Early in the morning on Nov. 26, 2018, Dave Green, the president of Local 1112 of the United Auto Workers, which represents workers at a General Motors plant in Lordstown, Ohio, received a call from the plant’s personnel director. Green needed to be at the plant at 9 a.m. for a meeting. The personnel director rarely called Green, and when he did, it was almost always bad news. Green got into his car — a silver Chevy Cruze — and sped toward the hulking 6.2-million-square-foot factory, which had manufactured nearly two million Cruzes since the car was introduced in 2011.
“Management walks in 15 minutes late,” Green recalled, “and they say, ‘Hey, we’re going to unallocate the plant’ — that was it.”
Green had never heard the term before, but he soon found out that it meant his members would no longer have a car to build. The Cruze was finished, and G.M. had no plans to make anything else at Lordstown. Green followed the managers to the production floor, where they shut down the assembly line before repeating the same brief message to more than a thousand workers. “Some people started crying, and some people turned white as a ghost and looked like they were going to throw up,” Green said. “It felt like, ‘Oh, the end is coming.’ ”
On that same day, Mary Barra, the chief executive of G.M., announced that the company would unallocate four other North American plants and cut roughly 6,000 unionized hourly positions and 8,000 salaried positions. The largest affected plants manufactured sedans, and sedans would no longer be a major part of G.M.’s domestic production; instead, the company would focus on building S.U.V.s and trucks, which generate much higher profits. Manufacturing trade publications like IndustryWeek heralded Barra’s “willingness to wield the ax,” while Wall Street investors cheered the shedding of the “legacy” costs — pensions, health insurance — associated with G.M.’s American workers. On the day of Barra’s announcement, the company’s stock closed nearly 5 percent higher.
Barra’s decision reflected many trends: declining small-car sales, an increasingly overvalued dollar that makes American exports more expensive and the continuing rise of American automobile manufacturing in Mexico, where autoworkers make an average of $2.30 an hour (last year, G.M. became that country’s largest vehicle manufacturer). It was yet more evidence of G.M.’s retrenchment from American manufacturing; since 2005, the number of states with active G.M. assembly plants has fallen to seven from 16. With the idling of Lordstown’s plant, Ohio became the latest casualty on that list.
Though Lordstown was already operating far below capacity — it had eliminated its second and third shifts in the previous two years — the news still came as a shock. The company had received a $50 billion bailout from American taxpayers only a decade ago, and now it was making near-record-breaking profits.
For the residents of Lordstown and the surrounding area, Barra’s decision promised disaster. A recent study by the Center for Economic Development at Cleveland State University estimated that the elimination of all three shifts at the plant would ultimately cause the loss of nearly 8,000 jobs and more than $8 billion in economic activity in the regional economy. And since the 2008 financial crisis, wages in the area have fallen by 6 percent, even as they have risen nationally by 11 percent. “They’re scraping out what’s already been hollowed out,” Green said. “We need G.M. It’s the last thing standing around here.”
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