Trump blasts GM, UAW over Lordstown plant during Ohio visit

Nora Naughton
The Detroit News
President Donald Trump arrives to deliver remarks at the Lima Army Tank Plant, Wednesday, March 20, 2019, in Lima, Ohio.

Lima, Ohio — President Donald Trump again chastised General Motors Co. on Wednesday at an appearance in Ohio, demanding the Detroit automaker keep open its Lordstown Assembly Plant in the northeast corner of the state.

Trump continued his pressure on GM and the United Auto Workers, again demanding the parties speed up negotiations to determine the future of GM's only assembly plant in the electorally important Midwestern swing state of Ohio that helped deliver Trump the presidency.

GM's Lordstown Assembly, nearly 200 miles from Lima in northeast Ohio, is leading off the months-long process of the Detroit automaker's U.S. production stops. Workers are already taking far-flung transfers to other GM operations, creating a different reality than the president promised when he told locals to keep their houses because the factory jobs were "all coming back."

"Get that plant open," Trump demanded, asking GM to either begin building in Lordstown again or find a company that will. 

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The president later turned his criticism to the UAW during his visit to UAW-represented Joint Systems Manufacturing Center, an Army tank plant in Lima that's been a prominent presidential campaign stop dating back to the Dwight Eisenhower campaign in 1952. 

"They could have kept General Motors," Trump said of the UAW's leaders. "They could have kept (GM) in that gorgeous plant in Lordstown."

He criticized GM and union leaders as "not honest," saying that union workers support him and that their leadership should "lower your dues."

Trump gave his remarks hours after Ford Motor Co. affirmed a $900 million investment that would add 900 jobs to build battery-electric vehicles at its plant in Flat Rock. The president praised Ford and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles for its recent investments in Michigan, but did not make mention of other GM plants idling in Michigan and Maryland.

"Lordstown is a great area. I guess I like it because I won so big there," Trump said. Lordstown's Trumbull County, formerly a Democratic stronghold, flipped to vote for Trump in 2016.

The last shift on the Lordstown assembly line building the Chevrolet Cruze stopped work on March 6, leaving workers in limbo for months as they wait for the UAW and GM to begin bargaining the plant's fate later this year. Lordstown is one of four U.S. plants whose futures will be decided in national contract talks between GM and the union.

That's a stark contrast from the circumstances at Joint Systems Manufacturing Center, which builds Abrams tanks and Stryker combat vehicles. The Lima plant is on track to grow from 400 employees before Trump took office in 2017 to 1,000 workers by the end of this year.

"Today is great evidence that Trump has not forgotten" Ohio, said Ohio Lt. Governor Jon Husted before Trump took the stage. "Today in Lima, Ohio, this president — our president — Donald Trump is delivering on his promise."

GM reiterated a statement it released Sunday, saying that under the terms of the UAW-GM contract, the ultimate future of the unallocated plants will be resolved between the two entities. "We remain open to talking with all affected stakeholders," the statement said, "but our main focus remains on our employees and offering them jobs in our plants where we have growth opportunities."

The president is growing impatient about the downturn at Lordstown as his approval rating in Ohio sags 19 percentage points, according to a Morning Consult tracking poll. The president increased pressure on GM and the United Auto Workers in the days before his visit to the Army tank plant here, taking to Twitter to chastise the company and its union over the closure of Lordstown Assembly.

"General Motors and the UAW are going to start 'talks' in September/October. Why wait, start them now!" Trump tweeted.

The UAW's contracts with GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV expire on Sept. 14, with the start of formal talks expected to begin in midsummer and then intensify after Labor Day. The union kicked off the bargaining season last week at the Special Convention, where delegates and international leaders gathered to set the agenda for 2019 negotiations.

Trump frequently invoked indicators of a strong economy, like the low national unemployment rate, in his digs at GM and the UAW.  "I want jobs to stay in the U.S.A. and want Lordstown (Ohio), in one of the best economies in our history, opened or sold to a company who will open it up fast," Trump tweeted Monday.

This week, the White House touted a "historic boom in 2018" that is "benefiting all Americans as job creation soared and wages rise." The administration hailed GDP growth exceeding 3 percent, 2.6 million jobs created last year, an unemployment rate that has remained at or below 4 percent for the past year. In his remarks Wednesday, Trump also said his tax cut passed last year "made a big difference" in improving the economy.

But in an interview with Fox News over the weekend, UAW Local 1112 President David Green criticized Trump's tax cut, saying it "incentivized corporations like (GM) to pay less taxes on profits when they bring products in from outside our borders."

Later, Trump took aim at Green, tweeting that the UAW Local 1112 President "ought to get his act together and produce. G.M. let our Country down, but other much better car companies are coming into the U.S. in droves. I want action on Lordstown fast. Stop complaining and get the job done!"

Trump also repeatedly referenced "other car companies" that were "coming back" to the U.S. It's not clear which "other" automakers Trump was referencing, but just days before, the president took to Twitter to praise Toyota Motor Corp. The Japanese automaker, whose plants are not UAW-represented, plans to add 600 new manufacturing jobs in the U.S. as part of a $13 billion investment in five U.S. plants.

"Congratulations @Toyota!," Trump tweeted on March 14. "BIG NEWS for U.S. Auto Workers! The USMCA is already fixing the broken NAFTA deal."

Toyota's investment in its U.S. plants — and other similar recent announcements from Fiat Chrysler, Ford Motor Co. and Volkswagen AG — are part of a larger pivot in the automotive industry to electrified powertrains. While GM's actions look different than their competitors, their reasoning is the essentially same for idling five North American plants building slow-selling products.

The Detroit automaker is embarking on a wholesale restructuring designed to save cash and divert capital toward expensive electrification, autonomy and mobility endeavors — and to brace for growing expenses related to trade uncertainty and a possible economic downturn. GM says it took a $1 billion hit in 2018 from costs related to trade and rising commodity costs due to tariffs. 

In addition to the plant actions, GM also cut some 8,000 white collar jobs — including roughly 4,000 layoffs — earlier this year. Ford, which also lost about $1 billion last year to tariffs, has said it will also have to trim its global salaried workforce as part of its own restructuring.

Twitter: @NoraNaughton