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GM shifts gears in Ohio, winding down production at Lordstown plant

Adrian Ma Mar 8, 2019
As the final Chevy Cruze shift ended, some workers gathered outside the plant to protest GM’s decision to put the facility in “unallocated” status. Adrian Ma/ideastream

GM shifts gears in Ohio, winding down production at Lordstown plant

Adrian Ma Mar 8, 2019
As the final Chevy Cruze shift ended, some workers gathered outside the plant to protest GM’s decision to put the facility in “unallocated” status. Adrian Ma/ideastream

The General Motors plant looms large in the village of Lordstown, Ohio, with multiple buildings in a complex that spans about 900 acres. On the side of one building, a giant banner reads “HOME OF THE CRUZE.” Since 2010, Lordstown has been just that.

But Wednesday, the last Chevrolet Cruze rolled down the assembly line here. By the end of March, GM will also cease production of the Cruze hatchback at its plant in Coahuila, Mexico. As part of a company-wide restructuring, GM says it plans to invest in other plants that are making more profitable trucks and SUVs. For about 1,500 plant workers who are being laid off, the road ahead is full of uncertainty.

As workers walked out from their last shift, some gathered across the street to protest, holding signs urging GM to save their jobs. Melissa Tonkinson was among them. After working at the plant for more than two decades, she said the last few months since the company announced the layoffs had been hard.

“I go through stages of severe anger. I go through states of hurt,” Tonkinson said. “But my reaction has physical consequences on my kids. So, I’ve had try to do the best I can do with it.”

GM says it’s not shutting down the Lordstown plant, that first opened in 1966. Instead, it says, the facility will be “unallocated”— which basically means the lights will stay on but no cars will be made there. “We have job opportunities for virtually every hourly employee at the impacted plants,” GM spokesperson Cheryl McCarron said. “Anyone who wants a job and is willing to relocate will have a job.”

However, David Green, president of the UAW Local 1112, said that the company’s decision to “unallocate” leaves open the possibility that GM will decide, at some future point, to allocate a new product to the plant. That puts his members and their families in a tough position, he said. “People don’t know what to do,” Green said. “Do they transfer? Do they stay and wait it out? It’s a pretty big gamble.” 

The Lordstown assembly plant has produced more than 1,952,279 Chevy Cruzes since 2010, according to GM spokesperson McCarron.

John Davies Jr., said he worked on the assembly line since 2007. He remembers that growing up in nearby Niles, Ohio, he had always dreamed of getting a job building cars.

“My mom always laughed about it,” Davies said. “When you talk to kids, and you hear them say, when they’re little, they say they want to be a fireman, they want to be a police officer … mine, I wanted to work at GM.”

As the final Cruze rolled down the assembly line on Wednesday morning, Davies’ supervisors told him he could leave. Instead, he lingered, following the car down the line as fellow workers put finishing touches on the white, four-door sedan and draped an American flag over the windshield.

“We didn’t say goodbye. We said, ‘We’ll see ya,’” he said, “because we’re all having hope we’ll get another product.” Davies’ eyes welled with tears as he spoke. “It’s hard. It’s real hard.”

David Green, president of UAW Local 1112, which represents workers at the Lordstown GM plant. 

Davies said he had applied for unemployment benefits. He doesn’t want to transfer, because that would possibly mean commuting a few hours to another GM plant and spending weekdays away from his wife and daughter. He adds that he could, at some point, receive a “force letter” if one of the GM facilities accepting transferees needs more workers. If that happens, he said, he will have no choice.

“I have to take that because with having kids and a wife, I need the benefits,” Davies said. “Whether it’s Texas, Michigan, New York, wherever … If they send me that force letter, I’m going.”

On average, workers at the plant earned about $30 an hour, according to Green, the union president. Until the plant’s future becomes clear, he said that Local 1112 will help members apply for other jobs or enroll in training programs.

Tonkinson, who was at the plant protest, might be one of them. “I’m going to sign up to go to school and maybe start a second career and get in the position where I can just walk away,” she said. Asked what that second career might be, Tonkinson, 57, responded, “I can tell you this: It won’t have a darn thing to do with cars.”

While some former employees of the plant say they are hopeful that GM will choose to allocate another product to the plant, GM spokesperson McCarron said no such plans have been announced. McCarron also said that although the Cruze will cease to be sold in the U.S. and Canada, the model will continue to be sold in South America and China.

The layoffs at Lordstown are part of a larger restructuring of GM that was announced  last year.  In addition to reducing its salaried workforce by 15 percent, the company said it would “unallocate” three GM assembly plants (in Lordstown, Detroit, and Ontario) and two propulsion plants (in White Marsh, Md. and Warren, Mich.).

But for Lordstown, the layoffs actually began earlier as the company moved towards SUV and truck production, and started to cut Cruze production shifts. 

UAW Local 1112’s parent organization (the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America) currently has two lawsuits pending against GM in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio.

One suit, filed in February, alleges that GM had previously agreed not to “close, idle, nor partially or wholly sell” any plant during the term of their collective bargaining agreement, which  runs until September, 2019. As such, the suit asks the court to “Rescind [GM’s] decision to close Lordstown Assembly” and “take no further steps.”

A GM spokeswoman said last week that the suit has no merit and that the company has no comment beyond that.

The other suit, filed in January, alleges that GM violated a labor agreement by hiring temporary workers at its plant in Fort Wayne, Indiana, thus taking up spots that some Lordstown workers might have been able to transfer into by virtue of seniority.

When GM first announced its restructuring plans last year, CEO Mary Barra said in a statement that the changes would “continue our transformation to be highly agile, resilient and profitable, while giving us the flexibility to invest in the future.” 

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