Lordstown General Motors Workers Mull a Deal: 'We Showed America Unions Aren't Irrelevant'

This week, UAW workers nationwide will vote whether to ratify a new four-year contract with GM. It does not call for reopening the Lordstown assembly plant, something Lordstown workers had hoped for. Now they're waiting while the rank and file votes to accept the contract as is or reject it. "The Lordstown people are angry. They feel like they'll be abandoned. And they're right," says Dr. Erik Gordon of the Ross Business School at the University of Michigan. Gordon follows the auto industry. Lordstown is the north Ohio assembly plant that once made the Chevy Cruze. Since March, it's been shuttered because GM has "unallocated" its production volume.

Auto manufacturers believe an industry downturn is coming. The auto industry is highly cyclical, and sales have been above historic norms for the last five years. GM wants the flexibility to close plants and shift production from high cost to low cost locations, like Mexico. They also want to be able to bring on new workers at a lower wage and benefits scale than existing workers. When the last contract expired on September 15, the union rejected GM's contract offer and struck. Part of the reason for the strike, according to Gordon, was that workers at other GM locations were afraid that what happened to Lordstown could happen to them. On October 16, GM and the UAW negotiators reached agreement on a new contract, which now goes out to a vote.

At the union hall in Lordstown, the vice-president of UAW Local 1112, Bill Adams, isn't optimistic. "I'm hoping it doesn't pass. But it's hard to be sure, you know?" He looks away before continuing, "People got families. The proposed contract is a good deal for most." He does not expect President Trump to ride to the rescue, despite Trump's campaign promise to northern Ohio to keep manufacturing plants open, even though many of the affected workers are part of Trump's base. Professor Gordon says, "The rank and file love Trump. They think he's got their back." Adams snorts, "I hope he stays the hell out. The Republicans are destroying unions. We're being legislated away."

Vice-president of UAW Local 1112, Bill Adams, 18 October 2019. "We brought a major corporation to the edge." Sam Hill/Newsweek

Gordon says the new agreement is a better deal for GM. "Nobody won. Both sides lost revenue and pay they won't recover, and neither side got what they wanted. GM didn't get the manufacturing flexibility it wanted in order to refocus its product lines and transition to electric vehicles, but it didn't let the union put it into a straitjacket via a promise to move all new production of US-bound vehicles into the US. The UAW didn't get an 'everything new made in our plants' agreement, but they got a commitment from GM to invest substantial sums in US production, and they got raises, movement on the temporary worker issue, and some healthcare protection. While it's not a terrific deal for GM, it's worth the price of the strike. If you'd offered them this same deal on the first day of the strike, they'd have jumped at it. Still, it's kicking the can down the road. GM might have enough time left to survive and try for more flexibility in the next contract."

Adams believes it was about more than just economics. He thinks Lordstown is being punished for standing up for workers' rights, what he says "management" calls "the Lordstown culture." He believes that GM precipitated the strike as a signal to the other 55 locals. He hands me the last contract. It's a thick bound book. 701 pages. "Everything is spelled out in there in black and white. Management says it's subject to interpretation. It's not. There are no gray areas. We signed the contract. We're willing to live by it. They're not. There's language in there that says the company can't 'close, idle, or sell' a plant, so instead they 'unallocate volume.' There's nothing in the contract about 'unallocating.' I think this thing [the strike] has been a long time in the making on GM's part, and a lot of it's about Lordstown," says Adams.

When Adams began working at the Lordstown plant in 1986, he says it had 8,600 workers. When it was "unallocated" earlier this year, he says there were 1,500. "When I joined there were a few robots spot welding. Now they're all over the plant." He says that when GM stopped making the Cruze it offered jobs in other facilities. Most workers took them, and now commute during the week. Many are only able to get home on weekends. "Some guys only have a few years to retirement, you know? They want to retire here. This is their home. My brother's working in Lansing [227 miles away.] He shares an apartment and they carpool, which isn't always great. Michigan winters are no picnic."

Long-time industry executive Jim Schroer, formerly VP of global marketing at Ford and EVP of Global Sales and Marketing at Chrysler, observes that while GM has mothballed Lordstown, 180 miles away the Honda plant in Marysville is humming. He wonders why Honda can make cars in Ohio profitably and GM cannot. He thinks manufacturing strategy may be part of the issue. "GM has committed to single product plants, while the Japanese automakers make several types of vehicles in each plant. That gives them some flexibility when demand for one product drops." Bill Adams thinks it's more about won't than can't. "GM doesn't want to build small cars. Trucks and SUVs are easier to build. They take less parts." Gordon suspects it has something to do with the fact that Lordstown is union and Marysville is not. Whatever the reason, GM has no plans to allocate product back to the plant.

Gordon and Adams disagree on whether labor achieved much. Gordon says, "Labor should not be emboldened. GM was willing to suffer a longer strike than the union expected. The union didn't have the power to quickly bring GM to its knees." For Adams, though, this is about more than a contract. "We showed up. We showed America unions aren't irrelevant. We brought a major corporation to the edge. Corporate greed is rampant in America. This isn't just about us. Think about this community. This will devastate it." He pauses before finishing, "We're standing up for the middle class."

Picket line at Lordstown Assembly Plant main gate on Friday, October 18, 2019 Sam Hill/Newsweek