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General Motors Lordstown Plant Jeff Swensen/Getty Images
An exterior view of the GM Lordstown Plant on November 26, 2018 in Lordstown, Ohio. GM said it would end production at five North American plants including Lordstown, and cut 15 percent of its salaried workforce. The GM Lordstown Plant assembles the Chevy Cruz.

In Search of Stability: A Midnight Drive to Lordstown

Disruption has its limits—too much disruption and we're left with chaos, and chaos gives us no way to grow, no idea where to grow to.

About an hour outside of Cleveland, on an otherwise dark stretch of the Ohio turnpike, the Lordstown GM plant still shines bright. 

By the time I got here, the employee parking lots had already cleared, and everything was quiet and still. But up on the side of the factory, standing guard over the empty freeway, remains the plant's iconic, enormous message, illuminated impossibly bright, "Home of the Cruze."

It's a hard message to read tonight. The Lordstown plant is one of the facilities GM is planning to close next year. In total, nearly 15,000 workers across the U.S. and Canada will be affected by this move. About 1,600 of them work right here.

In this context—the sign, mixed with the snow and isolation of the place—the scene feels ominous. And I suppose that's exactly the feeling I drove out here to experience.

The details on the cause of the Lordstown closure, despite all the reporting around it, remain a bit vague. Piecing it all together, the reason seems to be somewhere between low Cruze sales, high tariff costs, new strategies and, most recently, union negotiations. Nothing—from the certainty of its closure to the future of the campus or its workers—is yet clear.

This uncertainty, and the myriad reasons for it, actually provides a nice summation of the state of the auto industry, and swathes of the general manufacturing industry as well.

Laura Putre's cover story in our November/December issue, "Rough Roads," nails this point beautifully. The auto industry, as she explains, is facing an endless, contradictory list of issues and crises and pressures that seem determined to unravel any kind of effective long-term strategy.

This one line from the story sums it up best, I think:

The only problem is that all of this change almost eliminates the possibility of making any of these "serious strategic moves." And this strikes me as core to the whole GM restructuring crisis, and as a perfect conclusion of a very troubling year in manufacturing.

This has been a year of constant change—a year of on-again-off-again tariffs and standards and deals, a year of stock market booms and crashes, a year of renegotiations and reconsiderations. In the end, the toll of all this is clear: GM is shuttering plants, Ford is writing off billion-dollar losses, even industry staples like GE seem to be splintering under the pressure.

The euphemism we like to use for this is "disruption." And it has never been better applied. The manufacturing industry is changing, the technologies are changing, the workforce is changing, the consumers are changing. So, of course, companies have to change, too. This will inevitably mean closures like here in Lordstown, which, ideally, would be offset by new openings, new opportunities, new markets, and new companies. And we have certainly seen that this year as well.

But disruption has its limits. Too much disruption and we're left with chaos—and chaos gives us no way to grow, and no idea where to grow to.

We're coming up on the New Year now, which is supposed to be a time of reflection and hope, a time to dream up our new strategies and goals for the year ahead. And I suppose that's why I made this drive out to Lordstown tonight, to sit on the side of a freeway, staring at a big, empty plant.

If I have one wish for 2019, it's that this chaos will subside, that we find some stability and that the markets will settle. That is the only way any of us can develop any real plans for the future that will keep this industry running as strongly as it could.

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