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Closed GM Plant Is Part Of Larger Negotiating Strategy For Striking UAW Workers

UAW members at the Lordstown picketed in solidarity last year with other autoworkers on strike around the country.
GM Lordstown may be idled, but UAW members are picketing in solidarity with other autoworkers on strike around the country.

Negotiations between General Motors and striking auto workers revolve in part around a plant that has shut down. Six months ago, the last Chevy Cruze rolled off the assembly line in Lordstown, Ohio.

When the UAW last struck General Motors, in 2007, the thousands of members in Lordstown were ready. They packed the two local union halls, signing up for six-hour shifts at the nine gates of the sprawling plant in northeast Ohio. Things are very different now.

Only a handful of retirees and other volunteers are holding up picket signs and celebrating the honks of support from the occasional truck passing by the west gate here. Behind them are hundreds of acres of empty asphalt surrounding a plant that once employed more than 10,000 people and now employs only 10.

The picketers sum up why in just a few words. Including, "To brotherhood," "The brotherhood," and "Brothers and sisters support."

Picketer Ed Randall says it's a matter of just showing up to represent this place.

"Somebody's got to be here," Randall said. "I mean, you know, if there's no one here, it's just a signal that we're giving up on this plant."

Rochelle Carlisle isn't giving up. She and her husband are among the thousand GM employees who transferred to other plants. She's coming back from Michigan this weekend to join the Lordstown picket line. Others are on their way, too, from Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky.

"We all keep in contact with each other," Carlisle said. "We're all spread out all over the country, but we're all still there for each other."

Nearly all the local union leaders were among those who transferred away from here. That left it to retirees like Bill Adams to step up.

Adams says what the group lacks in numbers, it makes up in passion.

"There's a lot of anger at what happened," Adams said. "They can't understand why a plant that's produced over 16 million cars in 53 years is all of the sudden useless to General Motors. They don't understand that."

Bill Adams is a GM retiree now serving as vice president of UAW Local 1112.
Bill Adams is a GM retiree now serving as vice president of UAW Local 1112.

GM says what happened was pretty simple; Americans stopped buying small cars. It reacted by cutting shifts, and then finally closing the plant in March.

Adams doesn't buy the company's argument. GM made more than $10 billion in North America last year, and the local union has long argued that it could have shifted production of another vehicle here. But GM says it has way too much capacity, even for better-selling trucks and SUVs.

Adams raises an eyebrow when asked about a proposal GM floated just hours before the strike deadline. It was to build electric vehicle batteries near here. GM also is negotiating with an electric truck startup to buy the Lordstown plant. But even if both things happen, they'll likely lead to hundreds of jobs, not thousands.

The former Lordstown workers understand their plant is just one part of a much larger negotiating strategy.

When Erik Loomis wrote his book "A History Of America In Ten Strikes," he devoted a chapter to the 1972 Lordstown strike. Back then, younger workers wanted more control over working conditions, and the fierce clashes between labor and management extended well beyond the three-week strike.

In the industry, that confrontational culture became known as the Lordstown Syndrome. And though Lordstown is now idled, that action played a role in this strike.

"I think we're seeing a return to the strike as a weapon in part because a lot of the other options that workers have tried to make life better for themselves have shown that they're not working," Loomis said. "And workers are getting more determined and a little more desperate."

When GM closed the plant, it said it recognized and regretted what it was doing to workers, but it had to think about the long-term viability of the company.

UAW members here are also thinking about viability, and they're determined to try to keep their plant an active part of not only the negotiations but of the nation's labor consciousness.