INDIANAPOLIS — The yellow roses arrived just after lunch, and the daughter-in-law of the union leader worried his cigarette smoke would wilt them. “Maybe these should go in the kitchen,” she told him.
But Chuck Jones wanted to keep them in the union hall’s war room.
“First time in my life someone has sent me flowers,” he said gruffly, taking another drag on a Marlboro Red. The bouquet came from a stranger — another Chuck — along with a note: “God bless unions. Thank you for your courage.”
Jones, 65, is the president of the United Steelworkers 1999, which represents the Carrier factory jobs in Indianapolis that president-elect Donald Trump has vowed to save. He’s also adjusting to a new role, one surreal to a Midwestern man who uses a flip phone: Internet star.
Jones became famous overnight after pointing out Trump had overstated the deal he struck last month with United Technologies, Carrier’s parent company, to stop the plant’s jobs from moving to Mexico. “Chuck Jones … has done a terrible job representing workers,” Trump tweeted in apparent response Wednesday. “No wonder companies flee the country!”
The next day, as #StandWithChuck trended on social media, Jones huddled with friends and family in the squat, brick building, picking through care packages from people in Ohio, Kansas and California. They took turns answering the phone, scrawling tally marks on a dry erase board for every “good” and “bad” call.
By Thursday night, good was winning, 85 to 22.
A lawyer in Seattle rang, volunteering to represent Jones for free if he wanted to sue Trump for slander. (He did not.) The county prosecutor rang, offering to send security guards. (He said no.) A man who wouldn’t give his name rang, telling Jones to just shut up. (He would not.)
What does a man do when the next leader of the free world bashes him on Twitter? Jones wasn’t sure, so he kept working. The United Steelworkers were supposed to host a toy drive the following afternoon for poor children. Jones needed to buy Bud Light for the factory employees coming to wrap the presents.
He also agreed to talk to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, whose crew built a temporary set in the union’s meeting space, a cafeteria-sized room with checkered floors and a defunct Dr. Pepper machine.
Jones sat under the portable television lights and fixed his blue eyes on the camera, unsmiling. Viewers nationwide would see a man who didn’t think he’d live past 55, thanks to decades of smoking and drinking — but there he was, three months or so away from retirement, wearing jeans, steel-toed boots and a purple button-down. He’d combed his gray hair and his gray mustache. He told himself not to cuss.
From a New York City studio, Cooper asked Jones about the bad calls.
“Nobody’s said they’re going to kill me or nothing,” Jones replied. “They make statements like ‘we know where you live. We know what type of car you drive.’”
'Lied his a-- off'
The attention started after Jones told The Washington Post on Tuesday that Trump had “lied his a-- off.”
He said the president-elect was taking credit for rescuing 1,100 of the Carrier factory jobs, when, by the company’s figures, only 800 of the positions slated to leave will stay on American soil. Five hundred and fifty of his members, he said, are still preparing to lose their livelihoods. “I had to break the bad news to some of them,” Jones said. “Trump said all would stay, but it turns out only some will stay.”
Carrier, meanwhile, will collect $7 million in state tax breaks. The company also said it would pour $16 million into updating the plant — a process that will lead to more automation and some job loss, United Technologies chief executive Greg Hayes said in a CNBC interview.
Jones’s words splashed across the Internet and landed him on television with CNN’s Erin Burnett. About twenty minutes later, Trump, known to watch the news and then slam his critics, insulted Jones on Twitter, adding, “If United Steelworkers 1999 was any good, they would have kept those jobs in Indiana. Spend more time working-less time talking.”
Jones says he plead with Carrier over the last year to keep the jobs in Indianapolis and attempted to negotiate severance packages. But he couldn’t match the $65 million that Carrier stood to save by moving to Mexico.
Then Trump visited the plant on Dec. 1, announcing he had convinced United Technologies not to close the Indianapolis plant.
“Companies are not going to leave the United States any more without consequences,” Trump told the crowd of factory workers. “Not going to happen. It’s not going to happen, I’ll tell you right now.”
Jones, seated toward the back, wondered why the president-elect didn’t mention the 550 jobs still scheduled to leave.
A sign in Jones’ office reads: “The life of a union official: If they talk on a subject, they are trying to run things. If they are silent, they have lost interest in the organization.”
He was born in Indianapolis to a mother who stayed home and a father who ran machines at a factory for 30 years. He has been divorced twice and is separated from his third wife. He has four adult children and step-children.
When he was 17, Jones started working at Rexnord, a bearings plant about a mile away from the Carrier factory. He repaired machines, making $29 an hour at his earnings peak. At 32, he realized he’d been complaining for years about how the place operated and decided to run for union president.
Jones ended up winning, and he said he has won every election since -- except for one in 1991, when someone spread a rumor that he had turned the union hall into a tavern.
He now acts as foul-mouthed advocate for his 3,000 members, all in Indiana, resolving conflicts between workers and bosses, sometimes calling them “f---heads.” He watches over 12 plants, down from 32 since 1998 — casualties of trade and technology.
Next year, the Rexnord plant where Jones first worked will add to the tally of shuttered factories in his jurisdiction. The industrial supplier plans to move nearly 300 jobs to Mexico.
He also worries about losing more workers at Vertellus, a chemical company that shuttled at least 40 jobs to China last year.
He led a strike for seven weeks in 1985 when a company tried to downgrade its workers’ health insurance plan. He learned how important health insurance was, Jones said, when he developed colon cancer six years ago and beat it with chemotherapy and illicit marijuana joints.
In the spotlight
On Friday morning, the phone rang again. This time, Jones picked it up. He frowned and switched on the speaker.
“Some whackjob in Las Vegas, he threatened our local,” a United Steelworkers representative in Michigan said, his voice filling the war room. “He threatened me. He threatened my family.”
“That’s kind of over the top,” Jones replied.
“I’d say so,” the representative said. “We filed a police report.”
The threat came, the Michigan man said, after he’d posted support for Jones on Facebook. This news worried the union leader. He wasn’t sure if he’d heard from the whackjob in Las Vegas.
“Hell,” he told his friends, seated around the union hall’s wooden table for the second straight day. “We’ve had so many.”
He lit another Marlboro — this was a four-pack day — and wondered what to do. He said he didn’t care if people threatened him, but he hated to hear about others getting scared. He joked about clobbering attackers with a stapler.
“I’m tired of being the hard guy,” he said, the closest he had come to expressing concern about all this attention. “I can’t whip nobody any more. I’m too old. I smoke too much. I can’t breathe.”
That night, as Jones settled in to watch Gold Rush, a show about miners on the Discovery Channel, his friend’s daughter searched his name on Twitter. She noticed that someone had created a fake account, one that had garnered 10,400 followers. She let him know.
“How can I get that off?” Jones asked. He didn’t intend to build a web presence. He didn’t want someone muddying his name, either.
“I'm new here,” the imposter wrote, “but wanted to let Donald Trump know I'm not scared of him.”
The daughter didn’t know how to stop it. The Internet felt out of their control.
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