Farms to Fast Lane: Union faced with challenges at GM Lordstown plant

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LORDSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – Workers at General Motors Lordstown Complex have put together some 15 million vehicles in 50 years.

The car has changed, and the assembly line has changed, but the auto workers have been the one constant. In fact, there are about seven workers who have been on the job during the entire 50 years.

During that time, the United Auto Workers union has had its ups and downs as it dealt with changes at the plant.

When Lordstown opened in 1966, the steel mills were closing and General Motors was looking for something to set the workers apart.

“They wound up hiring this new work force [that] at the time was the most educated workforce GM had ever hired,” said John Russo, who studied the GM Lordstown plant for more than 30 years and even founded the Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University.  He now teaches at Georgetown University.

Workers remember when the plant was filled with workers.

“Back in 1970, there were people on every press, people stacking parts,” said former GM worker Dave Kimmel.

Vincent Martini, a current worker at the plant, said he didn’t know much about the union when he joined, but he quickly learned that the union fought for its workers. The union wasn’t without its controversy, however.

There was an acrimonious relationship behind the scenes with management.

“Your plant manager, your superintendents, your foremen, foremen were pushers,” Kimmel said.

Workers were not happy with how they were being treated on the assembly line. GM wanted 100 cars put together every hour, while UAW workers felt comfortable assembling 55.

The fight would lead to dissension and then a walkout.

The workers went on strike for 22 days, and GM reportedly lost $150 million.

Then, there was more turmoil in the 1990s for the workers.

“When the van plant, they announced was closing and all of us with low seniority, we all thought we were going to go and transfer or just go to the street, and Ali came up up with the idea of three crews, two shifts,” said former GM worker Gregory George.

Former worker Mike Sullivan said the change was able to add 750 workers.

Every worker was absorbed from the van plant to the car plant, but more change was on the horizon. GM had a new way to run the plant and UAW workers would have to consider it.

“I left in 2000, and by 2001, everything we had negotiated had changed,” Sullivan said. “It went to the team concept.”

That meant groups of workers rotating jobs, but the employees worked through it and eventually, it enabled the plant to get GM’s investment for building a new generation small car. First, it would be the Chevy Cobalt, but then the switch was made to the Cruze in 2010.

Lordstown workers assembled more than 1.5 million first-generation Cruzes. Now, the second generation Cruzes are coming off the line and heading to dealers.

“Back in 1995, there was almost 3,000 members of 1714 active in the plant. Now, we’re just 1,400 and that’s with bringing the body shop over in 2010, and so we’re definitely doing a lot more with a lot less people,” said Rob Morales, president of UAW Local 1714.

“They want a great quality car coming off the line, and that’s what it’s going to take — both sides working,” Martini said.

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