The February 27 Detroit News carried the story of Heather Quinby, a former GM worker at the Lordstown, Ohio, plant where the current generation of the Chevrolet Cruze is made. Having seen the handwriting on the wall, Quinby took a GM buyout last summer and two months later opened a crafts store. Almost immediately her world started falling apart. Two days later her 20-year-old son, Brandon Warnock, serving in the U.S. Army, committed suicide. Two months later her real support system, her friends from GM, were notified that after 52 years of production GM would finally shutter that factory 82 miles northwest of Pittsburgh for good. Many jumped at the chance to leave that dying part of Ohio for work at other GM facilities.
Left out of that article was that the year before Heather Quinby took her GM buyout, President Donald Trump held a rally nearby and claimed that all the lost factory jobs in Ohio were coming back. All of them, “So don’t move, don’t sell your home.”
Of course, Trump was not the first politician to use a Rust Belt factory backdrop to make promises they couldn’t keep. Barack Obama used GM Lordstown as a public stage to promote the government’s saving of Detroit after the financial meltdown of 2008. Both Hillary Clinton and John McCain would sing the praises of our blue-collar American Middle Class at Lordstown during their campaigns for higher office. But today, all Heather Quinby knows is that since GM announced the final closing of Lordstown, the retail traffic to her new crafts store is down and her friends are leaving to save themselves and their families.
Quality over Quantity
Two days before the Young Rascals’ “Good Lovin’” made it to the top of the charts on April 30, 1966, the very first Lordstown built Chevrolet Impala rolled off the assembly line of what was then GM’s most high tech and automated assembly plant. The Impala had just come off its biggest year for sales, over 1 million in 1965; one of every eight cars sold that year was a full-sized Chevy. But in spite of the promise of the primitive mechanized assembly that passed as modern automation at the time, GM Lordstown still employed close to 8,000 workers for both Chevrolet and Fisher Body.
The hope was that Lordstown would be the place where GM could move from its standard 55 completed vehicles per hour at most plants to a whopping 100 assembled cars per hour, thereby slashing labor hours per car nearly in half. That became even more critical as Lordstown moved from building Impalas to the new Chevy Vega in 1971. GM wanted to turn a reasonable profit on its second major effort at offering a contender against the Japanese and European compact vehicles starting to win over the American public.
In the midst of all this, GM merged Fisher Body into GM manufacturing and renamed its assembly operations GMAD, for General Motors Assembly Division — though the UAW called it Get Mean and Destroy. At Lordstown that meant one plant manager instead of the previous two, seven shop committee men instead of 14, and so on. And through it all the line speed kept moving faster to hit that promised 100 Chevrolet Vegas an hour. Now the workers had only 36 seconds to perform their specific job on the assembly line, where previously they had had an entire minute. But, though the automation had no problem with faster line speeds, the workers often had a problem keeping up with the machines.
Then too, the workforce at GM Lordstown was vastly different from those at most other automobile assembly plants. These kids were young, with an average age of 24, and far more educated than GM workers had been in previous generations. Further, more than a few had been drafted and served their tour in Vietnam. They wore their hair long, rocked bell-bottomed trousers, and grew mustaches, looking as if they were about to audition for a rock and roll band. And they often ended up working 10-hour days, sticking around for part of another shift to make sure sufficient vehicles made it out of the factory.
One thing made it all worthwhile: The nearly $6 an hour they were earning made it one of the best-paying jobs in Northeast Ohio. But everything else about the job was horrendous — at least, to kids who grew up in a generation that loved to fight authority and old-line thinking. And if you didn’t like authority and doing things just because “that’s how it has always been done,” General Motors was not really the place to hang your hat. The Lordstown strike started in March of 1972.
It didn’t last long, barely over three weeks, but the kids weren’t striking for money. It was the first strike demanding that the quality of life at work be improved. These kids knew about the working conditions inside the auto factories in both Europe and Japan, where a worker’s input on how to improve their work and assembly line operations was valued by the corporations. There was a level of respect for line workers at factories overseas that didn’t exist at the time in America.
These young workers didn’t want more money, they wanted more respect and the authority to do their jobs better — and in a way that didn’t leave them burnt out at the end of every grueling shift. That was too much for GM to consider at the time, or even their union, which loved playing middle management to the workforce. Instead, after being out for 22 days, GM offered to lower the line speed to well under 100 finished vehicles an hour.
Moribund Middle Class
The auto industry really had no choice at the time. No engineer back then could fully balance the automation and human labor so it could work together. And it was truly burning out the workforce; where in 1960 GM’s absenteeism rate had been just 2 percent per day, by the time of the 1972 Lordstown Strike it was nearly 5 percent per day. Chrysler was worse, often witnessing short-term absenteeism of 18.6 percent. But during the summer at Lordstown it was not unusual for 20 percent of the staff to simply lay out every day. That, of course, is no way to run a company profitably, or to ensure improved long-term productivity for your blue-collar workforce.
Still, that 1972 strike became known as the Lordstown Syndrome, a Seventies movement in which younger workers wanted a better quality of working conditions than their parents had had — even more than they wanted higher wages, which had been cooked into their labor contracts anyway. But time was not on their side. The Golden Era of the American Blue-Collar Middle Class was already coming to an end.
That era was birthed with Henry Ford’s $5 day in 1914, then extended throughout the auto industry. That generous pay was forced into other industrial plants as part of the Wagner Act, and became entrenched for industrial workers with our entry into the Second World War. Then for two decades after that war, as Japan, Europe and other countries rebuilt from the devastation, American blue-collar workers knew that our booming postwar economy was their best bargaining chip. Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Inquirer noted its end date: Black Monday, September 19, 1977, when suddenly the “massive Youngstown Sheet and Tube plant shut down.” Overnight 5,000 good paying blue collar jobs disappeared, and that started the ripple effect of further job losses across the Northeast region of Ohio. Suddenly the bedrock security known by blue-collar workers across America had turned into a slow sinking quicksand.
Two years later came the Second Energy Crisis, and with that the 1.4 million members of the United Auto Workers union went into a decline that continues to this day.
We don’t really notice this Rust Belt crisis in Dallas Fort Worth. After all, the Fort Worth Chevrolet factory on West Seventh closed shortly after it opened nearly 100 years ago. The Ford plant in Dallas closed half a century ago. GM Arlington remains, but one has to wonder if that would be the case if they didn’t build trucks and SUVs. After all, that how GM keeps Toyota from being able to brag that it builds the only trucks in Texas.
But GM Lordstown is finished as of a few days ago, just when it finally builds a world-class compact sedan, the Chevrolet Cruze. So, building an incredible car did not matter. The sheer determination of the people in that region of the country didn’t matter in the end, either. The GM plant that came in with the Young Rascals in 1966 goes dark in the era of Taylor Swift.
At least now our politicians can no longer use that plant and region as a backdrop to promise things they can’t deliver and inspire hope where none has any reason to exist. Instead, those citizens should have listened to GM CEO Mary Barra, who said in no uncertain terms that her only focus is shareholder value. And shareholders love closing unneeded plants for profits. Heather Quinby finally understands that very well.
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, bestowed by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. Email: email@example.com