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Amid anger and protests, new pact seals fate of GM Lordstown

From the Lordstown to Detroit, Mahoning Matters reporters witnessed the end of the General Motors era in the Mahoning Valley on Thursday and talked to the people most affected.

DETROIT — With the approval of a tentative agreement between the United Auto Workers and General Motors Thursday, what Mahoning Valley residents have suspected and feared for months has come to pass:

GM’s Lordstown Assembly Complex is closed for good.

With the closure comes a hope it could soon be the future home of a new, albeit smaller, automaker.

But that’s small consolation, say some current and former members of UAW Local 1112, many of whom have already relocated far from the Valley.

THURSDAY’S MEETING

After a more than six-hour, closed-door meeting at the Marriott hotel inside Detroit’s GM Renaissance Center, the UAW National General Motors Council on Thursday recommended ratification of an agreement that would end the longest GM strike in almost 50 years, but also shutter three of its plants, including the 53-year-old Lordstown facility.

“We’re extremely disappointed. I’m still angry at General Motors. We think they set us up to fail, and I think they had this planned for maybe three, four years,” UAW Local 1112 President Tim O’Hara told Mahoning Matters minutes after the meeting ended.

The 6.2-million-square-foot complex off Interstate 80 has sat mostly empty since workers trickled out of the plant after the last Chevy Cruze was built on March 6. But with Thursday’s announcement comes GM’s confirmation that it hopes to sell the facility to the recently formed Lordstown Motors Corp., headed by Steve Burns, the former CEO of a Cincinnati-based electric pickup manufacturer.

LORDSTOWN MOTORS CORP.

Jim Cain, GM spokesperson, said Thursday the company remains "committed to future investment and job growth" in Ohio.

"Projects planned for the Mahoning Valley include the opportunity to bring battery cell production to the area, which would create approximately 1,000 manufacturing jobs, as well as the sale of the GM Lordstown complex to Lordstown Motors Corp., a new company that plans to build electric pickups for commercial fleet customers. Lordstown Motors Corp. plans to create 400 manufacturing jobs initially," he said in a statement.

That vehicle could be on the market by the end of next year, Lordstown Motors CEO Burns said during an electric vehicle forum hosted by the City Club of the Mahoning Valley in September at Packard Music Hall. 

Burns said then that he thinks Lordstown Motors Corp. topped other EV manufacturers that were eyeing the Lordstown plant — like Tesla — largely because his company is committed to using union labor.

“Ohio means automotive manufacturing. The people that run this state, the government on down — they are very aggressive in helping anybody that will bring automotive jobs and all the associated jobs that go with it."

Burns said he had not yet reached out to union labor, and was waiting for UAW/GM contract negotiations to end. He said he believes the compensation will be “competitive,” but added the business must crawl before it can run.

“That’s our goal — we want to get back to the same three shifts,” Burns said. “That plant only makes sense — it’s so big — only if you go full throttle.”

Tim O’Hara has doubts about the likelihood of the venture as well as the proposal for a battery plant opening in the Youngstown area. The possibility was not discussed Thursday, O’Hara said. 

“We’ve been through this in the Valley before where we’re supposed to get new businesses over the years,” said O’Hara. “It never happens.”

LORDSTOWN IN DETROIT

To enter the center’s UAW-GM Council meeting room Thursday, attendees passed through a narrow walkway lined with former Lordstown workers and supporters dressed in red shirts chanting, “No product, no vote!” and shouting “Solidarity!”

In the midst of the raucousness, Anthony Naples’ voice broke as he explained that he and his wife recently adopted a 14-year-old son. His son attended five schools in six years before becoming part of the Naples family.

“I don’t want to pick him up and move him. He finally has a home and has a family,” said Naples. 

Naples worked at Lordstown for 25 years and has waited out accepting a transfer. Thursday’s news will force him to leave behind his wife and son in Youngstown. 

Long trips aren’t new for former Lordstown workers. Throughout the month-long strike, many who accepted transfers traveled back to Lordstown to picket at home. 

On Thursday, many showed up in Detroit.

Outside the meeting room was the first time friends Steven Bridgens and Kevin Andrella had seen each other in a while. 

Andrella transferred to the Flint, Mich. plant, and Bridgens now lives in Bowling Green, Ky.

“I brought [my family] two weeks ago. For five months, I was traveling back and forth on weekends,” said Andrella, who has two children, a 2-year-old and a 3-year-old. 

Janelle Clay drove more than nine hours from her new home in Wentzville, Mo. to oppose the closure of the plant. She’s banded together with other former Lordstown workers who transferred to Missouri. 

When asked if they have a reputation, she smiled and said, “We’re pretty outspoken, yeah.”

BACK IN LORDSTOWN

As the council meeting dragged on, the mood was “anxious” at the Local 1112 hall just minutes away from GM’s Hallock Young Road plant, said Bill Adams, the union’s vice president.

About a dozen UAW members manned the Lordstown complex’s five gates Thursday afternoon, hoisting blue-and-white paperboard signs and huddling over barrels stuffed with blazing firewood as temperatures fell. 

At 71 years old, Walter Phelps holds the highest seniority among them — and the whole shop.

Phelps was 19 when he came on in 1967, just one year after GM Lordstown spun up production. He worked as an assembler, but spent most of his 52 years at the Lordstown plant as a repairman.

Though well past retirement age, Phelps said he intended to stick around at GM Lordstown until his son graduated from college — which just occurred. Now he’s ready to roll into retirement.

“I wish they would have brought a product to this plant and kept it because we gave up a lot of stuff over the years,” he said.

Phelps started in 1967 at $3.60 an hour — more than $27 an hour today, if accounting for inflation. After that wage followed his marriage, kids, a home. It was the foundation for the rest of his life.

He said he’d never really considered how his life would be different without GM Lordstown. It’s like it’s always been there.

“I still feel sorry for the younger people,” Phelps said.

At just a fraction of Phelps’ age, 27-year-old Jesse Silva of Warren picketed just one gate over on Thursday.

The second-generation Lordstown plant worker said he’s been heavily involved with the local UAW shop, following his mother, a GM worker for about 20 years.

Silva went to college for graphic design and photography, but ultimately quit and leapt at an opening at GM Lordstown seven years ago.

He bought a $100,000 house just two years later, at 22 years old. He’s since traveled to Budapest, Ukraine and all corners of the U.S.

“I knew this place could give me a really good start for being that young — and that’s what it did,” he said. “This job taught me how to manage my money responsibly. … Financially, I’m pretty secure at this point.”

But instead of transferring to another GM plant, he’s now taking a new job elsewhere, outside the area — and it’s not in automotive work. 

A COMMUNITY 'DESTROYED'

Adams said many members are retraining for CDL driving, HVAC or other in-demand trades.

“We were one of the best production plants General Motors ever had. We hoped that would be forever,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking because they just destroyed a community and General Motors couldn’t care less.”

GM Lordstown wasn’t just a foundation for the Lordstown Village — but for the whole Mahoning Valley, said Lordstown Mayor Arno Hill.

“We wish [GM would] stay but they’re not going to stay,” he told Mahoning Matters following the council meeting Thursday.

Hill said he’s hopeful something could “build off” of GM’s proposed battery cell plant. He added the village’s recently approved TJX HomeGoods distribution center is causing other businesses to eye the village.

He also expects Lordstown Motors Corp. may approach village leaders for tax incentives, possibly to refurbish the plant’s interior.

“In a changing world, you have to be able to change with it. Right now, we’re going to have to see how the chips fall,” Hill said. “When businesses come in, business taxes and employee income tax pay the bills.”

CONTRACT DETAILS

On Nov. 26, 2018, GM announced its plans to “unallocate” GM Lordstown — cutting about 1,600 local jobs — as well as plants in Detroit, Warren, Michigan and Baltimore. Despite an emotional local campaign to keep Lordstown open, only GM’s Detroit Hamtramck facility will receive a new product, union leaders announced.

Workers at the other plants can choose between several assistance packages, including retirement incentives, training assistance or buy-out, according to a summary of the new union contract, which UAW members circulated Thursday.

The month-long strike — which began after the previous UAW-GM contract expired Sept. 14 — cost the about 46,000 UAW strikers more than $835 million in wages and GM more than $1.5 billion in profits, reported The Detroit News.

In addition to confirming the closure of Lordstown, the contract addresses the motivations for the strike, including wages. The contract promises 3 percent base-wage increases in the second and fourth years of the contract and 4 percent lump-sum bonuses in the first and third years.  

Under the proposed deal, temporary employees can achieve permanent status after three years starting Jan. 6.

Here's the full UAW-GM contract summary circulated Thursday:

SO WHAT’S NEXT?

Workers will continue to strike — and receive the union’s weekly strike stipend of $275 — until the contract is ratified, by Oct. 25 at the latest, union leaders said.

Though O’Hara and several others on those picket lines Thursday told Mahoning Matters they intend to vote against any contract that doesn’t include a new GM product in Lordstown, only about 500 Local 1112 members who are eligible to vote on it remain there.

Adams said about 1,000 of those eligible voters have been transferred to other GM facilities since GM Lordstown layoffs began in 2017, meaning they may no longer cast a vote for the local 1112.

And while former Lordstown workers who accepted transfers have vowed to argue the case to new coworkers, accepting the contract is lucrative, thanks to the promise of a ratification bonus.

The new contract offers an $11,000 to each permanent employee and $4,500 to temporary employees if the contract is ratified.

“Until they allocate something to this plant and make a commitment to this plant, I’ll vote no,” said 27-year GM Lordstown worker Richard Marsh, while warming himself by a barrel of burning logs at the Lordstown facility’s main entrance.

He’s begrudgingly preparing to move his wife and 14-year-old disabled daughter to a new home near a GM assembly in Bowling Green Ky., where he was forced to transfer.

“I don’t care what amount of money they dangle in front of us,” he said. “If they can open up a contract, decide they don’t want to do it no more and breach a contract with no repercussions, they’re going to do it again.”

THE DECISION IN DETROIT

For more than six hours, former Lordstown workers waited outside the room in which UAW leaders decided their fate. 

Shop Chairman Dan Morgan emerged several times during breaks to update the members of the group, who tried to discern the tone of the discussion by interpreting his face. 

He wasn’t smiling.

“We’re on break, but it ain’t good, guys,” Morgan told the group when he walked out at 3 p.m.

A smaller contingent of people in red shirts remained when Morgan emerged for a final time followed by Tim O’Hara. Morgan informed the group that union leadership had decided to put the tentative agreement — which did not allocate a product to Lordstown — up for a ratification vote. 

“I’ve been sick to my stomach since last November,” O’Hara told Mahoning Matters outside the room. 

But for O’Hara and the workers present, Lordstown is not closed until members have ratified the contract. 

THE END

After the meeting, O’Hara prepared for his 480-mile trip back to Bowling Green, Ky., where his wife currently works. 

As the emotional and arduous day reached a conclusion, he still had a final thought to share about his workers. 

“They personally did nothing to deserve this and it’s just a shame that GM has done this to their loyal employees,” he said, his face reflecting sadness and resignation.




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