Third in a series of occasional articles

Of all the places devoted to making and shaping metal in this weathered industrial city, few are as venerable as the tidy brick factory on Dueber Avenue. Henry Timken, an entrepreneurial German immigrant, opened the Timken Roller Bearing Axle Co. factory in 1901, and for more than a century, workers in his original plant have cranked out millions of industrial bearings, the steel components that make things such as oil rigs and computer disk drives operate smoothly.

Now the factory is at the heart of an unlikely but intriguing subchapter in the presidential campaign. Timken, which has grown into a Fortune 500 giant, has declared the aging Dueber Avenue plant and two others in Canton to be "uncompetitive." In mid-May, it announced that it would close the factories unless workers represented by the United Steelworkers of America agreed to unspecified concessions.

The announcement landed like an anvil in this section of northeast Ohio, which has been whipped by a long and stubborn manufacturing recession. The potential closings would be not only another nasty economic lashing -- the factories employ 1,300 people -- but a sentimental one as well. Timken's roots are so deep in Canton that the company's local workforce includes the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of former Timken employees.

But the potential political ripples are even more powerful. Timken sits in the heart of a city that sits in the heart of Stark County, one of three critical "swing" counties in a state that President Bush must win to defeat his Democratic rival, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.). Stark went for Bush in the 2000 election, but just barely -- by 2,845 votes, or 1.9 percentage points.

If Timken's announcement translates into broad voter disaffection locally, nurtured by grass-roots union organizers, it would be very bad news for Bush. No Republican has ever made it to the White House without winning Ohio. "They call us the bellwether county in the bellwether state," says Stan Jasionowski, president of United Steelworkers Local 1123, which represents Timken's hourly employees. "Whichever way Stark County goes, Ohio goes."

Timken's close ties to the Republican Party, and specifically to Bush, sharpen the stakes further. W.R. "Tim" Timken Jr., the company's chairman and great-grandson of the founder, has raised more than $200,000 for Bush's reelection campaign, making him one of the president's elite "Ranger" fundraisers. In addition, Tim Timken has given nearly $300,000 to GOP candidates and committees during the past four years, according to Federal Election Commission records. His company contributed an additional $400,000 to Republicans, including $100,000 to a dinner for Bush in Ohio in 2001.

Democrats see bitter irony, and additional political capital, in Bush's visit to one of Timken's Canton plants in April 2003. Bush used the company's research facility (not one of the affected factories) as a backdrop to tout his tax cuts. Standing beneath a banner reading "Jobs and Growth," Bush said the tax cuts would mean "companies like Timken have got a better capacity to expand, which means jobs."

That has not occurred here yet, as Canton's patchwork downtown -- here a spiffy new cafe, but there an empty storefront -- attests. Ohio's economy has generally lagged while other states' have recovered. The state unemployment rate stood at 5.8 percent in April, up from 5.7 percent in March, according to the state's Department of Job and Family Services. Of the 214,500 jobs that the state has lost since Bush took office, 168,200 have been in manufacturing.

That has made the announced closings an easy target for Bush's opponents. "The Timkens are more than just contributors" to Bush, says Dan Trevas, spokesman for the Ohio Democratic Party. "They provided him moral support. When you know that, you realize what a real blow this is. This can't be good for the president."

Kerry's only public statement about the dispute came on May 20, when he urged Bush to appoint a federal mediator to intervene. (The union welcomed the suggestion, but the company said it was premature inasmuch as formal negotiations have not been scheduled.) "The administration," Kerry said, "should exhaust every potential solution to prevent these jobs from being lost."

Kerry's campaign has been more active behind the scenes. Jasionowski says he has talked with aides to Kerry at least three times since Timken's May 14 announcement. Kerry staffers have also provided out-of-town reporters with periodic updates, directing them to sympathetic union officials who have weighed in with anti-Bush comments. Among the campaign's missives to the news media was a recent memo about Timken headlined, "Bush's Reverse Midas Touch: Ohio Visit Precedes Job Cuts."

The Timken Co. and Bush's reelection officials think Kerry should butt out.

"The company finds it curious that Senator Kerry chose to focus on this particular matter," says Jason Saragian, Timken's chief spokesman. "This is a business decision and not a political issue. The senator's suggestion that the president call for mediation seems clearly politically motivated. We're talking about a decision by a private-sector company."

Bush campaign spokesman Scott Stanzel said Ohio has begun its recovery, as evidenced by the creation of 4,300 jobs in March. "The people of Stark County know President Bush has acted aggressively to strengthen the Ohio and U.S. economies," Stanzel said. As for the Timken dispute, he says Bush "has great confidence in people at the local level to work to grow the economy and find solutions to challenges. Kerry's approach is to have people in Washington, D.C., make decisions about local problems."

The Timken Co., which doubled its profit and had record sales in the first quarter, needs concessions from its unionized workers to bring costs at the three Canton factories into parity with other U.S. plants, Saragian said. With overtime pay and incentives, hourly employees in Canton make about $25 an hour, according to the company; the union says the average employee earns $40,000 to $45,000 a year.

But the company says its primary concern is the rising cost of benefits, such as pension contributions and a fully paid hospital plan. "The facts are we're not competitive with other U.S. unionized facilities," Saragian said. "We can make them competitive, but we can't do that without some assurances" from the union.

The Steelworkers' Jasionowski, a 27-year Timken employee, says the union is willing to talk, but it would like assurances, too, such as job-security guarantees. "We want them to make a commitment," he says. "If these plants go, there's nothing left around here."

The political impact of the plant closures depends a lot on timing, says Rick Farmer, a political science professor at the University of Akron, just north of Canton in Summit County. If the factories were to shut in the fall, Farmer says, a "significant" economic impact on northeast Ohio would ripple throughout the area and could cause undecided voters to turn against the president.

"It needs to be an economic event," says Farmer, who teaches campaign management. "As a piece of bad publicity, it's still early. Bad publicity in October is one thing. But this is bad publicity" five months before Election Day. Still, he adds, "I could see that it would make for good pictures for Kerry to stand in the same place that George Bush stood to sell his tax and economic policies."

Timken has not said when it will close the factories, or where it will continue to produce the products made in Canton. Nevertheless, the threat has caused plenty of anger and anxiety outside the factory on Dueber Avenue.

"To me this is all about corporate greed and corporate terrorism," said Pat Eslich, a die setter/operator at Timken for 16 years. "We've made every [productivity] goal they've asked us for. The terrorism comes from scaring the workers that their jobs won't be around. They keep telling us, be competitive, be competitive, be competitive. We do that, and yet they still ship our jobs overseas."

One 34-year-old Timken employee, who refused to be identified, sounded more resigned than bitter. Standing in the employee parking lot one pleasant spring morning, he observed: "I think they're going to close this place no matter what. These jobs are going overseas. It would be ignorant of us to think that people in another country can't do what we do, and do it for a whole lot less. I don't like it, but that does seem to be the way things are going."

The Timken Co. announced in mid-May that it may close three plants in Canton. Tom Sibila, a 30-year employee, is among 1,300 workers affected.