On the day the Lordstown car plant closed in Northern Ohio, I was riding down the Ohio Turnpike with my daughter headed east to Washington D.C. In the last 8-9 years, I have passed through that stretch of highway at least 100 times. The huge Lordstown auto plant just off the distance in Mahoning County, right near Youngstown, can’t be missed. It’s a landmark of sorts. You are now officially in the Rust Belt, the Heartland of the United States, that tiny piece of the Americana that many contend decided the last election.
The plant, opened under much fanfare in 1966, boasts a colored photo of the Chevy Cruze on both ends of the plant. This is the product Lordstown has been churning out daily for years now. Yet, today, no more.
There were a few cars parked near the entrance road to the plant on closing day and a small crowd of people have gathered to say goodbye to their workplace. A few are holding signs which I could not see and it looked as if someone is waving an American flag. I pulled my car over on the thin shoulder of the Ohio turnpike to take a quick photo of the plant on my phone. My daughter, distracted by a downloaded movie she had been watching, looked up and asks why.
“History,” I tell her.
I had heard of the imminent closure of the Lordstown GM plant months before the day I pulled my car over to take the photo. It is only a coincidence I am passing by the plant today, on the very last day of production. Like most, I read the news reports and immediately thought of the people in the area, soon to be out of work. People I likely saw working at the Mahoning service plaza right up the road on the Ohio Turnpike or perhaps at one of the hotels I stayed at when I often stopped for the night on occasion.
GM management offered the typical reasons for the closure. The Cruze, the automobile produced at the plant for years, was alleged to be underperforming in sales and the company needed to close the plant to save a few billion. Other observers offered other reasons for the closure: outsourcing and technological advancements had once again claimed a piece of America’s manufacturing core. But I read later that the real story of the closure of Lordstown is more complex which is worth noting.
According to a report prepared by the American Federal of Teachers (AFT), the plant’s closing can be traced to two things: hedge funds and stock buybacks. The report notes that GM spent $25 billion in payments to hedge funds ($10 billion as stock buybacks) over the last 4 years. The significance of this decision is, the company only needed to save $4.5 billion when it announced various plant closures including Lordstown. The stock buybacks are especially strange considering corporations received massive massive tax relief in 2017, a tax giveaway many contended would result in more jobs, higher wages, and an investment in research and development. This did not happen for the most part. Instead, GM remained on a path of stock buybacks to please investors. That is the other story beneath the comfortable narrative that continues to be perpetuated.
The current President, Donald Trump, who promised he would bring an end to plant closings in places such as northern Ohio, came to the area last week allegedly attempt to try to save the plant. He was unsuccessful; his appearance barely was noticed. Trump’s parting shot after meeting with GM officials was to declare that high union dues caused the plant to close, even though such dues are paid by employees and not management.
If anyone understands the history of the Lordstown plant and what it represents in the history of organized labor in America, the plant’s closing is that much more defeating for blue collar workers. In the 1970’s, Lordstown became ground zero for labor organizing and the fight for progressive change in the industrial workplace. The intense struggles of the 1960’s arrived in the industrial workplace in its own form. Not only did the workers of Lordstown take on GM with their demands for a larger role in how the factory operated, the young workers at Lordstown also broke from their union, The United Auto Workers or UAW and forged a new direction for change.
Lordstown employed many individuals under the age of 30. Many had also served in Vietnam, and some donned the hippie hairstyles or Afros of the day if they were Black-Americans. They were fearless and in March 1972, disturbed that GM was attempting to overwork them in order to save money, they shut the plant down for 21 days in defiance of GM and their union, UAW. As the legendary labor organizer, William W. Winpisinger later wrote of the strike in April 1973: “the young workers at Lordstown were reacting against the same kind of grievances, in the same kind of way, as did a generation of workers before them.”
Victor Reuther, one of the three brothers from the well known labor organizing Reuther family, analyzed the significance of the strike more powerfully. The new generation of workers according to Reuther were seeking “the right of workers to participate in some of the corporate decision-making that bears so heavily on their own lives and the lives of their children.” decision to suddenly close the plant is just the kind of decision the workers were seeking to influence.
My friend, the filmmaker, Jeff Wray, recalls working at the Lordstown plant while in college. He says it was “the best job he ever had.” Wray also had friends and relatives who worked at the plant. And while Wray worked there in 1981, well after the famous strike, the workers at the plant during his time, Wray said, remained active and ever vigilant.
In 1978, Lordstown, became an inspiration for the film, ‘Blue Collar.’ Paul Schrader, the famous screenwriter, made his directorial debut with the film. He describes it as a film with a “Marxist conclusion.” While ‘Blue Collar’ is set in Detroit, the film embraces the values of those courageous workers at Lordstown, who rebelled against the corporate system as they found it.
Today, the people of Lordstown, the ex-workers, and the locals, face the difficult reality.
On March 28, 2019, GM sent out letters advising the last of the workers that the layoffs were permanent. Some workers are being offered positions elsewhere in the U.S.; many others are effectively fired. Lives ae being disrupted and an entire community is economically staring at change beyond their control.
This is why I stopped to take the photograph. As Victor Reuther noted in 1973 when he wrote of the strike, thirty years from now people will remember what the workers at Youngstown tried to do. People would remember them 30 years later, Reuther said. It is now 47 years later and many do remember and I wanted to be certain to do my part to keep that memory alive.