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The politics of Washington hits Lordstown, creating a divide among autoworkers

December 2, 2018

The politics of Washington hits Lordstown, creating a divide among autoworkers

LORDSTOWN, Ohio – It didn’t take long for the political animus of Washington to hit the assembly line of the General Motors plant here last week.

Nanette Donithan just thought the impact would be a bit more subtle.

The company’s announcement Monday that it will end production of the Chevrolet Cruze compact car and lay off more than 1,400 workers in Lordstown in early March set off more than painful emotions and frustration. It highlighted something that Donithan and other employees said has been simmering at the plant for months: a growing political schism.

“It’s very uncomfortable,” said Donithan, who has worked at the plant for 20 years. “It’s the blame game. It is so polarizing. Our whole shop has become really divided.”

That polarization pervades a plant that has been the manufacturing jewel of Trumbull County for decades. It underscores a broader shift in a county that, until 2016, had been a Northeast Ohio Democratic stronghold for more than four decades.

“The fact that Trumbull County voted for Donald Trump was shocking,’’ said William Binning, a professor emeritus of political science at Youngstown State University. “There appears to be a change in the way voters in the county think. There’s a great deal of frustration, and there are questions of who to blame.’’

The finger-pointing in Lordstown and across the nation started as soon as news trickled out Monday morning of GM’s plans to cease production of car models, including the Cruze, to sideline five plants in the United States and Canada and to cut 14,000 jobs, ranging from blue-collar factory workers to roughly 8,000 salaried employees and executives.

Grappling with sluggish new-car sales, shifting consumer preferences and the need to free up cash for investments in autonomous and electric vehicles, the Detroit-based automaker unveiled a strategic shift that’s expected to unroll over the coming year, saving $6 billion by the end of 2020.

But the decisions that GM executives portrayed as pure business – and that Wall Street investors rewarded by boosting the company’s stock price, which ended the week up 5.6 percent from the previous Friday’s close – felt political, and personal, in Lordstown, where more than 3,000 people lost jobs in the last two years as the company pared production and eliminated shifts.

Confusion, anxiety and downright anger were evident beyond the factory floor or union hall last week in a county that has experienced a drop of almost 20,000 manufacturing jobs, a 65 percent decline, since 2000.

Cheryl Jonesco, who lost her job in June, hopes to transfer to another GM plant when an opening comes up. “I hate to see union brothers and sisters fighting,’’ she said. “Tension is high. People are thinking about the issues. Some people might have to move their families.’’

In the wake of GM’s announcement, Trump publicly promised to pressure executives to bring jobs back to Ohio and to cut government subsidies to the automaker – an apparent reference to tax credits that actually go to consumers who buy electric cars. He traded jabs with U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown. Brown and U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, both Democrats, who blasted the president for failing to follow through on stumping promises to the Mahoning Valley.

At a rally in Youngstown last year, Trump told residents that better days were ahead, that factory jobs were coming back and that workers should not move or sell their homes.

On Thursday, Brown’s office said that the senator and Trump spoke about fighting to help autoworkers. In a statement, Brown’s office wrote that the president “said the right things, but now he needs to follow up with action.’’

Anxiety about the Lordstown plant’s future has been building for months, prompting union leaders, employees, elected officials and regional economic-development leaders to launch a campaign in mid-November to highlight the 52-year-old operation’s ability to adapt and take on next-generation vehicle production.

Still, workers felt blindsided Monday morning, when they first learned of the cuts – nearly a week after GM’s board of directors approved the company’s retooled transformation plan, according to a regulatory document filed Tuesday.

GM, careful in its language due to existing union contracts, hasn’t said the plant will close. But the automaker hasn’t committed to replacing the Cruze with another model, either.

Lawmakers swiftly accused the company of prioritizing profits over its workers and taxpayers, who rescued the automaker a decade ago in a bailout that ultimately cost the country more than $10 billion.

Christina DeFelice worked at the plant and a GM supplier for 22 years. In June, she lost her job when the automaker dropped the second shift at Lordstown. Her husband still works at the plant, where he has been for 24 years. Her father retired after 46 years there.

“It’s discouraging,’’ DeFelice said of the partisan splits laid bare in the wake of GM’s moves. “When you are trying to save a plant this size, you don’t want to be politically divided. We want to be united.’’

John Russo, a retired labor studies professor at Youngstown State University, said the divisions are to be expected. He estimated that 40 percent of UAW members in Lordstown voted for Trump in 2016, based on what workers and labor officials told him. Trump, Russo said, tapped into a growing wave of resentment in the Mahoning Valley.

“A lot of people, a lot of workers, thought the Democratic Party had failed them, that it had forgot about them. So they said, ‘Forget it,’’’ Russo said, though he acknowledged that the rejection isn’t universal, since workers still see Brown and Ryan as advocates.

Donithan, who has voted for Democrats, said a colleague at the plant seemed upbeat after Trump’s recent threats to penalize General Motors.

“He was thrilled that President Trump is going to save us,” Donithan said. “I just don’t know about that. I asked him about tariffs, the instability of the market and the difficulty of selling cars. The trade issue is the problem.’’

A few miles from the plant, Walter Steffey ate his hashbrowns and bacon at Nese’s Country Cafe, a tiny diner. It was a few days after GM’s announcement, and he mused about the swirling politics of Trumbull County and what it must be like inside the plant where he worked for 34 years before retiring in 2004.

“Things are changing here,’’ said Steffey, 70. “The younger people are tired of the same old, same old. They don’t want to hear the same bickering and see the same results.’’

Tommy Wolikow wanted a change from the ways of the past. He didn’t vote in 2016, but he later attended Trump rallies and pressed to speak with Trump aides about local jobs. He listened last year when Trump told the region’s workers to hang onto their homes and count on a manufacturing rebound. He has good friends at the plant who supported and voted for the president.

Then Wolikow was laid off after nine years of working a variety of jobs at Lordstown, from the engine line to the wheel room.

“I took him at his word,’’ Wolikow said of Trump. “I’m not blaming him for [the idling of the plant]. But I’m saying he came here and said he was a workers’ champion. Well, what have you done?’’

In the days since the announcement, Lisa Miller has heard several stories of pain. Miller, a waitress at Nese’s, said she fears what will happen to the village of Lordstown in March.

“There are a lot of Trump supporters here,’’ Miller said. “You wouldn’t think that among autoworkers. But there are. I think Trump is trying. It’s unfathomable that the very people who bailed [GM] out are those who are getting hurt.’’

She paused, then became indignant.

“I’ll tell you something,’’ she said. “I will never buy another GM car again. I will not. And there are a lot of people around here who won’t, either.’’

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