The Lordstown layoffs

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, April 3rd. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: The Ford Taurus. The Chevy Impala. Even the iconic Volkswagen Beetle.

By the end of this year, all these cars’ U.S. production will be discontinued. Auto companies are getting away from smaller vehicles and building more SUVs and trucks.

Earlier this year, General Motors stopped production of the Chevy Cruze. Workers at the GM manufacturing plant in Lordstown, Ohio, built those. And now many longtime employees have some difficult decisions to make.

REICHARD: WORLD Radio’s Maria Baer spoke to one of those workers and brings us this story.

MARIA BAER, REPORTER: When Northeastern Ohioans hear the name Lordstown, they think of more than the small village of about 32-hundred people. They picture the General Motors plant: in local vernacular, the place and the plant are synonymous.

ROLLISON: I hired in, my father hired in in Lordstown in 1970. I hired in in 1995, March of 1995…

Jim Rollison grew up nearby in Warren, Ohio. The area is called the Mahoning Valley and has been home to large manufacturing plants of all types for most of the 20th century. Think soda cans, steel, and yes, cars. But everything changed last fall.

NEWSCLIP: Now to this news, General Motors, once a bellwether of American manufacturing is facing outrage after announcing some tough decisions about its future…

It was the Monday after Thanksgiving when GM announced it would be stopping all production at five North American plants. It was giving up on the Chevy Cruze altogether.

For Rollison, the timing was especially bad: he was six years away from a pension with GM and has three sons in high school. He didn’t want to leave the company. But he couldn’t force his sons to leave their friends and school, so he made a difficult decision: he transferred to a GM plant in Toledo. He stays there with an aunt and drives home for weekends. It’s not easy.

ROLLISON: Still being away from my family, that’s the hardest part. Not being there for the daily activities, you know, not being there for to see my sons when they come home from school, that’s the most difficult part.

Rollison said he catches up on phone calls during the drive. It’s not a bad commute, thanks to the paved paradise of the Ohio turnpike. But it’s not the life he imagined.

ROLLISON: Right now, everybody is still in shock. When I come home, there’s this empathetic look that I get from everybody. And it’s like please don’t, we are okay.

Rollison calls himself a “nomad” now. The logistics aren’t ideal. But the layoffs in Lordstown were more than just an inconvenience. They were a devastating blow to a small town’s pride.

ROLLISON: Everybody was devastated. It wasn’t just the workers, or the workers families—everybody was devastated.

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Rollison was just a kid when an event known as Black Monday left its traumatic mark on every Northeast Ohioan’s DNA.

On September 19th, 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube, one of the largest steel mills in the country, laid off 5,000 workers. All at once, and with no notice.

The shocking announcement caused a ripple effect, chasing an estimated 40-thousand jobs out of the Mahoning Valley. Youngstown—a city about 15 miles east of Lordstown—lost half its population in the ensuing years.

The GM layoffs didn’t affect as many people. But it’s still an unwelcome tectonic shift in the area’s economy.

ROLLISON: This in my opinion, this was the final straw for the valley, because Lordstown was basically the only gig in town for the Mahoning Valley. I mean the big gig. And unfortunately, since ‘16 it’s been eating that elephant one bite at a time and the final straw was when everybody got laid off.

NEWSCLIP: A large American factory stopped production today after more than half-a-century…

The doors finally closed behind the last Cruze vehicle on March 6th.

ROLLISON: And I gotta say, um, I’m glad I wasn’t there, because that would have been [chokes up] that would’ve been pretty tough. I don’t know if I could’ve handled that.

It wasn’t just the job losses that broke hearts. The plant had its own social ecosystem that won’t be rebuilt.

ROLLISON: It’s where we all, we acquired a lot of relationships there, and watching it all go away… because I know, I know that the people back home, that I said goodbye to in January, I may never see again. They’re going to scatter across the country now.

Some of them will stay in Lordstown in the Mahoning Valley. Some plan to transfer to Texas. About 70 people transferred from Lordstown to the new, state-of-the art facility here in Toledo:

Their shared plight has cemented already close relationships.

ROLLISON: This is Kevin Money, he’s from Lordstown. He came from Lordstown with me. He loves it here. Hates being away from his family…

Rollison said he still has hope for the plant in Lordstown. GM still won’t officially label it “closed”—but that’s likely because it is contractually obligated to its unions not to close the plant. So it is—quote—“un-allocated.” It means GM still owns the building—there’s just nothing going on inside.

This is a contract negotiating year, and GM could change those terms. But Rollison said manufacturing another car there would likely take an expensive building renovation.

While the future of Lordstown weighs heavily in his mind, it doesn’t have much bearing on Rollison’s day-to-day. Right now, he’s keeping an eye on his team’s production numbers. They’re lagging today, as everyone works to learn the new technology. They may not hit their production goal, which makes Rollison’s face fall.

ROLLISON: It means I can’t go home tonight. It means I’m going home tomorrow.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Maria Baer, reporting from Toledo, Ohio.

(Photo/Maria Baer)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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