SOUTH MILWAUKEE, Wis. — Maurice King worked for Joerns Healthcare, a medical-furniture manufacturer, for nearly 43 years. Until suddenly one day, he didn’t.

Joerns closed its plant in Stevens Point, Wis., in 2012 after years of gradually outsourcing work to China. It let go 175 workers. Now the 62-year-old former local steelworkers union president works a 2-11 p.m. shift at a fan factory.

No more local fish fries on Friday nights with his wife, or his side job for 25 years as town chairman in Dewey, population 975. He hasn’t yet earned a week of vacation. Retirement has been pushed back.

“You had the job, you figured you were planning out how things were going to go,” King said. “Now you’ve got to back up and rethink.”

Establishment economists, government and business officials argue that trade deals are critical in a global economy, and great for America. But critics like organized labor call them “death warrants.”

And in blue-collar communities in Wisconsin and across the industrial Midwest, that economic angst, coupled with a sense of betrayal, helps explain the roiling politics of 2016.

Wisconsin votes Tuesday. Soon after come other industrial states, including Pennsylvania. And all could be battlegrounds this fall in the general election.

A lot will look like Milwaukee, once known as “the machine shop to the world,” now grappling with a new economy.

Wisconsin has lost more than more than 68,000 manufacturing jobs since the mid-1990s, when the first of several trade agreements with Mexico, China and other nations took hold. About 76,000 Wisconsin workers in various fields lost their jobs because of imports or the work they do being shipped overseas, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

Not all the layoffs and plant closings can be attributed solely to free trade. Some are caused, at least in part, by slowdowns in specific industries such as housing and mining.

Wisconsin’s manufacturing sector, once one of the country’s strongest, has taken a lot of punches in recent years. General Motors, General Electric, Chrysler, Joy Global Surface Mining and Manitowoc Cranes have all cut jobs or closed operations in recent years for a variety of reasons.

Hometown companies such as Kohler, the plumbing supply manufacturer, and Trek Bicycles have sent jobs to India, China and Taiwan.

Meanwhile, Madison, the state capital, will lose 1,000 jobs over the next two years as the 100-year-old Oscar Mayer meat processing plant closes. Just east on Interstate 94 in Jefferson, Tyson Foods will close its pepperoni processing plant, cutting 400 jobs.

“Change is hard,” Jefferson Mayor Dale Oppermann said. “Something that unexpected like this is a challenge for people. A lot of the people I know haven’t filled out a job application for 30 years, much less done it online.”

The turmoil feeds into a debate over trade in the 2016 campaign.

“Politically, it’s an easy point to make: It isn’t totally untrue at all to say that globalization has hurt American workers,” said former Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat who served from 2003 to 2011. “What you do about that is a lot harder to figure.”

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democrat candidate Bernie Sanders have been the most outspoken against trade deals.

In Wisconsin, voters are about evenly split on whether free trade agreements have helped or hurt, according to a recent Marquette University Law School poll. In Michigan and Ohio, a majority of primary voters in both parties said foreign trade kills jobs in the U.S.

That’s the feeling inside union halls and communities with closed factories. Trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership mean only uncertainty and distress.

The Business Roundtable, an association of major-company executives, say international trade supports 1 in 5 Wisconsin jobs, and that lower manufacturing costs overseas lowers prices for U.S. consumers.

“It is an economic fact of life that both businesses and their employees benefit when we sell more products overseas, and consumers enjoy a wider range of products at lower prices,” Jerry Jasinowski, former president of the National Association of Manufacturers, said in a recent statement.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.