From 'Steel City' To A Service Economy, Changing Times In Pueblo, Colo.

Feb 27, 2020
Originally published on February 27, 2020 7:14 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This is one of more than a dozen states that will vote next week on Super Tuesday. And it's one of the places where we're launching a year-long NPR series called Where Voters Are.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Between now and the election, we will be returning to a handful of communities that reflect the range of people and issues shaping the country today. We will talk to voters about where they are on this election and where they are in the country.

And Ari, you have spent the last several days in Pueblo.

SHAPIRO: That's right. To get here, you drive about two hours south from Denver. It's wide-open plains stretching for miles, mountains off in the distance. And then, popping up out of the horizon, you see these stark vertical lines - smokestacks. They're the sign that you are approaching Pueblo and the mill that gave this place its nickname, Steel City. But today, only about 6% of Pueblo's jobs are in manufacturing. Old-timers like Rod Slyhoff can trace the change back to one day in 1984.

ROD SLYHOFF: For guys like me, it's in my mind all the time.

SHAPIRO: He's president and CEO of the Pueblo Chamber of Commerce.

SLYHOFF: I believe it was in March. Sixty-five hundred pink slips were issued to the employees, and our economy changed drastically in one day.

SHAPIRO: Donald Trump has built his presidency on promises to bring back those kinds of jobs. In fact, just last week, Trump held a rally in Colorado Springs, about 45 minutes up the road from Pueblo.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Remember they said, you can't do manufacturing jobs anymore? Really? Tell me about it. Unemployment has reached the lowest rate in over one half a century.

(CHEERING)

SHAPIRO: Those promises sound good to Rod Slyhoff.

SLYHOFF: It shows that we have a president that's interested in those - in that industry. So it's that attitude that you've got a leader that is really aware of the value of manufacturing. We're - I think we felt like maybe that hasn't been a priority for previous presidents.

SHAPIRO: Here in Pueblo, we found two stories of the economy. As Trump says, unemployment is down. The stock market has been up for the last few years. And from that perspective, things look great. At the same time, working people in Pueblo feel like they can't catch a break. Median income has barely budged here since 2010. Today, the steel mill is owned by a Russian company, and it doesn't have the 24/7 stream of workers that it used to.

CHUCK PERKO: This was the main gate to the plant. You had a whole bunch of bars that were right outside.

SHAPIRO: Chuck Perko is president of the union that represents some of the workers. The property is two miles wide. He drives us up to the front gate.

There's a sign on the visitor center there that says 140 years steel strong.

PERKO: Yeah. The mill itself goes back to 1882.

SHAPIRO: But it's kind of a fraction of what it once was.

PERKO: Yeah. Like I said, it's 10% of the workforce.

SHAPIRO: Chuck Perko took us to his union hall, where there's an antique Pepsi machine and an out-of-tune piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO CHORD PLAYING)

SHAPIRO: He told me some of his union members went to that Trump rally in Colorado Springs.

PERKO: People need that little bit of hope, even if you - it doesn't take much of a delve to realize that what he's saying is not what he intends to do. The message is good, but it's not going to be backed up by anything that is going to be good for your job.

SHAPIRO: This area narrowly went for Trump in 2016. Did that surprise you?

PERKO: It did. I mean, this has been a labor stronghold going back to the 1930s, when labor came into its own. So it was quite a slap in the face.

SHAPIRO: Pueblo has also attracted generations of immigrants. Perko's team at the mill has 20 nationalities. Today, the city is 50% Hispanic. Perko is the fourth generation of his family to work at the mill, and he realizes he's one of the lucky ones. He didn't finish college. He didn't need to.

PERKO: One of the things that you see kind of written on a lot of the new hard hats is #millmoney because it's still one of the best-paying jobs for somebody out there that may not necessarily have a college degree.

SHAPIRO: Even though the phrase Steel City is all over restaurants and bars in Pueblo, today the city has more people working in retail, education, food service. And a growing number of people are working in newer industries, like clean energy and marijuana.

PERKO: When I hear someone say that job at McDonald's is - they don't deserve to make even $12 an hour because they should pick themselves up by their bootstraps and go do something else - those people work harder than I do. I'm - I'll be the first to admit it. And they deserve to be paid for their labor. And so...

SHAPIRO: You sound like a Bernie Sanders supporter.

PERKO: I am.

SHAPIRO: Really? Did I just call that?

He used to like Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren.

PERKO: They're all people that either have a blue-collar background or have at least a plan for the working class. I cannot get behind the parts of the Democratic Party that feel like corporate America.

SHAPIRO: When the steel mill laid off thousands of workers in the 1980s, a group of churches got together to open a food pantry.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hi. How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It's good to see you. The wind didn't blow you away.

SHAPIRO: It's called the Cooperative Care Center, and it's still open today, offering bags of food, clothes, medicine, toiletries. But the clients aren't laid-off steelworkers anymore.

Mona Montoya has been the director for 27 years.

MONA MONTOYA: It's a middle class now that we're - that are hurting. Well, we've seen people from the police department, fire department, schoolteachers, nurses. You close your eyes, and you think of a homeless person. They're families. And there's where it really pains us to see this kind of deal.

SHAPIRO: This center helped 38,000 people last year. That's about a quarter of the local population - not surprising since a quarter of the people in Pueblo live at or below the poverty line. A lot of the food at the center is donated by grocery stores.

Don Sena has spent his life stocking supermarket shelves on the overnight shift.

DON SENA: I've been in the grocery business over 50 years.

SHAPIRO: I met him at a blue-collar bar near the steel mill where his father used to work. Sena was pouring a Dos Equis beer into a glass of tomato juice. We stepped outside, and he told me he put his daughter through college. His son is a drill instructor in the Marines. He's about to retire. It's the American dream, but he's not feeling too good about it.

SENA: There ain't no jobs in this town anymore. There ain't none. If you have a job, you're lucky.

SHAPIRO: Do you think who's president matters to how Pueblo does?

SENA: Yeah. I do believe. You know, working-class people are struggling, and these rich people just want to get richer. And they're just taking advantage of the working-class person.

SHAPIRO: Are you thinking about that when you cast your vote?

SENA: Well, I cast my vote every time. But you know what? I don't think it even matters anymore.

SHAPIRO: These struggles are easy to find in Pueblo, but in the last week here, we've also found something else - artists and small businesses starting to take root in the city's empty spaces. In a historic downtown, there are murals everywhere, small breweries making local beer.

INA BERNARD: Welcome to Artisan Textile Company. We carry handmade items by local artists.

SHAPIRO: Ina Bernard is a textile artist from Germany who opened this shop four years ago in an old part of the city. She sells candles, cards, mittens and paintings, all made by people in the area. Her shop offers classes in scarf knitting and cardmaking.

BERNARD: It's just a really fun small community - small-town community, lovely location. The weather is beautiful - lot of sunshine, also, the mountains. But you know, it's nice down here - small-town feel still.

SHAPIRO: This town is known as Steel City, and making artisan textiles seems like almost the opposite of manufacturing steel, if there is such a thing.

BERNARD: I think Pueblo is very proud to be a steel city town 'cause that's really what helped it build it up. I mean, that's why people came here. But I think now, you know, we love to keep that kind of as our foundation. But you know, I think Pueblo now is kind of looking at maybe growing from that, you know? And definitely, being supportive of the creative economy is definitely one part of that.

SHAPIRO: To her, Pueblo's growing artists' community is not a sharp break from the industrial past. She says, just like immigrants a century ago, she moved to Pueblo to be in a place where people make things.

KELLY: My co-host Ari Shapiro in Pueblo, Colo., reporting there for our new election year project Where Voters Are. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.