How an Ohio auto plant has become a political battleground

Trump blames the union for GM’s closing of its giant Lordstown complex

Published March 22, 2019 5:00AM (EDT)

 (Getty/Photo Montage by Salon)
(Getty/Photo Montage by Salon)

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Even this early in the presidential election campaign, there are all kinds of promises to Rust Belt voters. Certainly, the proposals are needed, though the emphasis on Rust Belt communities seems especially selected because of the key role they played in electing Donald Trump president in 2016.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), for example, is talking about a massive government infrastructure initiative for the Midwest. And several Democrats are going out of their way to try to appeal to farmers with promises to repeal corrosive tariff policies, promoting farm ownership and generally increasing the number of visits to the region. The Democratic Party selected Milwaukee as the site for its national convention.

Still, the king of the Rust Belt pitch remains Donald Trump.

Over this last weekend, Trump urged General Motors leadership to reopen the closed auto manufacturing facility in Lordstown, Ohio, before deciding to blame the local union leader for not doing enough to save the GM jobs. Closing that facility last month caused the elimination of about 5,400 jobs, though Trump has promised the workers that the factory will be reopened.

“Democrat UAW Local 1112 President David Green ought to get his act together and produce. G.M. let our Country down, but other much better car companies are coming into the U.S. in droves,” Trump tweeted Sunday. “I want action on Lordstown fast. Stop complaining and get the job done! 3.8% unemployment!” 

As it happened, the tweet came minutes after Fox News suggested that Trump might have trouble with his reelection campaign in the Rust Belt. Fox News played clips from a Trump rally in Youngstown, Ohio—very close to Lordstown—where the president told the crowd in July 2017, “don’t sell your house” because the jobs are “all coming back.”

The president followed up yesterday, saying that GM should reopen the plant or sell it to someone who will.

Actually, Trump has used this tactic previously of criticizing a local union leader before when blue-collar jobs for a Carrier air conditioning plant in Indiana. But those jobs went away anyway. Needless to say, this is an abuse of power, yes, and clearly wrong: The union local can’t sell GM cars to keep the plant open.

Fox News interviewed David Green, the local GM union leader, who said Trump’s tweets were doing little to provide practical help. Green sent Trump two letters in the past year begging him to help stop the plant closure and never heard back.

“The president was saying don’t sell your house because all of these factories are coming back and we’re going to protect American jobs. We’ve seen everything but that here,” Green said in a recent interview.

Actually, it remains unclear as to whether the GM Lordstown plant is closed for good. The ultimate fate of the plant will be decided when the United Auto Workers and GM negotiate a new union contract this fall, but for now, thousands of workers at the plant and surrounding businesses are out of jobs that often paid $30 an hour with benefits. As the Post explained, the GM Lordstown plant made the Chevy Cruze, a small sedan that sold well after the Great Recession and when gas prices were high but has had weaker sales in recent years. GM has cast the Lordstown plant closure as a business decision because it no longer wants to make small cars in the United States, but on Sunday, Trump made it sound as though GM was blaming the UAW.

“Just spoke to Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors about the Lordstown Ohio plant. I am not happy that it is closed when everything else in our Country is BOOMING. I asked her to sell it or do something quickly. She blamed the UAW Union — I don’t care, I just want it open!” Trump tweeted several hours after attacking Green.

GM wouldn’t comment directly on the conversation between Barra and Trump, but the company put out a statement saying the plant’s future “would be resolved between GM and the UAW.” Selling the plant to another owner probably would mean union workers would lose their seniority and not be paid as well as they had been.

For union workers in Lordstown, it’s hard to hear accusations that they didn’t do enough to keep the plant open. The Lordstown plant workers agreed in 2007 to pay new hires lower wages — about $20 an hour instead of $30.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) tweeted that Green and other union workers in Lordstown have shown “grit and determination in the face of adversity” and that it’s time Trump “stood up to GM and joined the fight.” Like Green, Brown told The Washington Post in a recent interview that he had tried to contact Trump numerous times in an effort to save the Lordstown jobs but never heard back.

The unemployment rate in Trumbull County is 7.7%, more than double the national rate, making these latest job losses hard to endure. Signs saying “Save the GM plant” and “Drive It Home: Support GM Lordstown” are everywhere in northeast Ohio, part of a campaign Green started several months ago to attract attention to the town’s plight.

Although Trump has touted strong growth in manufacturing jobs — last year the United States added the most manufacturing jobs since 1997 — parts of the country such as the Youngstown area have continued to shed blue-collar jobs.

The laid-off GM workers face a choice: Get another local job that usually pays less, move to another state to work in a different GM factory or retrain for another career. About 700 of the Lordstown workers have transferred out of state, according to the company and the UAW.

In the meantime, Trump, who does not accept blame himself, is showing himself as lacking to the very people who had turned to him.

By Terry H. Schwadron

MORE FROM Terry H. Schwadron

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