Laura Putre
Paul Mayer and Tom Davis.

Lordstown's Last Bell

March 7, 2019
Laid-off GM workers and their supporters gather for a vigil—and vow to fight.

If workers laid off at the GM Lordstown plant this week wondered whether anyone in their community cared about their fate, they don’t have any doubts now. On Tuesday, Youngstown teachers showed up in the school district parking lot in their GM vehicles and held signs in solidarity with the GM workers.

Then on Wednesday, right around closing time, a cluster of GM workers punched out for the last time. Instead of going straight home or to a restaurant or local bar, they joined a vigil across the divided highway with union leaders, friends who were laid off in earlier cutbacks, retirees. A Bernie Sanders delegate who had no connection to the plant beyond being a member of the community was there, too. He had been protesting the plant’s closure for the past 40 days, standing out in the cold, usually alone.

Supportive horn honks from passing 18-wheelers added to the goodwill, as did a peppy retiree who wrapped her protest sign around her legs to keep warm. The “CRUZE: It All Starts Here” banner on the plant’s side served as an ironic backdrop.

Showing Up

In November, General Motors announced that it would “unallocate”—no longer assign a product to—four of its U.S. plants and one in Canada, laying off 4,000 union workers. GM Lordstown, a plant that has been around 50 years in perhaps the rustiest part of the Rust Belt—Youngstown—was one of the facilities on the list. It had already lost its third shift in 2017, and its second shift in 2018.

Barbara Mcleod-Balkeney, a recent GM retiree, felt it was important to show up on the remaining 1,400 workers’ last day. She began her career working on the GM line in Linden, New Jersey, then relocated to Delaware when that plant closed. She relocated again in 2010, to Lordstown, when the Delaware plant closed.

 “I really feel for the ones out here,” said Mcleod-Balkeney. “I really do. Because I know how it is. It’s rough. Trying to get back up to your family, when somebody gets sick.”

Lordstown workers are offered the opportunity to relocate, but may not have a choice where. Brian Milo, who was laid off in June, said he received a “force letter” on Wednesday morning to relocate to Wentville, Missouri, and if he doesn’t’ take it, he’ll lose his healthcare benefits for his family and forfeit his right to transfer.

When Mcleod-Balkeney relocated to Ohio, her husband stayed behind in New Jersey with the house and family, but then he got cancer and joined her in Lordstown so she could care for him. He died last year.

Mcleod-Balkeney says the shuttering of a plant that employed almost 5,000 three years ago doesn’t bode well for the Youngstown area. Now that her husband’s gone, she’ll probably move back to Jersey. Lordstown “feels like it’s home, but I don’t have nobody here with me,” she says. “So I gotta go. I definitely gotta get out of here. There’s nobody here for me.”

Feeling Lucky

Anthony Garchanin, whose father retired from the Lordstown GM plant, has friends who were laid off from the GM plant in earlier cutbacks. Third shift was eliminated in 2017, and second shift in June 2018.

Garachanin knows layoffs firsthand, too: he was cut from Jamestown Industries, a nearby supplier that built the bumpers and grills for the Cruze, in 2016. He’s grateful that he landed the hospital job, which pays comparably to his old job at the fender plant. “There are a lot of people who weren’t as lucky as me to bounce back,” he says. “I had friends who worked [at GM] who had to leave their families and go to different factories across the country. I have friends who worked here who don’t know what they’re going to do. They’re going to ride it out.”

He worries about the trickle-down effect on the community. For instance, the announced “unallocation” of the GM plant in November (along with three other U.S. plants) led to 120 layoffs at nearby Magna Seating plant in December.

“It’s going to effect everything,” he says of the GM shutdown. “The workers here, it’s more than just tax money—they donate to charity, they go out to eat in restaurants and spend their money.”

Mike Ray, Youngstown’s 4th Ward councilman, said in a phone interview that the area hasn’t yet felt the full impact of the Lordstown layoffs. He has family members who worked at the plant up until the last day, and other family members who retired from there. Although Youngstown is in a beautiful part of the state—the Mahoning Valley—with easy access to major highways and rail and a low cost of living, companies haven’t been clamoring to fill the void.

 A distribution center for TJX Homegoods is coming to Lordstown—a bright spot—“but the jobs of yesterday are not the same as today,” Ray said. The brownfields where the steel mills were, they’ve been cleaned up, but an industrial park going in there that employs 500 is not the same as a plant that used to employ 5,000 skilled workers at higher wages. The Vallourec Star plant, which makes steel tubing, is a $1.2 billion facility that received $20 million in federal funds during President Barack Obama’s tenure, but it employs hundreds, not thousands.

In addition to the GM workers, contract workers at Lordstown will also lose their jobs. Leadec Corp., which provides industrial services to the plant, will lay off 63 UAW janitors and 10 non-union workers. Rachel Dzdezee, the shop chairman for the Leadec workers, says these workers can be offered relocation to other GM plants “but there has to be an opening, and right now there haven’t been any openings.”

A Record-Breaking Night

GM Lordstown retiree Gene (he wouldn’t give his last name) came to show his support at the vigil. He put in 40 years at the plant, retiring in 2014.

Gene was working on the line the night the crew set a production record, building 960 Chevrolet Vegas in eight hours. They stopped the line; got everybody up on the bleachers and got their picture taken. Then everybody went back to work, “and they never got that record, ever again.”

“I feel sorry for the young people that are left here,” Gene said. “I hope that they see fit to bring another product here.” The paint shop is modern, though it needs updating, he said. When he retired, GM was still outfitting the plant with state-of-the-art machinery.

Gary Hilton, who’s worked at Lordstown for 24 years and also had his last day Wednesday, says as far as he’s concerned, he’s going back to work at Lordstown. Taxpayers bailed out GM 10 years ago, and the company can’t get out of their obligation so easily. “I’m absolutely not done. We have our international union, the UAW, fighting for us.”

President Donald Trump, on the other hand, “hasn’t lifted a finger,” says Hilton, who wouldn’t say who he voted for in the last presidential election. “He came in on the promise of bringing more jobs back here. ‘Don’t sell your house.’ And here we are, bleeding. We do vote—so yeah, Ohio’s important.”

UAW Local 1112 President David Green also vowed to fight: “GM has been unallocated,” he said in a short speech at the vigil. “Unallocated, we don’t even know what this word means. When I type it in the computer, it’s underlined red because I don’t think it’s a damn word.

“But I’ll tell you this: this is corporate greed at its finest. When corporations take and take and take, it’s never gonna be enough. Our government needs to do a better job of making laws and rules that protect workers. Corporations like General Motors have to pay 21% tax on the profits they make from vehicles here in the USA. They only pay 10 and a half percent from vehicles that are coming from outside of our borders, and that is wrong. That is wrong, and corporations and tax laws need to change.”

Holding Out Hope

Friends Paul Mayer and Tom Davis had an impromptu reunion at the vigil. Mayer was laid off in June when GM cut second shift. Davis left the plant for the last time around 8:30 this morning. Usually, he delivered parts, but this time he’d been in the trim room, putting electrical harnesses inside the trunks. He could barely believe it might be the last time he set foot in the plant.

“This guy showed me the ropes when I got here,” Mayer says of Davis, as the two huddled in the cold.

They have hope that the plant, which must remain in working condition until September, might be allocated again, that GM is using it as leverage in union contract negotiations.

“They’d be dumb not to put something in this place,” says Mayer. The plant is huge—big enough to manufacture maybe three car models—and within easy distance of the East Coast on the turnpike, he reasons. “All you’d have to do is revamp it a little bit. They’ve got a workforce that loves what they do.

“We had fun at work. We always make sure everything comes out the best it can be. That’s always our plan. I don’t know how many times I’ve said, ‘No, it’s not right. I’m not sending it.’”

“There’s a section in that plant that is probably the size of two or three football fields that’s empty,” adds Davis. “They’re not doing anything with it. It was the old trim shop. And upstairs is practically empty, too—it’s the size of the whole plant. There’s tons of room in there for other things.”

Mayer has a message for GM CEO Mary Barra. “Let us work. Keep it here. We’re here, we’re ready to work, we’re trained. I’ve been here 10 years—I know it inside and out. We’re here to work. That’s what we want to do. I don’t want to have to uproot, move across the country to keep a job, and then find out she’s going to send more [manufacturing] to Mexico. We invested in you guys—invest back in us.”

Popular Sponsored Recommendations

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of IndustryWeek, create an account today!