Voters in Western Pennsylvania coal, steel towns put faith in Trump’s promises of change, jobs
Hope dies hard in Western Pennsylvania’s coal and steel towns.
Merle Shearer wants President Trump to make good on promises to bring back industry jobs, but the retired steelworker has doubts.
The 77-year-old Kiski Valley man sported a Steelers cap as he sipped coffee at G&G Restaurant in Vandergrift on a recent Tuesday. He paused to explain the change of heart that rippled through the small steel town leading up to the Nov. 8 election.
“People voted for (Donald) Trump because they wanted change,” Shearer said, pushing his cap back as steady rain fell outside.
The election marked a major change in the town of 5,200. As far back as 1976 and beyond, Vandergrift residents voted Democratic in presidential elections, regardless of the name at the top of the ballot. But in November, they overwhelmingly supported Trump over Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, 58 percent to 42 percent.
Vandergrift, 23 miles north of Greensburg, is the largest of the small towns dotting the Kiski Valley and has long been a local gathering place. It still counts Allegheny Technologies Inc.’s 64-acre mill on the banks of the Kiski River as a point of pride.
The facility, which ATI purchased from U.S. Steel in 1988, was launched in 1895 as Apollo Iron & Steel Co. Today, ATI workers put finishing touches on stainless steel coveted by manufacturers here and abroad.
Shearer said the technology that has made life easier for everyone has pared jobs in the mills.
“It used to take eight to 10 people to run a normalizer (a device used in the manufacture of steel products),” he said. “Now, it only takes three.”
The mill that employed thousands at U.S. Steel’s peak now has 240 workers.
And the population of Vandergrift — designed in 1895 by famed designer and architect Frederick Law Olmsted as a model workers’ community — has shrunk by half from its 1940 high of 10,725 residents.
On the campaign trail, Trump “said things the way they were,” said Katelyn Perroz, 19, an Allegheny College freshman visiting home.
That candor bodes well for the future of communities such as Vandergrift, she said.
Hoping for the best
G&G proprietor Michael Kakias shared the hope that Trump will deliver jobs.
“He’s always been an optimist,” Debra Kakias said of her husband.
“I think (Trump’s) heart is in the right place,” Michael Kakias said. “And I think we have to respect the office, regardless of who is in it.”
Kakias has lived in Vandergrift all his life. He recalled when his late father’s bar bustled at 8 a.m. as workers changed shifts and said he sees his hometown being on the brink of rebirth.
ATI helps keep everyone else’s tax bills down, Kakias said. Assessment records show the mill pays more than $290,000 a year in property taxes. Most houses in Vandergrift — where the median closing price is $65,000, according to listing site Realtor.com — have been well-kept. So, Kakias speculated the historic town could be an attractive draw for young couples looking to buy a first home “with payments about the size of your car payment.”
His son, 26-year-old Christopher Kakias, is an electrical engineer who quit his job at the Vandergrift mill last year. He became the third generation operating the bustling family restaurant that has thrived through the town’s ups and downs.
“It’s going really well here,” said Christopher Kakias, who began washing dishes and busing tables when he was 10 or 11.
Reluctant like his father to talk politics, Christopher Kakias smiled when asked what he hopes for the new administration that has been at work now for one full week.
“Success,” he said. “Success for as many people as possible.”
Paul Eckenrode, a 41-year-old father of five, couldn’t agree more.
The Marine Corps veteran worked 17 years for Rosebud Mining before leaving to start a trucking company as he saw many coal mines cutting back or closing. Eckenrode, of nearby Apollo, hopes the new administration can cut taxes and regulation “and do something about the price of fuel.”
As for Trump’s pledge to bring back steel and coal jobs, that would bode well for his hauling business, Eckenrode said.
Leaders of the nation’s building trade unions who met with Trump last week came away upbeat about the president’s pledge to follow through on a massive infrastructure program and executive orders designed to reboot construction of the controversial Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. That includes Trump’s proposal to require that U.S.-made steel products be used on the projects, which could result in new orders for steel and other materials.
Experts differ on whether Trump will be able to keep his pledge to bring back coal and steel jobs.
Economist Gary Quinlivan, who studies international trade and teaches at St. Vincent College, said Trump’s rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, agreement dealt a blow to the domestic steel industry. The agreement would have provided domestic producers with protections from China’s massive state-operated steel industry, Quinlivan said. Such provisions would have benefitted Pennsylvania companies such as PPG and ATI, he said.
“It’s really unfortunate that he couldn’t have cherry-picked those parts of the agreement,” Quinlivan said.
ATI CEO Richard Harshman, however, commended Trump for discarding the TPP.
“We did not feel it was a good deal for American manufacturing,” said Harshman, who cautioned that the new administration’s policies won’t produce immediate results.
“It’s a journey. It does not happen overnight,” he said.
Charles McCollester, retired director of Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Labor Relations, has tracked the contraction of the coal mining and steel industries for the past four decades. He echoed many Wall Street analysts who see coal’s decline as destined to continue and intrinsically linked to the glut of cheap natural gas from the fracking boom. Even if the new administration were to loosen regulations, McCollester said mining, like many industries, has tapped technologies to reduce the need for manpower.
“It’s a hell of a lot easier to shut it down than it is to bring it back,” McCollester said. “And things coming out of (Carnegie Mellon), like artificial intelligence and robotics, make it a lot more difficult to bring back jobs. … Today, with 500 workers you can run a mill that used to require nearly 10,000.”
Coal town view
About 30 miles east of Vandergrift in Homer City — a small Indiana County town in the shadow of one of the nation’s largest coal-burning power plants — residents generally vote Democratic. But, like their Vandergrift counterparts, in November, they supported Trump by an overwhelming margin of 62 to 38 percent.
Lifelong Homer City resident Anthony Maggio, 59, voted for Clinton. But he said he is pulling for Trump to succeed.
“If he can make good on those promises, I’d love to see it happen,” Maggio said.
Last year, Maggio lost his job when the coal-cleaning plant where he worked for 39 years closed. The massive Homer City Generating Station, struggling to survive in a market where cheap, abundant natural gas is pushing coal aside, opted to buy pre-cleaned coal.
The power plant, which employs about 300 workers, this month filed for bankruptcy — its second reorganization in four years. NRG Energy Services said it plans to continue operating during restructuring.
Even so, the news sent a chill through the town.
Maggio, who found work in a nearby machine shop, said he understands that Trump supporters found the “allure of change” attractive. That was especially true for people here who heard Clinton declare that coal-burning power plants were going to be a thing of the past, he said.
As he looked around at some of the scars from the early days of the coal boom, Maggio said he hopes the new administration will hold gas drillers to a standard that minimizes environmental damage in the future.
As for manufacturing, a U.S. comeback is long overdue, he said.
“Myself, I would love to see steel be made in this country again. I would love to see a level playing field between imported automakers and our automakers,” Maggio said.
Matthew Black, 45, said his family moved to Indiana County when he was a child because his electrician father found work at the power plant that opened in 1969. Black, a union heavy-equipment operator, later worked at the plant during various upgrades.
Today, he commutes daily from Homer City to Evans City — 66 miles away — to work in the natural gas fields. Although he has worked at the power plant and knows others who have, Black said he understands the concerns surrounding coal and its toll on the environment.
“I have three kids — 6, 7 and 17,” he said. “But I know those 300-plus jobs mean a lot to the people and the community. If (the power plant) closed, it would devastate the community and trickle down to other communities.”
A lifelong Democrat and borough councilman in the town of 1,700, Black registered as an independent last year out of frustration with the system.
“It’s flawed. It’s corrupt. It needs to be redone or removed,” he said.
Even so, he held to the hope that a new administration in Washington could bode well for Homer City.
“If the president holds to his word to bring coal and steel back, I wish him the best of luck,” Black said.
Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or [email protected].