LORDSTOWN, Ohio (AP) _ Back when Darwin Cooper landed a car assembly job at General Motors' brand new plant in 1966, he had a youthful sense of invincibility.

He was just 19. He had a job with good pay and good benefits that would probably last as long as he could imagine.

He and his buddies wouldn't hesitate to confront management, and manager-worker tempers often flared. During the plant's first dozen years, there were strikes and near-strikes. Lordstown GM workers quickly built not only cars, but a reputation.

``It was a young and radical work force,'' Cooper recalled. ``I really believe it had a lot to do with our country at the time. There was the Vietnam War. There were protests going on. Things were just pretty unsettled.''

But there was a national demand for small cars, and employment at the Lordstown plant kept growing, swelling to about 10,000.

Eventually, those young workers started families, bought houses, became involved in their communities, sent their kids to college and mellowed, Cooper says.

Now 52, with silver hair and glasses, Cooper, known as ``Coop'' to GM Lordstown workers, stopped working at the plant just a year and a half ago to devote his time to issues facing United Auto Workers Local 1112, the local representing the plant's present 5,300 workers. He is the local's vice president.

Lordstown GM's story contrasts sharply now with those early years. No one feels invincible. The U.S. economy is a cog in the world economy.

The UAW is negotiating with GM to keep Lordstown GM going past the year 2002, when production of the Pontiac Sunfire and Chevrolet Cavalier is expected to end.

``I think there is a lot of concern. I wouldn't say worry, though,'' Cooper said.

GM Vice President Mark Hogan said last week a plan _ called Project Yellowstone _ to replace some of the automaker's unprofitable small-car assembly plants with more efficient ones would reduce labor costs and allow the automaker's manufacturing to be more flexible.

The new plants are expected to dramatically reduce GM's costs by giving independent suppliers a larger role in designing and assembling parts for the cars.

If Lordstown GM is selected for the next generation of GM small cars, the work force is likely to be reduced to about 2,000. Workers and others in the region see that as a better option than a plant closure. Cooper said it's a chance for longtime workers to flow into retirement.

``The importance of the Lordstown GM plant to this area is immeasurable, absolutely immeasurable,'' said Youngstown Mayor George McKelvey. Lordstown, a village with a population of about 4,000, is about 15 miles west of Youngstown.

``Do I pray every Sunday for it? Yes,'' McKelvey said.

For about two months, the union local has been involved in talks with GM on work rule and employment issues pertaining only to Lordstown GM. The union hopes an agreement could set the stage for GM committing to remake the plant for future production.

Those talks ``have been very professional,'' Cooper said. ``Have there been disagreements? Of course there have. That's called negotiating. There's give and take.

``Here's how we see it: We're not in competition with any other plants. We're in competition with a dollar amount. What General Motors is saying to us is, if you can get this car built for X number of dollars, we're going to give you the project.''

Cooper said the talks have been going well, and union officials are hoping for some positive news within a few weeks.

In the meantime, uncertainty lingers.

``People get scared,'' said Harry Peterson, who runs a family-owned hardware store in Lordstown and is very familiar with the plant's workers. ``I think they are doing whatever they can to make it work out. I think they will bend over backwards to help keep the plant. I sense that the employees are really trying to make it work.''