company announced that the vehicles would be built not in Oshkosh but at a shuttered Rite Aid distribution center in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
Tim Jacobson is an assembly-line worker at Oshkosh Defense and a shop steward of United Auto Workers Local 578, which represents the workers at the plants. “I think they used the existing plant facilities, workforce, and the reputation of that workforce in their bid,” he told me recently in the auditorium of the Local 578 hall, a plain room decorated with pictures of military vehicles and a giant mural of an American flag with the words “UNION TILL WE DIE” written across the top. “No one in their right mind is going to give eleven billion dollars to what is, essentially, a startup.” Jacobson believes that South Carolina was chosen because less than two per cent of its workers are unionized, the lowest rate in the country. (“The Spartanburg facility,” a company spokesperson said, “gives us the best ability to meet the needs of the U.S.P.S.” A House committee is investigating the company’s decision.)
Along with other U.A.W. officials, Jacobson mounted a campaign to pressure the company to reverse its decision. In February, he travelled to Washington to plead the union’s case. For weeks beforehand, leaders from Local 578 had been trying to arrange a meeting with Ron Johnson, Wisconsin’s two-term Republican senator, who is seeking reëlection on November 8th. One evening, at his hotel, Jacobson saw a clip of Johnson telling reporters, “I wouldn’t insert myself to demand that anything be manufactured here using federal funds.” Johnson added, “It’s not like we don’t have enough jobs here in Wisconsin.”
“I thought, Are you fricking serious?” Jacobson told me. He acknowledged that Wisconsin’s unemployment rate is currently low. (It’s three per cent, as is South Carolina’s.) “But these aren’t just any jobs. These are family-sustaining union jobs,” he said. “I’m making twenty-eight bucks an hour.” He also receives benefits and, most important for Jacobson, a pension. The total compensation for American manufacturing workers, including benefits, is, on average, forty to forty-five dollars an hour, about twice what service and retail workers make. The percentage of Wisconsin’s workforce employed in manufacturing is the highest in the country.
Johnson’s comments were widely reported and criticized by Wisconsin politicians. The following day, Johnson’s staff reached out to Jacobson to say that the senator could make time for a meeting. “We just gave him our side of the story, why we believe that we needed that work here,” Jacobson said. When they pressed Johnson on whether he really thought Wisconsin already had enough jobs, he did not back down. Jacobson said that he did, however, promise to try to arrange a meeting between union leadership and Oshkosh’s C.E.O., whom he was scheduled to see the following day. “That’s the last we heard of him,” Jacobson said. (Johnson, who did not respond to interview requests, took issue with Jacobson’s account but defended his refusal to get involved. “This was a dispute between a company and their union, not an issue a U.S. Senator should get in the middle of,” a spokesperson said.)
In late February, the union held a rally outside the company’s headquarters, across town from the plants. In attendance was Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, who was running in the Democratic Senate primary. In August, Barnes won the nomination overwhelmingly, his path eased by the surprising withdrawal and endorsements of his major opponents less than three weeks before the primary. Like other Democratic Senate nominees in the Rust Belt—John Fetterman, in Pennsylvania; Tim Ryan, in Ohio—Barnes has advocated for manufacturing jobs and the labor movement. Their efforts are a test case for whether Democrats can blunt the appeal of right-wing populism for working-class voters—a phenomenon for which their party bears some responsibility. Since the late nineteen-nineties, the Party has lost support among non-college-educated white voters, and that drift has increasingly become multiracial. During that time, the United States has lost five million manufacturing jobs and roughly seventy thousand plants. The majority of the job losses are due in large part to the passage of NAFTA and to China’s admittance to the World Trade Organization, both of which were enthusiastically pushed by the Democratic President Bill Clinton, whose free-trade policies were continued by Barack Obama.
The Senate race has taken on national significance because unseating Johnson, among the most unpopular senators in the country, is one of few opportunities Democrats have to tip the balance of the evenly divided Senate. Johnson is centering his campaign on public safety, culture-war grievances, and immediate economic concerns such as inflation and gas prices. Barnes is running against Johnson’s corporate-friendly agenda and the past of his own party, which for decades embraced much of that agenda. “He’s the kind of candidate the Democrats should have been running for the last twenty-five years,” Dave Poklinkoski, the former president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2304, in Madison, told me. “You have to wonder if it’s too little, too late.”
Ron Johnson was born in 1955 and grew up in Mankato, Minnesota, a small city southwest of Minneapolis. His campaign biographies read as if they were written by a Midwestern Horatio Alger. “At the age of 15, he obtained his first tax-paying job as a dishwasher in a Walgreens grill,” the current version on his Web site reads. “He rose through the ranks as a soda jerk, fry cook, and finally night manager before reaching the age of 16.”
In 1979, Johnson and his wife, Jane, moved to Oshkosh to work for Pacur, a manufacturer of plastic-packaging materials. Pacur was an enterprise of Jane’s family—founded by her brother Patrick and closely tied to the business interests of her father, Howard Curler. (Pacur is short for Pat Curler.) Howard had invented technology for vacuum-packing meat and cheese, making him one of the richest businessmen in the Fox River Valley, a region in northeastern Wisconsin that includes Appleton and Oshkosh. He lived modestly and was generous with family and employees. “Howard Curler probably created more millionaires in the Fox River Valley than any other business guy,” a former employee told me. Howard was the C.E.O. of Bemis, a multinational plastics-and-packaging company that, around the time of Pacur’s launch, opened a plant across the street. Johnson, who worked as an accountant for Pacur, has said that he built it “from the ground up,” but the company had an important advantage over other startups: Bemis was waiting to buy its products. At the beginning, Pacur’s sole customer was Bemis, and since its founding it has sold more than a hundred million dollars’ worth of goods to the company.
“Ron is not at all a self-made man,” the former employee, who worked for Bemis, told me. “The minute Ron and Jane got married, Ron never had a financial worry for the rest of his life. There was no risk whatsoever to starting that factory.”
Johnson bought Pacur before launching his political career, which began with a speech at a Tea Party rally outside the Wisconsin State Capitol in 2010. “The next two elections are by far the most important and consequential of our lifetimes,” he said. “America needs to be pulled back from the brink of socialism and state control.” Shortly afterward, he announced that he was running for the Senate. Johnson, a political novice, was promoted heavily by Charlie Sykes, then a powerful conservative talk-radio host based in Milwaukee, and he defeated two Republican rivals to win the nomination. More surprisingly, he unseated Russ Feingold, a progressive Democrat with a national reputation, scoring one of the Tea Party’s most significant victories in its banner year.
Johnson’s trademark is his unrelenting hostility toward government. “Today is the first anniversary of the greatest single assault on our freedom in my lifetime: the signing of Obamacare,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal in March, 2011. Two years later, he was a keynote speaker at a conference of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which disseminates model bills to conservative state legislators. “I do frequently hear politicians basically say, ‘We have to restore faith in government,’ ” he told them. “No. Absolutely not.” (Johnson also called public employee unions “the root cause of local problems.”)
In 2016, as Donald Trump took hold of the Republican Party, Johnson refused to endorse him for the Presidential nomination. On certain economic issues, Trumpian populism was a rejection of the Tea Party. Trump promised not to cut Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid and railed against free-trade agreements such as NAFTA; Johnson has said “we can’t afford” Medicare and Social Security, which he called a “Ponzi scheme,” and he has praised free-trade agreements, citing the need for “creative destruction.” But, after Trump won the Republican nomination, Johnson pledged to vote for him. (Trump’s economic apostasies were mostly rhetorical. His 2020 budget proposed steep cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, and his Administration presided over a net loss of nearly two hundred thousand manufacturing jobs.) Johnson became one of Trump’s most steadfast congressional allies. Last year, Trump declared his “Total Endorsement” of Johnson.