For the past year, Lordstown, Ohio, has felt every twist of General Motors Co.'s roller-coaster ride. Surrounded by faded steel mills, the automaker's Lordstown plant is the region's last major manufacturer. It reopens today with far fewer employees, and their future -- like that of the region -- is pinned on the Chevy Cruze. "If you have a product, you have hope," said plant veteran John Tarchick. (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)
When the Lordstown General Motors Co. plant reopens today after an extended summer shutdown, about 2,600 fewer employees will be reporting to work than a year ago.
Those who still have a job are thankful but have been battered by a tumultuous year that began with high hopes when GM selected the Lordstown plant for a new product -- the Chevy Cruze -- then quickly spiraled down as GM floundered amid the national economic meltdown and declared bankruptcy on June 1.
Lordstown's story is being told in auto communities across the nation that have been laid low by the industry's painful transformation. "The last eight months have been so chaotic," said Lordstown Mayor Michael Chaffee. "We went from the top of the world in August (2008), to treading water and praying in April."
But the Cruze gives Lordstown residents hope their plant will stay open. GM also hopes the smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicle will carry the smaller, more efficient car company through the next century.
Keeping the plant is one thing, but in an area that American industry has been leaving for 30 years, the loss of jobs from the last major manufacturing employer is huge.
Twenty miles from Lordstown is Youngstown, Ohio, a once-booming manufacturing and industrial community that relied on steel mills to sustain its middle class. When the mills downsized or closed beginning in the late 1970s, residents left to seek work elsewhere, and the standard of living declined for those who remained.
Unlike previous decades, when industry left the area for other parts of the nation, companies are now moving out of the country entirely, permanently erasing thousands of jobs. And it's not just the jobs that are fading, but also health care, pensions and other benefits that built the working middle class.
John Russo, co-director for working class studies at Youngstown State University, has been studying this erosion for years and said he finds the push for cheaper U.S. labor depressing.
"We seem to be willing to create jobs for a working people where the wages and benefits cannot support paying their basic bills," Russo said. "So, it seems to me, Youngstown's story, now Lordstown's story, is a part of America's story as we begin this next century."
Since the turn of the last century, Youngstown attracted workers from across the country and around the world with the promise of steady work and good wages at its mills. But as less-expensive foreign steel drove down the demand for U.S. steel, the industry began to pack up and move out of town.
After what residents refer to as "Black Monday" on Sept. 19, 1977 -- when Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the closure of most of its plant -- other parts of the steel industry followed suit. By 1982, more than 40,000 manufacturing jobs were lost in the community.
"At that time, the area had GM to fall back on," said Jim Graham, United Auto Workers Local 1112 president in Lordstown. "We employed close to 13,000 people. If the auto industry fails in this country, in this area, there's nothing else to fall back on."
Taking Exit 215 off the Ohio Turnpike, you can't miss the GM plant. At 5 million square feet, it overshadows the community, and at times has had more employees than Lordstown has residents.
The city has a couple of convenience stores, a gas station and a small business strip with a dollar store and a Subway shop. At Lordstown High School, where the graduating class this year had 28 students, there's no football field or outdoor track. American cars sit in the driveways. More than 70 percent of the town's tax revenue comes from workers at the plant, and the town has been forced to cut some of its part-time employees.
"It causes a lot of strain," said Chaffee, the mayor. "Three times more houses are for sale in our community (since 2008), and what used to be a number in the teens is now 75. It's kind of a slow-drip death for our whole area. Hardly a week goes by that you don't find out someone in the area is cutting 60, 70, 80 jobs. In the old days, they would always say the cuts were temporary."
California Pizza and Things pizzeria and convenience store, about a mile from the plant, gleans more than half of its business from factory workers, owner Mark McGrail said. To cope with declining income, McGrail and his wife, Rita, have cut costs: They have laid off all but one employee, picked up their goods instead of having them delivered, kept most of the lights turned off and turned the heat down in the winter. Conversation over the register is almost always the same.
"It just seems like everyone is laid off, or someone in their family is laid off, and it's not just those who work in the plant," Rita McGrail said.
The General Motors plant
"The history of the automobile industry for the latter part of the last century and the first part of this century can be told through the (Lordstown) plant," said Youngstown State's Russo. "Technologically, it's a sophisticated plant: has the highest level of education attainment for its workers; it produces small car products; the labor relations that ebbed and flowed in that area are representative of what was happening in the automobile industry."
Many of these reasons are why GM selected the plant for the Cruze, spokeswoman Sherrie Arb said.
The 40-mile-per-gallon sedan came along as GM was under pressure from the federal government to meet new fuel-efficiency standards, a key piece of the automaker's restructuring.
A year ago, 4,600 employees celebrated the Cruze announcement. Today, the plant will employ around 2,000.
Erika Robinson won't be returning right away. During her last day's drive to work in late March, she reflected on the conversations in late February, when people learned of the impending layoffs.
"The worst part is when people ask: 'When do you think we'll be back? Oh, I think September, December ...' If you're a fortuneteller, maybe you can predict this, but this isn't just GM and car sales. This is almost a depression."
John Tarchick, 53, has 32 years at the plant, and hoped after being laid off in March to find a job outside GM. Not a single potential employer called back.
"It's in the back of your mind it could get worse before it gets better," Tarchick said. "Six months from now, they could say they don't have enough money for the Cruze and we're going to pull the plug on it and your plant is not going to produce, and they'll say you're out of job."
For Tarchick and others returning to the assembly line, the giant "Cruze Is Coming" banner outside the plant is more than just words.
It's a beacon of hope.