For some Ohio fac­tory work­ers, GM the real vil­lain – not Trump

Centre Daily Times (Sunday) - - Business - BY NOAM SCHEIBER

Af­ter an elec­tion cam­paign in which he had pledged a man­u­fac­tur­ing re­nais­sance, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump came to this once-thriv­ing in­dus­trial re­gion of north­east­ern Ohio last year and all but waved a mis­sion-ac­com­plished flag.

The jobs are “all com­ing back,” he an­nounced. “Don’t move, don’t sell your house.”

That vow col­lided with the shift­ing dy­nam­ics of the auto in­dus­try on Mon­day when Gen­eral Mo­tors told work­ers it was idling Lord­stown’s prized Chevro­let fac­tory.

“Some peo­ple were cry­ing,” said Joyce Olesky, a 23-year em­ployee of the plant. “I looked over and saw peo­ple who looked like they had the flu, turn­ing white.”

Many Lord­stown res­i­dents re­called that Trump had pro­moted steel tar­iffs and his trade savvy as a way to cre­ate jobs. But rather than fault the pres­i­dent for fail­ing to de­liver what he promised, a num­ber of work­ers were quick to ex­on­er­ate him.

Some por­trayed him as well-in­ten­tioned but sim­ply out­gunned by larger eco­nomic forces. Oth­ers sug­gested that what­ever Trump’s flaws, they paled in com­par­i­son to those of GM, which they con­sid­ered the real cul­prit.

“I be­lieve that no mat­ter tar­iff or not, GM will con­tinue to take our cars out of this coun­try be­cause it’s cheaper to do it and ship it back,” said Olesky, a Trump sup­porter.

Be­yond the roughly 1,600 jobs that are likely to be lost at the plant, there are a few dozen sup­pli­ers em­ploy­ing thou­sands of work­ers in the re­gion, along with busi­nesses here in the Ma­hon­ing Val­ley that will be hit hard by the loss of cus­tomers.

Ti­mothy Fran­cisco, di- rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Work­ing-Class Stud­ies at Youngstown State Univer­sity, said a con­ser­va­tive es­ti­mate of the im­pact on the area was three ad­di­tional jobs lost for ev­ery one cut at the plant.

On Mon­day morn­ing, Earl Ross, the owner of Ross’ Eatery & Pub, a so­cial hub in Lord­stown, was in a tree stand poised to hunt deer when he re­ceived a text mes­sage about the news. “My re­ac­tion was a sick stomach,” Ross said, “and for the whole rest of the day, I just sat in the rain and thought about the fu­ture.”

There is also the likely ef­fect on the hous­ing market, as work­ers try to off­load mort­gages amid the prospect of un­em­ploy­ment.

Ja­son Sick­ler, who has worked at the plant since 2000, said he would pre­pare his house for a pos­si­ble saleas he con­tem­plated whether to re­quest a trans­fer to a Gen­eral Mo­tors op­er­a­tion in an­other city.

“I was lit­er­ally nau­seous yes­ter­day when I walked out of there,” said Sick­ler, who en­joys his job in the trim depart­ment and is loath to re­lo­cate with a son still in high school. “To­day I’m try­ing to get a bet­ter game plan, ac­cept it a lit­tle more.”

In some ways the story of Lord­stown in re­cent decades sounds a lot like the story of in­dus­trial Amer­ica writ large. The num­ber of work­ers at the GM plant peaked around 13,000 in the mid-1980s, ac­cord­ing to the union there. It had dropped be­low 5,000 by this decade, as for­eign com­pe­ti­tion and au­to­ma­tion took their toll.

But in other re­spects GM’s pres­ence al­lowed the vil­lage of about 3,200 to defy the eco­nomic re­al­i­ties bear­ing down on the re­gion.

Fac­tory work­ers have helped gen­er­ate mil­lions of dol­lars in vil­lage in­cometax rev­enue over the years to pay for in­fra­struc­ture and other ex­penses. “We’ve been blessed with the abil­ity to have money to do that,” said Arno Hill, who has served as mayor in two stints to­tal­ing nearly 20 years since the early 1990s.

Even dur­ing the re­ces­sion and fi­nan­cial cri­sis of 2008 and 2009, which pushed GM into bank­ruptcy, the plant and the town were only briefly af­fected. And in 2010, when GM be­gan to pro­duce a new fuel-ef­fi­cient sedan, the Chevro­let Cruze, in Lord­stown, work­ers at the plant were over­joyed.

“Oh, my God, we were so ex­cited,” said Marisol Gon­za­lez-Bow­ers, who has spent more than two decades at the plant. “We had three shifts, were run­ning at full ca­pac­ity. Twelve hours if you wanted it.” Gon­za­lez-Bow­ers said that with over­time, she could eas­ily take home $ 75,000 a year dur­ing the early half of this decade.

Even with Lord­stown’s rel­a­tive dura­bil­ity, Trump’s vi­sion of an in­dus­trial come­back res­onated in town. Trump car­ried the county by about 6 per­cent­age points, a nearly 30point swing to­ward Repub­li­cans since Pres­i­dent Barack Obama won it de­ci­sively in 2012.

But the day af­ter the elec­tion, GM an­nounced that it would elim­i­nate a third shift at the Lord­stown plant. Af­ter years of strong sales, the Cruze was flag­ging as con­sumers de­fected to trucks and SUVs.

Then, in April of this year, as the slump con­tin­ued, the com­pany said it was elim­i­nat­ing a sec­ond shift. The work­ers’ last day co­in­cided with news re­ports that the com­pany would be build­ing a pop­u­lar SUV in Mex­ico.

“It was ter­ri­ble – they an­nounced that as peo­ple were walk­ing out to their cars,” said Dave Green, the pres­i­dent of the United Au­to­mo­bile Work­ers lo­cal in the area. “They turn on the ra­dio, and they hear that GM is go­ing to build the Blazer in Mex­ico.”

Crit­ics said Trump seemed obliv­i­ous to the plant’s strug­gles de­spite his prom­ise to work­ers there. “I had a con­ver­sa­tion with him and he did not know about the first two shift lay­offs,” said Sen. Sher­rod Brown, D-Ohio, who spoke with Trump by phone over the sum­mer. “It shocked me.”

Brown said he had asked Trump to in­ter­vene per­son­ally with GM’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, Mary Barra, and that the pres­i­dent had been non­com­mit­tal. “He said, ‘We’ll see,’” Brown re­called. The White House de­clined to com­ment.

The no­tion that Trump is in­dif­fer­ent or in­ef­fec­tive in the face of fac­tory job losses chal­lenges the essence of his po­lit­i­cal ap­peal, and he has moved to counter that idea – on Tues­day by threat­en­ing to take away GM’s gov­ern­ment sub­si­dies, and on Wed­nes­day by call­ing for new tar­iffs on im­ported cars. At least some of the work­ers spurned by Gen­eral Mo­tors share Brown’s feel­ing that the pres­i­dent could have done more for them.

Tommy Wo­likow was laid off from the plant last year and said he be­came a Trump fan af­ter at­tend­ing the pres­i­dent’s speech hail­ing the re­turn of man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs. “I felt he was speak­ing to me, and I be­lieved him,” said Wo­likow, who didn’t vote in 2016 but had planned to vote for Trump in 2020. “I took the man for his word.”

But in re­cent months, Wo­likow has con­cluded that the pres­i­dent wasn’t in­ter­ested in fol­low­ing through.

Wo­likow, who now vol­un­teers for the pro­gres­sive group Good Jobs Na­tion, said that he and his fi­ancée, Rochelle Carlisle, to­gether brought home around $100,000 a year when both worked at the plant in 2016, but that they now lived on her earn­ings as a wait­ress at Cracker Bar­rel. It brings in about $250 to $300 a week – not enough to cover their mort­gage and car pay­ments, to say noth­ing of ex­penses for their three daugh­ters.

Other work­ers con­tinue to sup­port the pres­i­dent, how­ever. “What he had planned, it should have worked,” said T.J. Lam­bert, a for­mer GM worker in Lord­stown who left the plant in late 2016. Of the cor­po­rate tax cut passed un­der Trump, he said: “The plan was to bring those jobs back, a one-time tax cut. He can’t have con­trol over what a cor­po­ra­tion does 100 per­cent.”

Olesky and Sick­ler, the cur­rent GM work­ers, have voted re­li­ably Repub­li­can in re­cent years, but they are proud union mem­bers who say the la­bor move­ment is of­ten the only pro­tec­tion the mid­dle class has against cor­po­rate greed. “With­out a union, peo­ple would be mak­ing $11 per hour,” Olesky said. “Man­age­ment gets as much as they can, and unions try to pro­tect us.”

Sick­ler noted in dis­be­lief that the com­pany would be lay­ing off eight of his col­leagues at the end of this week, even though it would cost lit­tle to al­low them to stay on un­til the plant goes idle in March. “They’re try­ing to run on a skele­ton crew to save money,” he said.

Kim­berly Carpenter, a GM spokes­woman, said the lay­offs were “just reg­u­lar peo­ple move­ment due to peo­ple re­turn­ing from leave.”

Other Trump sup­port­ers sim­ply re­fused to in­ter­pret Mon­day’s an­nounce­ment as a death sen­tence. They were heart­ened by Trump’s con­fronta­tional com­ments to­ward Barra.

“I said, ‘I heard you’re clos­ing your plant,’” Trump told The Wall Street Jour­nal, re­lat­ing their con­ver­sa­tion. “’It’s not go­ing to be closed for long, I hope, Mary, be­cause if it is, you have a prob­lem.’”

Hill said he thought the odds were fair that the pres­i­dent would even­tu­ally save the plant, though he con­ceded it could take sev­eral months.

“Peo­ple say, ‘Trump promised us,’” Hill said. “Yes, he came here, told the peo­ple in the val­ley, ‘Don’t sell your house, we’re go­ing to bring your jobs back.’ Well, you know, they made the an­nounce­ment yes­ter­day. How soon is soon enough?”

PHO­TOS BY AL­LI­SON FARRAND NYT

The Gen­eral Mo­tors plant in Lord­stown, Ohio, will likely lose 1,600 jobs. Sup­pli­ers with thou­sands of work­ers in the re­gion also will bear the brunt of GM’s re­struc­tur­ing plan.

Marisol Gon­za­lez-Bow­ers is a vet­eran of the Lord­stown Gen­eral Mo­tors plant, in Ohio.

Dave Green is pres­i­dent of the United Au­to­mo­bile Work­ers Lo­cal 1112 union, in War­ren, Ohio.

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