A GM worker's story: Transfer from Lordstown one in a series of hard choices

Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

Lansing — Matt Moorhead used to start his day with a latte made by his wife, Alyson.

Now Moorhead, 47, no longer wakes up to that sweet gesture. He drinks his coffee alone. His lunch is leftover pizza he purchased the night before. And instead of spending time with his wife and two kids, Spencer, 18, and Chelsea, 15, still back in Ohio, he sleeps in a Delta Township apartment more than four hours away from his home in Howland, Ohio.

Moorhead is living the life of a GM transferee — thankful to have a job, but wishing it was still close to his family and his hometown: "I don’t have the support system. You make a support system. That’s how you build your world. I don’t have it."

UAW member Matt Moorhead (in red shirt) takes his turn on the picket line in front of the Grand River Assembly Plant in Lansing.

He is not alone. Moorhead's story is one worker's story, one tale of the 1,381 Lordstown employees transferred to other plants after production at the 53-year-old complex stopped in March. Some still have houses, families, friends back in northeast Ohio's Mahoning Valley while they rent in other GM plant towns like Lansing and Flint, Bowling Green, Kentucky, and Arlington, Texas, even Wentzville, Missouri. 

Their predicament is a focal point in the continuing UAW-GM talks to end the longest national strike against in nearly 50 years. Now in its 31st day, bargaining to end the walkout is expected to determine the fate of four GM plants in three states targeted for closure last fall, including Moorhead's Lordstown.

"We miss him. I miss him terribly," said Alyson, 48. "I used to be able to come home from work and talk to him. We would have coffee and talk about our day. It’s not the same on the phone." 

Moorhead made a last-minute decision to transfer. At first, he didn't know what to do. The Moorhead family discussed the possibility of moving together, but that would mean Alyson would leave behind a job as a physician recruiter at Mercy Health that took 17 years for her to get.

Matt Moorhead, center right, and his family, daughter Chelsea, 15, wife Alyson and son Spencer, 18, talks to a fellow UAW member on the picket line in front of the Grand River Assembly Plant in Lansing.

"I wouldn’t want to start all over," she said. Matt and Alyson also realized moving was not the best choice for Chelsea, who had just finished her first year at Howland High School. 

Chelsea knows that she eventually might have to move to attend college. She says that move would be a choice of her own making, but "with GM deciding to move our family, essentially I would have not had any choice."

Matt thought about cutting ties with GM. But when he had to pay Spencer's tuition at Youngstown State University, he reconsidered the transfer. And decided to take it: "I've got to provide for them. I couldn’t figure out how to provide the way I’ve been providing." 

So, Matt's family stayed behind when he transferred in August to Lansing Grand River Assembly, where the automaker builds Cadillac sedans and the Chevrolet Camaro. The plant runs four 10-hour shifts a week, allowing Moorhead to drive back home to Howland on Thursday evening.

Not having her dad at home is starting to feel normal, Chelsea said, but "it’s just not the same to come home and not have my dad ask me how I am."

During the strike, Moorhead has driven up to Lansing to spend eight to 12 hours per week on the picket line. Moorhead, sergeant-at-arms in the union local back in Lordstown, now is a member of UAW Local 652, and it requires him to work four hours on the picket line. But "most people give more time," he said, for a fight they feel is just.

When asked to comment, UAW Spokesman Brian Rothenberg said in a statement: "Our focus is on bargaining for our members at this time."

Still, UAW leaders have said they will fight to get product back at the Lordstown plant that assembled Chevrolet vehicles for 53 years — one of the reasons Moorhead and his fellow union members from Lordstown were set to strike GM. Moorhead prepared financially. He felt the strike was coming because "the company kept taking all the money ... and never giving anything back."

Moorhead's beef:hourly workers waited multiple contracts to see an increase in their base wage rate. Hourly GM employees hired before October 2007 received their first wage increase in a decade in 2015 of 3%. They received another 3% increase in 2017. The union wants to see another pay raise this contract after GM tallied more than $27 billion in profits over the last four years.

GM did provide up to $30,000 in relocation assistance for transfers like Moorhead. But he says that will not cover the cost over three years of renting an apartment for more than $950 a month and driving back home to Howland, which he says costs $100 round trip for gas.

Matt Moorhead (in red shirt holding sign) takes his turn on the picket line  in front of the Grand River Assembly Plant in Lansing, while his wife Alyson takes a photo their daughter Chelsea, 15, left,  and son Spencer, 18.

The company understands that the decision to end production at Lordstown and three other U.S. plants was hard on GM employees, their families and the communities where the plants are located, spokesman Dan Flores said. "This decision we made, it wasn’t done because of something our employees did or didn’t do. It was a marketplace reality."  

That reality was that demand for the Chevy Cruze sedan dropped, causing sales to dip month after month and leading GM to cut one shift and then a second shift before deciding to move toward closing the plant. Lordstown had about 4,500 hourly employees in 2016, but just 1,400 when it closed.

GM plans to build a battery-cell manufacturing site in the Mahoning Valley, The Detroit News previously reported, but not at the Lordstown complex. The complex, however,  has a potential buyer: Lordstown Motors Corp., a newly formed electric vehicle startup backed partly by Cincinnati-based Workhorse Group Inc., another electric vehicle startup.

Lordstown Motors wants to use the plant as its headquarters and manufacturing site for an electric truck it plans to call the Endurance. Under terms of the recently lapsed contract between the UAW and GM, the fate of the complex will be decided during negotiations.

If Moorhead can go home, he will. He's hesitant to get excited about a battery plant that is expected to be a union-represented joint venture, which is why he's holding out hope that Lordstown Assembly will make a comeback.

Another reason for axing Lordstown and three other plants from GM's network: experts say the automaker carries more excess plant capacity in the U.S. than its Detroit or foreign rivals. In 2018, according to LMC Automotive US Inc., GM had multiple plants running below 80% capacity — the break-even point for a manufacturing plant — and GM used 73% of its overall U.S. capacity.

"I will vote on the contract based on what happens in Lordstown," Moorhead said. "I've got to wait and see what the contract is. Right now I am in a holding pattern."


Twitter: @bykaleahall