A 10-minute web film as part of Frontline’s digital investigation “How the Deck Is Stacked,” in partnership with PBS Newshour and Marketplace. CREDIT: Producer.
Erie, along with dozens of other manufacturing hubs along the Rust Belt, have seen seismic shifts as technology has quenched the demand for manual labor on factory floors. Companies like GE that once sustained the region have either cut jobs, or closed entirely, in recent years. Since 1990, Erie County has lost 16,000 manufacturing jobs, representing 44 percent of the industry there. In the year leading up to the election, unemployment in Erie rose from 5 percent to 7 percent.
On Election Day 2016, Trump defied expectations in Erie, taking a county that Barack Obama won by more than 19,000 votes in 2012, and winning it by around 2,000 votes. His victory in Pennsylvania was the first by a Republican presidential candidate since 1988. Trump also won other traditionally Democratic states like Michigan and Wisconsin, propelled by voters from similar counties throughout the industrial heartland.
Trump’s message resonated with small business owners like Joe and Sondralee Orengia. A champion power lifter, Joe manages Joe’s Gym, while Sondralee operates Custom Audio, an electronics store. Both say they have seen fewer customers in recent years, and are excited about Trump’s promise to return manufacturing jobs and revitalize the Erie economy.
Joe Orengia, who is 70 years old, grew up in the 1950s during the heyday of manufacturing, when more than half of Erie workers were employed in factories. After apprentice school, he worked as an ironworker and helped construct factory buildings for companies like GE and Hammermill Paper Company.
“I was one of their best climbers,” he said. “I always got the job of putting the buildings together, which was fun. You climb up the column, a big piece of steel comes up, you bolt it up, you walk out, unhook the cable and stand there and wait for the next piece.”
Hammermill, which was bought by International Paper Company, shut its Erie factory in 2002. Many buildings that Orengia helped to build have been torn down.
“They were some of the best years of my life working down there, putting them up. They are gone and the people are gone,” he said.
Director STEVE HOOVER | Producer LAUREN MUCCIOLO | Director of Photography TYSON VANSKIVER | Editor STEVE HOOVER and TYSON VANSKIVER | Sound GEORGE SIMPSON | Production Manager KIRSTIN VANSKIVER | Frontline Digital Reporter ANJALI TSUI | Frontline Director of Digital Video CARLA BORRAS | Executive Producer for Frontline RANEY ARONSON-RATH