In the small dark tavern outside the gates of the Kelly-Springfield tire factory here, the rubberworkers talk after shift of the one-week shutdown coming up this month and the layoffs they expect will follow.
Across town at the Pittsburgh Plate Glass factory, the layoffs started two weeks ago, and 79 workers have lost their jobs so far. In Hagerstown, 70 miles east, more than 500 have been laid off at the Mack Truck plant -- the only industry in western Maryland larger than Kelly -- and at the local union hall there are rumors of a shutdown lasting a month.
The lexicon of western Maryland this month is filled with the jargon of a depression, a depression that everyone feels and that no one controls. "We're going to be on welfare this summer no matter who is president and what he does," says one tirebuilder over a shot of Black Velvet in the tavern, and his friends around him agree.
Nowhere in Maryland is the economy more of an issue than in these chronically slumping, blue-collar western counties, but nowhere too, it seems, is the May 13 presidential primary less noticed. "I'm not even going to vote," said Norman Guthrie, who lost his job at Pittsburgh Plate last week and now must shovel coal for a living. "There is no use complaining about any of this."
A three-day trip through western Maryland and dozens of interviews indicated that few Democrats here blame Jimmy Carter for what is happening to their jobs, and even the supporters of Edward Kennedy, who are strong in at least one county, cite different reasons for backing him. Their economic problems, it seems, are so immediate and profound that they transcent election-year rhetoric.
"I can't blame Carter, I don't even have a suggestion for him," said Martin Snook, the Republican President of the Washington County Commissioners. "I don't see any difference under Carter or under Ford or under anyone else."
The votes of Washington, Allegany, and Garrett counties in the Democratic primary next week seem to be dividing in the same traditional patterns that have prevailed for generations. In Hagerstown and the rest of Washington County, which has failed to vote for a Democratic president since Roosevelt, Carter is expected towin by a large margin. As Washington Country goes, so goes Garrett.
Only in Allegany County, where unions have long had a large, liberal influence on Democratic primaries, is Kennedy given a chance of beating Carter. Even there, however, Kennedy's labor record, not his economics, is considered most important.
At the same time, the signs of a deep economic slump are everywhere. In Hagerstown, the largest city in the three counties, the economy is balanced in part by the large, recession-proof Fairchild aircraft plant and its defense contracts, but even so, Snook is predicting a drop of 40 percent in the growth of the county's income tax collections this year.
In the last several months, unemployment in Washington County has risen from between 5 and 6 percent to nearly 9 percent. In Allegany County, the official figure is now 11 percent, and in mountainous Garrett County, where the coal industry has been at a near standstill, it is 17 percent.
Business and labor leaders everywhere say the hard times are only beginning. "The thing you have to understand about our area," said Stan Zorick, the president of the Western Maryland Central Labor council, "is that we have had chronic unemployment for a long time. So we are hit hard going in.
"Just as we were trying to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps," Zorick said, "this has come along to knock us down good. We haven't felt the brunt of it yet, but we will."
Perhaps because the bad economic news has been here for years, this round of jolts has failed to provoke the virulent anti-Carter sentiments of Detroit or Philadelphia, although few are enthusiastic about the president.
At Hagerstown's Home Federal Savings and Loan, for example, E. Leister Mobley has watched his loan closings fall from 30 a month to nine in the last year because of high interest rates. Nevertheless, he will vote for Carter in the primary.
And Lem Kirk, the president of Hancock Ford, says his sales are off 50 percent from last year, but still he signed up as Carter's campaign co-chairman in the county. "I can't blame Carter, he says. "We have to have a recession to stop inflation."
Many workers here seem to share Kirk's hardened stoicism. At the Mack truck plant's labor hall, union officials praise Carter even as they describe their fears of losing their jobs.
One man, Don Hadley, produced a clipping he had carried in his wallet for two decades that read, "There is a direct relationship between the ballot box and the breadbox." Then Hadley explained that Carter had done his best, that the auto industry's problems were its own fault, and that no one else, in his view, could manage the economy any better.
In Allegany County, where much of the economy is based on the auto industry, a number of prominent labor leaders have turned away from Carter. But those who support Kennedy say they are doing so mainly because they have always supported liberal, labor-oriented politicians.
In past elections, coalitions of blue-collar unions in Allegany helped gubernatorial candidate Ted Venetoulis win the county in the 1978 primary, along with liberal challengers to conservative local congressional incumbents.
This year, however, the unions are not as actively involved in the race, and many have not formally endorsed either candidate. Without the economy as a deciding issue, Kennedy's support is considered soft.
The fear of both Kennedy and Carter supporters around the area is that as the summer goes by and the recesson grows worse, economics finally will change thousands of votes.
"It hasn't set in yet," said Jim Ortiz, a Kennedy coordinator in Allegany, "but it has to dawn on people sometime. Come November I think the tide may really come in, and I think Reagan may come in with it."