“When we were building the automated machines, they were sending them out one at a time,” said Izzi, 55, “making us think that they were just sending them to the other plants.”
Ground-fault circuit interrupters, or GFCI outlets, on which Leviton requested the tariff waivers, were particularly labor-intensive. They’re the kind of electrical outlets found in bathrooms and kitchens that are designed to shut off if the current comes into contact with water. The outlets were made in Warwick for a while but eventually made their way to Leviton’s factory in Dongguan, China.
Kiefer Jr. and his wife were having an inspection on their new house the day that the bosses announced they were closing the plant in 2005.
After three months out of work, he took another machinist job for $5 an hour less than the $21 an hour he made at Leviton. Still, he felt lucky. Other workers ended up at Walmart or as janitors at the local hospital.
“Before the end,” Izzi said, “we even had the Mexicans come and watch us build them so that they could build them themselves.”
“They came in and they were actually complaining that Leviton was moving all the production they were making over to China,” Kiefer Jr. said. “We were like, ‘Well, now you know how we feel.’”
After the Warwick factory closed, Leviton closed two plants in western North Carolina in 2008 and 2009 and a factory in El Paso in 2013. The company said in a statement that it still has thousands of employees in the U.S., but declined to say how many work in manufacturing.
“Most people, even though they hated it when they worked there, there was no place like that,” Kiefer Jr. said.
“I think half of Rhode Island worked there at one time or another,” said Kiefer Sr., 78, cradling a plastic-foam cup of coffee.
Sure enough, as they talked amid the mall’s afternoon crowds, a few former Leviton workers or their relatives happened by.
One was Rui Carrinho, the longtime union leader at the plant. Talk turned to Leviton’s request to get rid of the tariffs. “That’s the government giving them an incentive to move the jobs abroad,” Carrinho said.
But even if Leviton doesn’t get the waivers on the outlets now, because of a technology trade agreement signed in 2015, the tariffs on them are due to phase out within the next five years.
“To me, it’s just frustrating because the state, they’re looking for all these high-tech jobs—a lot of people can’t do those kind of jobs,” Kiefer Jr. said. “They want manufacturing that people who can work with their hands can do. But there’s not a lot of a jobs like that anymore.”
Data reporter Hannah Fresques contributed to this report.
The world of trade is filled with contradictions and games as countries and corporations try to bend trade agreements and enforcement tools in their favor—and against their competitors. ProPublica is exploring how rules governing international trade affect workers, businesses, investors, and consumers. If you have tips, ideas for stories or questions, contact Michael at Michael.email@example.com or on Signal at 347-573-3030.