Lordstown workers fear for future as GM prepares to 'unallocate' plant

A northeast Ohio village braces itself before GM assembly plant goes dark

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Lordstown, Ohio — David Green is getting used to leading in times of crisis.

"I've been through this before," said Green, president of United Auto Workers Local 1112 representing General Motors Co.'s Lordstown Assembly Plant. "Here in this community we have just been struggling for decades. GM — this plant here — has been the anchor. That's what's holding it all together."

More:Former Lordstown worker struggles with life after GM

Sitting in his simple office, Green points to printing plates from The Wall Street Journal hanging on the wall opposite his desk. He's featured in a story from a strike in 2007 when he was president of Local 1714, which represented the nearby stamping facility at Lordstown before the smaller local merged with Local 1112 last year.

A series of indefinite plant idlings stretching from Detroit to Maryland and Ontario starts next Friday when GM kills the lights at its only assembly plant in northeast Ohio. A harsh reckoning for thousands of other line workers in the Midwest looms this summer when GM and national leaders for the United Auto Workers gets a chance to negotiate the fate of Lordstown Assembly, Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly, Warren Transmission and Baltimore Operations.

Until then, the plants won't quite close. But they won't be open, either. Detroit-Hamtramck stopped building two of its four cars on Feb. 15, but GM last week said it will continue building two more through January 2020. Until at least September, Lordstown and the two transmission plants will be "unallocated" — a distinction both GM and union members here in Lordstown like to make.

"The stress is just eating people up right now," Green said. "It's like playing poker without looking at the cards. You’re trying to bet on a hand and you can’t even see what you have in your hand."

GM announced the production stops at four union-represented plants in the U.S. and one in Canada on the Monday after Thanksgiving as part of a sweeping restructuring plan. GM is careful to use the word "unallocated" to indicate that the products currently built at the plants would stop production without being immediately replaced. That's a deliberate avoidance of the words "idle" or "close," which are explicitly addressed in the 2015 agreement, the UAW said in a lawsuit.

Yet Lordstown, a city of about 3,400 in the economically challenged Trumbull County, is still facing an uncertain future. And the predicament feels increasingly dire to Green and his constituents.

Trumbull County was a key voting bloc for President Donald Trump in 2016. The Democratic stronghold flipped from blue to Republican red after Trump repeatedly promised on the campaign trail and the early days of his presidency to revive American manufacturing that for decades formed the bedrock of what locals call the Mahoning Valley.

But the reality today is that more plants are closing, not opening. GM's plant rationalization is hitting communities like Lordstown, proudly touted as home of the Chevrolet Cruze on the north side of the Ohio Turnpike, especially hard. And despite Trump's plea to locals to keep their houses because the jobs "are all coming back," people are finally leaving.

'Hope is dimming'

Christina Defelice is one of them. She was laid off in June and now helps run the Transition Center at Local 1112. She and her husband, a first-shift worker at Lordstown who would have lost his job on March 8, are both taking transfers to GM's casting plant in Bedford, Indiana. She says they couldn't stand the uncertainty any longer.

"My hope is dimming," she said. "The corporation is allocating millions of dollars to other plants and they won't announce anything here."

Company press releases prove her point. The same day Lordstown dropped its second shift last year, GM announced it was building the Chevrolet Blazer at its plant in Ramos Arizpe, Mexico. And just in the last month, GM has announced new jobs at Flint Assembly and investments at Lansing Delta Assembly and Romulus Powertrain.

All of these plant actions are part of GM's larger restructuring effort to continue through 2020. The goal is to save cash and divert precious capital toward the expensive electrification, mobility and autonomy ventures that GM says will underpin its future. As part of the belt-tightening, GM is also laying off about 4,000 salaried workers globally this month.

The Detroit automaker's top brass, including CEO Mary Barra and President Mark Reuss, say they need to make painful moves now while the company is in good financial standing. For GM's plants, that means cutting slow-selling sedans while addressing a growing — and costly — excess capacity problem their predecessors did not fully resolve in bankruptcy.

For affected hourly workers, GM has been offering transfer opportunities, as is required by the UAW contract. Some 400 workers from Lordstown have accepted transfers since January. Another 560 from Detroit-Hamtramck have also transferred, with most landing at Flint Assembly.

GM also began distributing forced-transfer offers to Lordstown workers this month. The forced offers are to Wentzville, Missouri, where the automaker builds midsize trucks and full-size vans. Workers who refuse the forced transfers lose all remaining pay and benefits, and only retain recall rights to Lordstown should the plant revive.

Eighty workers have received forced-transfer offers this month, according to GM, and 12 have accepted. The automaker needs 100 more workers at Wentzville, and Lordstown is being targeted because it has an excess of workers already on layoff.

"As part of our efforts to place employees impacted by the end of Cruze production at Lordstown Assembly, GM needs approximately 70 more people in Wentzville, Missouri," GM said in a statement to The Detroit News. "We are filling these positions in accordance with the provisions of the UAW-GM National Agreement."

But workers in Lordstown say they are getting a different message: indifference. Defelice says it's all a sign that her hometown plant, first opened in 1966, isn't a priority for GM anymore.

"They talk about how much they are about family," she said. "If that’s the case, keep your plant here. Let’s get the resources, let’s build these communities up and do what you can."

Transition Center

GM had already laid off second- and third-shift workers at Lordstown — affecting some 2,700 workers — well before the November restructuring announcement. In December, the Transition Center opened at UAW Local 1112 as a resource for the growing population of displaced union workers in the sprawling rural area. 

All three of the former GM workers who now run Local 1112's Transition Center, made possible by federal and state aid, started at the Lordstown factory in June 2008. That was just six months before the plant idled and later went on standby along with Orion Assembly in Michigan and Janesville Assembly in Wisconsin as GM reorganized after emerging from federally induced bankruptcy.

Brian Milo, 36, has made use of the Transition Center to map out his future after GM — something he says he has to do to keep his mind off his precarious situation. Milo was in his deer stand on Nov. 26 when friends on the first shift started texting him to tell him that GM was unallocating the plant.

"After that, I never came out of that stand all day. Never came out of the woods," he said. "For two weeks I was in this depressed stupor."

Milo left a job at AT&T 10 years ago to work for GM, taking a pay cut initially to work part-time for four years before finally landing a full-time position. He was laid off with the second shift on June 22, the day before his daughter's fifth birthday.

Now, Milo prefers to focus on what he can control. He's gone back to school, studying facilities maintenance at a local trade school. If the plant doesn't reopen, he hopes he can use those skills to start his own business.

"General Motors is distant in my mind right now," Milo said. "I’m here to fight, I’m here to help out in any way I can. But whether or not I have a job there — it’s not really on my mind anymore."

Local impact

The impact of a potential plant closing in Lordstown is already apparent with a majority of the plant's former workforce already laid off before the last shift stops work next week.

The Village of Lordstown, which the mayor says "runs on" income taxes, has lost about $1 million in tax revenue for every shift eliminated at the GM plant. All told, the village stands to lose $3 million in income taxes from the GM plant alone.

"We can make it through the rest of the year without panicking," said Lordstown Mayor Arno Hill, who co-chairs the Drive It Home campaign along with Green and local leaders from other communities in the Mahoning Valley. The campaign has been used to show support for laid-off GM workers in the area and occasionally pressure GM.

"This is the life's-blood of this valley," Hill said. "At one time GM was the largest employer in the valley, but now it's probably down to about fourth or fifth."

Auto manufacturing operations are coveted drivers of economic development with historically high job-multiplier effects. For a plant like Lordstown, the job multiplier is about seven, said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of Ann Arbor-based Center for Automotive Research. That means for every job at GM's Lordstown plant, another six are created.

"Right now we’re in a 'wait-and-see' to see what happens," Hill said. "I hope GM lets us know sooner rather than later."

Elected officials from Ohio have been demanding answers from GM since November. Their outrage, echoed by Michigan's congressional delegation, spurred a tour of official Washington by Barra in the weeks following the restructuring announcement.

Politicians like U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, were furious with GM for moving to cease production at U.S. plants even as its executives assigned new products to assembly plants in Mexico. But after meeting with lawmakers from Ohio and Michigan at the Capitol in December, Barra stood firm on the automaker's plans.

"I'm bothered by the fact that GM has been tone-deaf and not listened to nonpartisan pleas," said Brown, who at the end of last year launched a committee to explore a presidential run in 2020. He is equally frustrated with President Trump for his lack of action.

"Both sides have come together on this issue and the president has been absent," said Brown, who has worked closely with his Republican counterpart, Sen. Rob Portman, in pressuring GM to stay in Lordstown.

Laid-off worker Milo, who voted for Trump in 2016 and still supports the president on most issues, shares that concern.

"I think he could be a lot stronger in addressing GM, but also all of the other auto companies that are (manufacturing) in foreign countries," he said. "Trump has a lot of stepping up to do."

nnaughton@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @NoraNaughton

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