BY GRAIG GRAZIOSI
When I was in Boardman High School in the early 2000s, the buses would drop us off on the side of the building and we’d enter through a large set of double doors. We would pass a group of students sitting or hanging around the steps — kids who were not going inside with the rest of us to attend English, social studies and math classes.
They were waiting for another bus, to take them to trade school, a path to the future very different than mine, or so I thought.
Whether the rest of us were intentionally paraded past them as an act of shaming, or whether it was simply a matter of school logistics, the message was clear to us: we were destined for big things; they were the screw-ups.
We knew them and their reputations: unintelligent troublemakers who would never go to college. We thought of them as the ones who had already given up before the game had really started. We, on the other hand, were going on to college and to lucrative jobs that used our minds.
But here’s the thing about Youngstown: it couldn’t exist without those kids and the trades they were learning. The city had grown prosperous on the backs of steel workers, and when the mills shut down Youngstown somehow survived – even as so many people left – thanks to the work of those trade school kids, and their fathers, brothers, mothers and sisters in well-paying union jobs at the nearby GM Lordstown auto plant.
I dismissed them too quickly.
I did go to college. But I didn’t last; I dropped out after my first semester. I was 19 and moved to Tijuana, Mexico, to work at a mission. When I left the mission after two years and moved north of the border to San Diego, I had a wealth of life experience but little in the way of marketable skills. So I began to consider pursuing a trade so I could start making money without the high debt and hoop-jumping of pursuing a degree. I worked for a year and-a-half as a nonunion construction laborer for $10 an hour. A friend of mine, doing similar work, wrangled a union job and brought in well over $30 an hour.
Eventually the company I worked for let most of us go and hired on a slew of new workers under a contract that wouldn’t entitle them to health insurance after six months like ours did. I worked at a bar, a fast food restaurant and as a freelance journalist before moving back to Youngstown to finally finish my degree, never finding that elusive union job.
Now I understood that, if you didn’t like school and you weren’t looking to join the military, the trades were the place to land. Youngstown made it easy, given our astoundingly low standard of living, to thrive on a union wage. A good friend once told me — after years of working at a local fast food restaurant — that he would love to work a good factory job, where he could do the same thing all day, talk to no one and bring home a healthy paycheck.
That was how Carlton Ingram saw the world in 1973, on the day he graduated from South High School. That very night he joined the apprenticeship program with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 66.
He’s been with the union ever since, working for 32 years as a heavy equipment operator, and the last 11 in the office, first as a dispatcher and now as a business representative.
The union wasn’t Ingram’s last resort. It’s a cornerstone of his life. He raised three kids — all college graduates, all successful — because he had the chance to trade his work and
loyalty for fair wages.
I had heard about him from a local union leader, Rocky DiGennaro, who told me that if I wanted to talk about the future for jobs, work and unions in Youngstown, I should talk to Ingram, who would, he promised, have a lot to say.
I headed over to the Operating Engineers’ union hall, which sits in the shadow of a major local hospital, the sister site to the hospital where my mother has worked for nearly 40 years. Largely unremarkable, the union hall could easily have been a doctor’s
office or housed a legal firm.
Ingram is 62 now, and heavyset. He has tight, snowy hair, but with plenty of black still poking through. He keeps a similarly smoky, well-trimmed mustache. He’s an office man, and he dresses the part — an off-white, button-up dress shirt, khakis. He’s tall enough to be imposing and has a personable-but-serious demeanor, at least on first impression.
I was hesitant to get into the subject of President Donald Trump and launch into questions probing Ingram’s political temperament. There was no way to know whether Ingram was one of the many union workers who turned away from the Democrats in the 2016 elections.
It’s no wonder that in Youngstown one of the most conflicted demographics of voters in the 2016 election were the union and trade workers. The city — and surrounding Mahoning County — has been controlled by Democrats for more than 40 years, and much of that dominance is a direct result of the labor unions aligning with Democrats. In 2012, President Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney in Mahoning County by 28 points. But in 2016, Hillary Clinton edged Trump by only a single point.
Trump’s populist-, jobs- and economics-focused rhetoric was certainly enough to sway many of the long-time, blue-voting union workers, but that doesn’t fully explain the blue-collar exodus from the Democratic Party.
Ingram told me that many union members were similar to him in circumstance: workers, concerned with job security, driven to provide good lives for their families under any circumstance and famously opposed to free-trade deals. His union brothers valued family, security, patriotism and faith. They were concerned about illegal immigration and skeptical of government regulations that don’t involve keeping jobs in the country.
They were prime targets for Trump’s message.
Once I broached the subject of politics, Ingram was an open book, and a refreshingly sober read. He didn’t vote for Trump, he told me, but he also doesn’t want to see him fail. Though he thinks the border needs controlled, he also thinks the president’s initial travel ban was laughably ill conceived. He described the past few weeks of Trump’s administration as “better than cartoons.”
Still, he roots for Trump to succeed.
“Some people treat this like a football game. But if he loses, we all lose,” Ingram said. “There’s people’s jobs and families at stake. He has enormous influence over the future of America. I hope he makes things better.”
He has no illusions of steel mills reopening along the banks of the Mahoning River or of legions of fresh-out-of high school factory workers bringing home enough money to buy a house and a car. Instead, he hopes Trump will follow through on his plans to make outsourcing jobs more cost prohibitive and in creating a friendly corporate environment to bring more jobs back to the United States.
He was soon to head off to Washington, D.C., to meet and strategize with other union members.
He said he’d tell the president hello for me if he saw him.