Ohio Auto Workers Watch a Way of Life Circle the Drain
September 13, 2020
I spent a long weekday morning in Monty Woolley’s dim, curtained living room, listening to his story. The neatly mown neighborhood of low-roofed bungalows outside was quiet, people off to their jobs. Woolley sat in the recliner where he’d been spending too much time lately, shoeless, anxious for the mail to arrive, expecting an envelope that contained his fate. Being laid off is complicated, even more so for someone who’d given decades of his compromises, his well-being, his uneasy trust into the General Motors plant at Lordstown, Ohio. The expectation in return was a decent life and a secure retirement. Now, just months from his final punch-out date, he was upended. I was aware, as we talked, of my Subaru sitting in his driveway, aware I’d driven a foreign car into a territory where folks are keenly attentive to where things were made, and by whom. In addition to everything else, I had growing questions for myself.
I spent a year traveling my home state of Ohio, a year in which the question of America was at high pitch, a year in a place that has always, uniquely, shone light onto that question. One by one, the people I met helped assemble an answer. In the time since my travels ended, a time of plague and job loss and unrest, these lessons have rung like alarm bells. We are in hard times, and if you want to understand hard times and how to survive them, Youngstown is a good place to start.
The worst part is the promises.
In the aftermath of “Black Monday,” schemers and speculators had descended into the Valley promising new industries that would create hundreds or thousands of jobs, building hopes without either the intention or the means to follow through. A blimp factory, an airplane works, a brewery. Nothing. Four decades later, few had forgotten the sound of those voices. The closing of Lordstown Assembly was described around town as another broken promise, in forsaken tones. Proposals like Workhorse were met with well-earned skepticism.
Trumbull County, where the Lordstown plant is located, went 51 percent for Trump in 2016 to Hillary Clinton’s 45 percent, the first time since Richard Nixon that the county had voted in favor of a Republican presidential candidate. Four years before, Barack Obama had taken Trumbull by 23 points. Every person in the region who told me they’d voted for Trump said their previous vote had been for Obama, whose picture—snapped during his presidency when he made a visit to the Lordstown shop floor—still hung in the local union hall.
“I’m not a strong Democrat; I’m not a strong Republican. I’ve voted both ways,” Monty Woolley said. “To be honest with you, I voted for Trump because I felt like he made a little bit more sense. People were tired of politics as usual. But for him to make the promises he did, and to backpedal on his promises—he just turned his back on the UAW.
“I don’t have a lot of confidence in General Motors to decide my fate or do anything in my best interest.”
“The things he said he was going to do, in my opinion, were all good things and that made me vote for him. But like my dad used to say, ‘He’s got an alligator mouth and a Tweety Bird ass.’”
I asked him what all this meant for 2020. He grinned and answered without hesitation: “A new broom sweeps clean.”
David Green, the union president, said plenty of his Lordstown brothers and sisters had voted not so much for Trump as against Clinton. Others supported Trump because he’d told them he would restore a lifestyle they believed in, one they and their ancestors had helped create.
“You come into an area like Trumbull County, Mahoning County, where unemployment is higher than the national average… when you come to an area like this and you start talking about jobs, people listen,” he said. “They want to hear that. But over the last couple years, we’ve seen nothing but jobs leave here.”
As for 2020?
“I don’t think Donald Trump is gonna get as many votes in this valley as he did then, for sure.”
Five days after our visit, I received a text from Monty Woolley:
Told you I’d let you know I just got my invite to go to Arlington Texas plant. Good luck with your book
Thanks for the update. How are you feeling about that?
It is what it is. I’ll stay there until the contract. Then retire
This is what it felt like to be one of the lucky ones in Ohio in 2019.
The summer passed with no answers and more distress. In July, still laid off and after months of fighting to save the Lordstown plant, David Green reluctantly accepted GM’s offer of a position at a plant in Bedford, Indiana. In moving, he’d be leaving behind his parents and a daughter who’d recently graduated from the local Youngstown State University, as well as his position as union president.
“I was on the fence about going,” he told the local Tribune Chronicle newspaper. “If I wait much longer, I end up getting forced some place. I would rather decide my fate. I don’t have a lot of confidence in General Motors to decide my fate or do anything in my best interest.”
“GM had used Lordstown and two other plants as negotiating chips.”
Two months later, the contract between GM and the UAW expired and forty-nine thousand autoworkers nationwide walked off the job, embarking on a forty-day strike, the longest such walkout in half a century. Through September and October, negotiations dragged on as picketers stood outside the empty Lordstown plant holding signs and chanting slogans, hoping the new contract might bring it back to life. When the agreement was ratified, though, it was revealed that GM had used Lordstown and two other plants as negotiating chips. In return for a concession to close all three permanently, GM sweetened the financial pot for UAW employees at its remaining facilities.
In November, General Motors sold the massive Lordstown facility to a newly formed company, Lordstown Motors Corp., which planned to build electric trucks there. The revived plant, where twelve thousand had once worked, would employ four hundred people.
A month later, GM announced plans to build a new facility near Lordstown to manufacture batteries for electric vehicles, with eleven hundred new jobs expected. A Trump campaign spokesman called it a “huge win” for the Mahoning Valley. Those who remained, though, knew the faces behind all those numbers. They knew what had been lost.
Daily life in the Mahoning Valley has always been about power, in all its permutations. The company might hold your fate in the ultimate sense, and the clashes between corporation and government might seem like battles of the gods playing up above, but there were countless ways, many of them seemingly small, to maintain a sense of control, of independence, of dignity. As monumental forces played out in the tiny village of Lordstown, David Green told me something at the union hall that stayed with me. I had asked him what lesson Lordstown might hold for the rest of the nation.
“I would rather people bought a Honda that was made in Ohio than a Buick made in China.”
“I think the biggest thing is knowing where your products come from. Specifically, automobiles,” he said. “A car purchase, a truck purchase, is the second-largest purchase people make. Where that vehicle is finally assembled puts people to work, a lot of people to work. I would argue that every American should care that that vehicle was made here in the States. I would rather people bought a Honda that was made in Ohio than a Buick made in China.”
Then he told me how. The first three characters in a vehicle identification number—that little plate at the edge of the driver’s side dashboard—represent the World Manufacturer Identifier. They tell you where your vehicle was made. If the first digit in your VIN is a 1, 4, or 5, your car was assembled in the United States.
When I got home that day, I leaned over the hood, peered beneath the windshield wiper, and scrawled the long series of letters and numbers into my notebook. I went into the house and keyed them into my web browser.
My Outback was built by American workers in Lafayette, Indiana.