Jerry Autrey is the mayor of Batesville, Mississippi, a town of about 7,500 that is about to lose 200 jobs to Mexico because its Batesville Casket Company plant is closing down.
Before President-elect Donald Trump came along, stopping the job loss wasn’t something Autrey thought he could do. But now that Trump has made an example of Carrier, a company that had planned to shift production from Indiana to Mexico, Autrey is trying to get Trump’s attention.
“I’m trying to do evidently what somebody did up there in Indiana with Carrier,” Autrey, a Democrat, told The Huffington Post. “Who knows, it may work.”
After all, Trump’s intervention stopped Carrier from closing a factory that employs 1,400 people in Indianapolis. The company announced last week that as a result of a deal with Trump, the gas furnace factory is staying open and 800 jobs would remain.
“They’re going to spend a lot of money on the plant and I said to some of the folks, I said companies are not going to leave the United States anymore without consequences,” Trump said at an event at Carrier last week. “Not going to happen.”
Over the weekend, Trump wrote a series of tweets saying that “any business that leaves our country for another country, fires its employees, builds a new factory or plant in the other country, and then thinks it will sell its product back into the U.S. without retribution or consequence, is WRONG!”
Trump added that he would put a 35 percent tax on companies trying to sell products across the border. Hiking tariffs on Mexican-made products would be a violation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, but Trump has pledged to renegotiate that trade deal as soon as he takes office.
The funeral services company known as Batesville ― whose parent company, Hillenbrand, is headquartered in Batesville, Indiana; the town in Mississippi happens to have the same name ― is a profitable business. But it says it’s in a different position than Carrier, due to the rising popularity of cremation. The company noted that for the first time this year, a majority of American families will go with cremation instead of burial. And the vast majority of people who buy caskets choose metal ones, meaning there’s even less demand for the wooden caskets made at the Mississippi plant.
Batesville company president Chris Trainor said in a statement that layoff decisions aren’t easy.
“The demand for burial caskets has steadily declined over the last few decades and we believe that trend will continue for the next several years,” Trainor said. “Closing our smaller wood assembly plant will allow us to align our manufacturing output with consumer demand.”
Autrey’s not sure he’s buying it.
“Their excuse is, cremation’s taking a toll on the casket industry,” he said. “That may be a little bit of it, but it may just be it’s cheaper to make them in Mexico than in the United States.”
Dan Isard, a consultant for the funeral service industry, said the cremation explanation is too simplistic. The increasing popularity of cremation doesn’t directly correspond to a reduced demand for caskets, Isard said, since about 80 percent of cremations are preceded by some sort of ceremony that usually involves a casket.
“Only 11 percent of deaths result in a direct cremation,” Isard said.
Autrey said he and other local officials hope they can get another company to use Batesville’s factory after it shuts down. In the meantime, the mayor’s plan has been to reach out to Republicans, including state officials and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), in hopes of eventually getting hold of someone close to Trump.
A spokesman for the Trump transition team did not respond to a request for comment from HuffPost on Tuesday.
Wicker said his office is “engaged in the issue” and that he hopes for an outcome similar to Carrier’s. He stressed that the Carrier deal includes a modest tax incentive from the state of Indiana, and that Trump has promised a better tax and regulatory climate in the coming years.
“Those are the two aspects that worked and hopefully we can do the same,” Wicker told HuffPost. (Another factor may have been that Carrier’s parent company, United Technologies, does a lot of business with the federal government and would have an incentive not to antagonize Trump.)
“I think there are better ways than tariffs to protect American jobs and grow our economy,” Wicker said.
Batesville isn’t the only casket maker shifting production down south. Matthews International, a competitor of Batesville’s that is also profitable, is planning to lay off some workers at a metal casket factory in Aurora, Indiana. The company announced in an August letter to customers that while its factories in Indiana and Pennsylvania will stay open, all production of its cheaper line of metal caskets will be done in Monterrey, Mexico.
Michael Mobley is the shop steward for the local Boilermarkers union that represents 175 workers at the Aurora facility. He said the company already laid off about 40 workers this fall and that it plans to lay off another 30 early next year, though details on the timing have been sketchy.
“It’s cheaper to make them down in Mexico,” Mobley said.
A company spokeswoman for Matthews said that “the only planned staffing changes in the Aurora facility in 2017 are for a small number of positions to be transferred to other existing U.S. facilities.”
In August, the U.S. Department of Labor certified Mobley’s petition for Trade Adjustment Assistance on behalf of the 70 or so Aurora workers who will be affected. The trade assistance program provides unemployment benefits and retraining opportunities for workers who lose their jobs due to foreign trade.
The Aurora casket layoffs won’t be Indiana’s first; Batesville cut 100 jobs from its facility in Batesville, Indiana, in 2012. Nationally, overall manufacturing employment is down from 17 million in 2000 to about 12 million as of November.
Mobley said he’d like it if the layoffs received attention from Trump the way the Carrier situation did. But he acknowledged that with so many fewer workers involved, the layoffs are unlikely to get much attention beyond local papers.
“We know we’re not going to get the headlines,” he said. “That’s why we’d like to see NAFTA renegotiated.”