SHARON, Pa. - For 14 years, Terry Ross was a union steelworker, making pipe and a good life for his family. But since the plant in Sharon shut down in 2006, Ross has spent late summer days picking corn in the early morning and then tending his roadside stand, selling "Bodacious Sweet Corn," as the hand-painted sign says, out of a big wooden bin for $4 a dozen.
On a good day, he clears about $80, short money compared with the nearly $20 an hour he made straightening steel pipe on the line at the plant. His wife, Tammie, who had stayed home to raise their two children, "went back to work for the healthcare and a little bit of money," he said. Now they pay $300 a month for health insurance once covered in full by his old employer, Wheatland Tube Co.
Ross's job was one of thousands that have disappeared in this small blue-collar city in the crush of competition from China. His United Steelworkers Union has joined Wheatland Tube and other manufacturers to fight back, an innovative labor-management alliance trying to save the remaining steel industry jobs in a region proudly defined by them. But the outlook is precarious, and the economy and trade policy are foremost on these voters' minds as the presidential election approaches.
"Cheap foreign imports is what's killing us," he said, stuffing plump ears of his corn into Wal-Mart plastic bags. "Something's got to be done about it. When we were self-sufficient in this country, we used to be strong. We had everything we needed. Now, what are you going to do, ask China for some steel so we can make weapons when we have to go to war?"
Inexpensive Chinese-made steel pipe flooded US markets over the past four years, causing Wheatland Tube to close and then raze the plant in Sharon, taking another 400 jobs in the latest blow to the steel industry in western Pennsylvania.
Sharon, a city of about 16,000 in the Shenango Valley on the Ohio border, is on the front lines in that trade battle, and, after years of dreary economic news, finally won a victory in June. For the first time, the US International Trade Commission slapped five-year tariffs on a Chinese-made import - circular steel pipe like that made by Wheatland and four other US manufacturers who filed the challenge, along with the steelworkers union.
The trade commission ruled that the Chinese companies not only were dumping below-cost products in US markets, they were also benefiting from unfair subsidies provided by the Chinese government. Today, the flow of pipe from China has slowed to a trickle, providing breathing room for domestic producers of pipe used in sprinkler systems and posts for chain-link fence.
For Sharon and the Shenango Valley, however, the outlook remains uncertain. The city has lost nearly a third of its population in the last 40 years, and the transition from steel to a more diversified economy has been fitful and slow. Unemployment in Mercer County is 7.2 percent, fourth highest among Pennsylvania's 67 counties and a third higher than the statewide rate of 5.8 percent.
Mayor Robert Lucas recalls when Westinghouse employed 10,000 at its mile-long electric transformer plant on Sharpsville Avenue, and another 5,000 workers made sheets of steel at the Sharon Steel mill. Westinghouse closed in 1985; Sharon Steel shut down seven years later. Now, Wheatland Tube, the county's largest industrial employer, has 1,050 workers at three plants in Sharon and nearby Wheatland.
"There's a problem with young people leaving," said Lucas, 57, who carries three union cards from his days as a steelworker, firefighter, and carpenter. "It's the old adage - go to college and find a good job someplace else. If the talk at the dinner table is always negative, that will continue."
But the community isn't folding. In his modest mayoral office, Lucas displays plans for a new eight-story building, combining office, retail, and housing near the riverfront downtown. It would be a major addition. A third of the storefronts are vacant on State Street, the main drag through Sharon's tired business district. Completion of a long-planned restoration of the 86-year-old Columbia Theater as a centerpiece of an expanded Vocal Group Hall of Fame complex would provide an anchor tourist attraction. Conceived by Sharon native Tony Butala, who founded The Lettermen in 1958, the project needs more funding.
Despite its frayed edges, Sharon maintains its sense of place - patriotic and proud of its play-by-the-rules ethos. For generations sons have followed fathers into the steel plants.
Several downtown shops display American flags in their windows, and a small replica of the Iwo Jima flag-raising memorial sits near the bridge over the Shenango River on State Street. "Made in America" has an urgent appeal in this union town. The Army-Navy store trumpets its American-made brands on a mural-size handpainted sign, and four of every five passing cars on State Street are US models.
In the shadow of the former Westinghouse plant and near to Sharon's blue-collar heart is Billy's Black-and-Gold, a big sports bar with a parking lot the size of a football field. Upstairs is the weekly poker game and downstairs, for about 10 bucks, you can get a dozen hot garlic chicken wings, wash them down with a couple of Iron City drafts, and watch Monday Night Football.
Named for the colors of the pro sports teams in Pittsburgh, an hour-plus drive to the south, Billy's is crammed with Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins memorabilia. The original decor features life-size paintings of Steel City sports legends by Billy's wife, Carol Novosel, renowned locally for mastery of Ukrainian folk art.
Mercer County leans Democratic and Sharon is overwhelmingly so. But this is Reagan Democrat country. Sharon's population is whiter, older, and less educated than the nation as a whole and the county vote in the last two presidential elections mirrored the national results - Al Gore edged George W. Bush in Mercer County in 2000, but Bush beat John F. Kerry by almost three points in 2004. It is also Clinton country. In this year's Pennsylvania Democratic presidential primary, Hillary Clinton trounced Barack Obama by more than 38 points in Mercer County.
"I'm a big Clinton supporter; I loved Bill," said George Bornes, retired president of the steelworkers' local that represented workers in the Sharon plant torn down 16 months ago. Dropping by the corn stand of his former coworker, Terry Ross, Bornes, a self-described "lifelong Democrat," Bornes hesitated when asked who he'll vote for in November. After a moment, he said: "I will stay a Democrat and vote for Obama . . . I can't afford any more of this economy."
The decline of manufacturing has produced in the past three years a durable alliance between traditional adversaries - labor and management - who have joined forces to change US trade policies and defend industries under attack from China and other countries.
"We're all here trying to save jobs," said Mickey Bolt, a union steelworker for 32 years in Sharon who has been on loan for the past 15 months to the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a trade association that has been critical of US trade policies and Chinese practices.
Bolt is the western Pennsylvania coordinator for the manufacturers' alliance, raising awareness by speaking to local business, civic, and labor groups about the loss of manufacturing jobs to China. A study done for the group in July said 2.3 million American jobs were lost to China between 2001 and 2007.
"Those are jobs that supported families," Bolt said. "We kept it in the news, and people started to realize it wasn't that American workers were competing with a guy making three bowls of rice a day; we were competing with the Chinese government," said Bolt, 55, a resident of the Sharon area nearly all his life.
"In late 2005, early 2006, the Chinese were selling galvanized, finished, threaded pipe for about $580 a ton," Bolt said. "My company [Wheatland Tube] was paying $600 a ton for steel and $200 a ton for zinc, and and they hadn't turned on the furnace and a worker hadn't walked in the door yet. The only way the Chinese could do that was by government subsidies, government interference in the market."
The labor-management collaboration extended to the steel pipe plants around Sharon.
"About two years ago, we gave union leadership copies of Friedman's 'The World Is Flat,' and told them what we had to do to remain competitive in a global economy," said William L. Kerins, president of the corporate division that runs the Wheatland Tube facilities. He was referring to Thomas L. Friedman's 2005 best-seller that described how globalization and technology have made the emerging countries more competitive with industrial nations.
The day after Kerins spoke with the Globe, the company was sold for $3.53 billion to OAO Novolipetsk, the fourth largest steelmaker in Russia.
Kerins, who over 30 years has worked his way up from a foreman's job at Wheatland, is one of nine children of a union steelworker employed at Wheatland for 42 years.
"We're not protectionist; we simply believe in fair trade," Kerins said. "As long as it's a level playing field, we can compete out there . . . Our employees are not looking for handouts."