An Ohio factory closure stirs populist anger. Who will that help in 2020?
LORDSTOWN, Ohio — They stood outside in the dark, illuminated by barrel fires and the headlights of trucks lurching by, and they were angry.
The Chevrolet Cruze plant behind them had been idle for six months and shed thousands of jobs. They were the laid-off, reassigned, and retired factory workers who had spent decades inside, fitting headlights and slipping windows into doors as compact sedans took shape on the assembly line.
Some of the plant’s former employees had stayed here in Northeast Ohio, perhaps without a job or with a worse-paying one, while many of their neighbors moved away. They scattered, taking new assignments from Missouri to Michigan, leaving their families behind.
Now, in mid-September, they were back. General Motors workers had just walked off the job around the country, striking in protest of tiered wages, eroded job security, and a prosperous company they felt was not sharing enough of its profits with employees who had made sacrifices to help keep it afloat during leaner times.
Here in Lordstown, there were virtually no jobs left to walk away from. But the auto workers, past and present, came anyway, bringing the strike to the doorstep of a ghost plant in a last-ditch attempt to pressure the big company to reopen it and restore their way of life.
“The American public — we’re all getting screwed,” Bob Meyer, a disabled retiree who worked for General Motors for more than 17 years, said as he settled into a camp chair on the first full night of the strike. He had tied an old “UAW on Strike” sign tied around his sweat shirt.
As for the cause of the current collision, he pointed to the same villain named by just about everyone here: Corporate greed.
The strike would last for 40 days. It ended Friday when workers ratified a new contract that raised wages and offered a path to permanent jobs for temporary workers. But the pact also allowed GM to close the Lordstown plant for good, dashing any hopes for a revival.
Two years ago, President Trump said he would help. He came to Northeast Ohio, a place where many voters gave him a shot after years of backing Democrats, which helped him win the state. He promised to revive the region’s struggling manufacturing sector, and to be an all-out advocate for blue collar America.
It is a promise so far not kept, at least not in Lordstown. To many, it feels like things here have only gotten worse, stoking the populist anger that has long coursed through this corner of country increasingly divided by economic inequities.
Democratic presidential candidates such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are seeking to capitalize on the tide of frustration about corporate greed and the diminished power of workers, and other Democrats are sure to point out that, in places such as this, the manufacturing revival critical to Trump’s own everyman pitch has yet to materialize.
Meyer, who said he voted twice for Barack Obama and spent four nights a week on the picket line “fighting for the middle class,” might seem like an ally for Democrats, but he embodies the party’s challenge. Although he talks economics like Warren or Sanders, his loyalties are now firmly ensconced with Trump.
“They’re just smoke and mirrors,” Meyer said of the populist liberals, describing their visits to picket lines outside other GM plants as political posturing. Trump is a welcome antidote to the political correctness he loathes. “So many people are getting offended by anything and everything,” Meyer said. “It wasn’t a bunch of wusses that made this country great.”
Voters like Meyer have turned Northeast Ohio into a place where populism is at a crossroads, tugged between Democrats’ soak-the-rich liberalism and Trump’s anti-immigrant truculence, and 2020 will be a test of which party can best harness that anger.
But even though the economy has not soared in this corner of Ohio, there is more blame for GM than for Trump, who enjoys an enduring well of support here — and little sign that Democratic presidential candidates’ populist messages have found receptive new ears.
“Trump’s not to blame for this,” said Lisa Himes, 50, a former motor line worker who was picketing on the fourth day of the strike, as the plant glowed gold in the late afternoon light. “I know that he was for us. He’s for the working people.”
Populism, labor, and voting Democrat used to go hand in hand in the Mahoning Valley, a once-booming steel-producing region along the Pennsylvania border. Trumbull County, which is part of the valley and contains Lordstown, gave President Obama a 22-point victory in 2012.
But the region’s heyday seems a receding memory; it has become a place that embodies the decline in American manufacturing.
Black Monday, the day in 1977 when nearby Youngstown Sheet & Tube closed and shed 5,000 workers, is singed in the collective memory. And the dark times kept coming; Trumbull County lost 62.5 percent of its manufacturing jobs between 1990 and 2016.
This legacy drew special attention from Trump in 2016. He visited nearby Vienna to rail against trade deals and won Trumbull County by 6 percentage points over Hillary Clinton.
During the first summer of his presidency, he returned to Youngstown for a “rally in the valley,” and promised to bring business back to the shuttered plants that dot this area.
“I was looking at some of those big, incredible, once-job producing factories, and my wife, Melania, said, ‘What happened?’” Trump said. “I said, those jobs have left Ohio, they’re all coming back.”
Then he offered some advice that made a deep impression.
“Don’t sell your house. Do not sell it. We’re going to get those values up. We’re going to get those jobs coming back, or we’re going to fill up those factories or rip them down and build new ones,” Trump said, to explosive applause.
Tommy Wolikow, a laid-off engine line worker at the plant, was sitting in the fifth row, and he believed the president. “It felt like he was talking to me,” he said. “I’d just bought a house in Lordstown, two miles away from the plant.”
The economy under Trump is doing well overall, but manufacturing is hurting again, and the bad news has kept piling up in Lordstown.
The closure of the GM plant, which had been a major presence in the area since 1964, was a gut punch, leading to the loss of 7,711 jobs at the plant and other businesses that depended on it.
The closure came in waves. There was the layoff of the third shift, and the second shift after that. The last round of bad news came in November 2018, when the plant’s managers paused operations and gathered the staff for an “all people’s meeting.”
There, RaNeal Edwards, 49, remembered, the workers heard a word that stunk of euphemism: The plant was being “unallocated.”
The news spread before she could even tell her family. “My son texted me, he said, ‘The plant is closing, is that true?’ I said, ‘Correct.’ He said, ‘Do we have to move?’ I said, ‘We do.’”
As the March closure approached, Edwards said, “We started getting rid of the red cars, the black cars.” The milk white ones came last. Edwards, who worked in final processing at the plant, inspected the last Cruze when it rolled off the line, officially ending the 1,600 jobs left at the plant.
The idling came after sales of the Cruze had declined, and was part of a bigger restructuring that GM initially announced would close up to five factories in all and cut as many as 14,000 jobs in North America. GM offered many workers a chance to transfer to other plants, but that meant they had to uproot and scatter. On Sept. 3, Edwards reported to a new job in Lansing, Mich. She rents an apartment there with another worker and kept her home near Lordstown, making her one of numerous workers now living lives split in two.
Tresa Dixon, 45, got sent even further away by GM, to Bowling Green, Ky. Her husband, as well as their children and grandson, have all stayed in this area. Dixon makes the eight-hour drive home as often as possible, and that included during the first week of the strike.
“I won’t get to see him grow up, and it rips my guts out,” Dixon said, as her grandson sat next to her in a booth at the Lordstown Apple Cider Festival, where the family always volunteers. Behind them, an old metal press was squeezing juice from apples.
For Dixon, Trump’s promise of renewed prosperity echoed sourly.
“Don’t sell your house? Jobs are coming? Seriously?” she asked, disgusted. “They listened. They want that so desperately, a lot of these places, they believed him. They wanted to believe him.”
The first thing you see when you drop off Interstate 80 into Lordstown is the empty factory, festooned with a stories-high blue banner depicting an enormous Chevy Cruze. Now there are weeds growing in the cracks in the parking lot. Other nearby businesses withered away after the plant went idle, like Magna Seating, a parts supplier that closed the week the plant did, and Nese’s Country Cafe, a hangout for GM workers, which now sits empty.
So for a president who promised a new manufacturing boom that has not arrived, Lordstown and the rest of Northeast Ohio seem possibly a front line — a crucial test of whether voters who gave him a shot in 2016 will blame him for the economic problems and go back to their old Democratic voting habits. Could the anger he harnessed so effectively ever be turned against him? It’s early but so far the picture is mixed: During last year’s midterm elections, Republicans in the Mahoning Valley picked up a state House and state Senate seat, but Democratic populists such as Senator Sherrod Brown and Representative Tim Ryan performed well in the area.
“My son texted me, he said, ‘The plant is closing, is that true?’ I said, ‘Correct.’ He said, do we have to move? I said, ‘We do.’”RaNeal Edwards
That has put this community under the national media’s microscope. Many workers on the picket line expressed deep frustration with Trump, but they were usually people who hadn’t voted for him and wondered how their co-workers ever could have.
Wolikow, the worker who watched Trump’s Youngstown rally, isn’t so sure about him anymore — and his change of heart has been meticulously chronicled by The New York Times, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, local TV stations, and others.
“I see him tweeting, ‘Get Lordstown back up, here we go again, the union and GM, get yourself together,’” Wolikow said, paraphrasing recent Trump tweets about the strike. “That’s not helping his chance on UAW members voting for him.”
Others here have not had that kind of change of heart, because they still see the president as an advocate — or because they were drawn to Trump by other aspects of his ideology, such as his scathing opposition to illegal immigration.
Lisa Himes, the former motor line worker, was picketing in front of the plant, standing near a bedsheet that had been strung up and spray painted with the words “GM Invest in Lordstown.”
She put in 10 years at the plant before leaving to pursue nursing, but its closure turned her life upside down anyway. Himes’ husband was still working there, and he has transferred to a job in Tennessee. Now Himes has done exactly what Trump said she wouldn’t have to.
“We have our house up for sale,” Himes said. “We’re just waiting for that to sell, and we can be a family again.”
Himes was picketing alongside her brother, Bill Brown, 61, who retired from the plant after years of work in the trim and body shops. To Himes, GM was the culprit of Lordstown’s rash of bad luck. For Brown, it was the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, the sweeping trade deal between the United States, Canada, and Mexico put in place in 1994.
Both voted for Trump in 2016 — although Himes said she used to consider herself a Democrat — and neither blamed Trump, whose political attraction was, of course, not just about the economy.
“Gun rights, you’ve got these guys that want to be girls, girls that want to be guys,” Brown said, ticking off the reasons for Trump’s cultural appeal.
“He’s trying to make the US a better place; he’s trying to build that wall,” Himes said, who said she and her brother were Americans, “born and raised here.”
“Everybody has a right to be here, a good job, and be safe, but not when it takes away from our privileges,” she said.
The new contract brought more bad news to those still holding out hope GM would reopen the plant. Members of the union chapter here, Local 1112, decisively rejected it, according to a local news report, but it passed nationwide. In a statement, GM said it was “moving forward with opportunities for future investments” in the Mahoning Valley, including a possible new battery plant and the sale of the old facility to another company, but no one expects those moves to result in as many well-paying jobs as there used to be.
Right now, whether they work for the plant, many people’s anger is directed in only one direction: GM. On the picket line and in the union hall here, jobless and displaced workers from the plant complained they had made concessions to keep the company afloat during its bankruptcy in 2009, and then watched as the automaker invested billions of dollars in production in Mexico.
“We did everything they wanted us to,” said Jim Barnhart, a former forklift driver, who was set to transfer to a new GM job in Bowling Green. “They only answer to themselves and the stockholders.”
That anger flowed beyond the picket line to a car show in the parking lot of Lordstown’s Dairy Queen.
“How much is enough?” asked Russell Dunsmoor, 67, a retired technician for a phone company, who was showing a 1983 Chevy Camaro at the show. “You have billions in profit last year and you’re still crying the blues.”
“I blame it on Wall Street,” Dunsmoor said.
Democratic candidates have railed against the same thing, especially in this presidential primary. But Dunsmoor, a Republican who has voted Democratic — including for Obama in 2008 — said he backed Trump in 2016 and was likely to do so again.
Democrats are still trying to stoke anger at Trump. The state party printed lawn signs showing the president’s face and the words, “It doesn’t really matter,” which is a reference to an interview last year in which Trump said Ohio would replace Lordstown’s jobs in “like two minutes.”
During the first week of the strike, that sign was leaning in the corner of a union conference room in Sandusky, Ohio, several hours west of Lordstown, which has its own shuttered factory.
But there, too, few people held Trump responsible for the plant closures that came and the manufacturing boom that has not.
“I don’t think things have gotten better here under Trump,” said Tim Schwanger, a former employee of the plant who voted for him 2016, and said he was open to doing so again. “I cannot vote for a socialist government,” he said.
Jeff Ferrell, a trustee for the nearby township of Perkins, said Democrats did not seem to be doing enough to tap into the area’s populist angst.
“When you watch the Democratic debate, how much do you hear about the American workers? That’s the Democratic Party,” he said. “If they’re not talking about it, who is?”
Back on the picket lines in Lordstown last month, amid the piles of wood, Styrofoam coolers, and cases of water — the supplies needed to dig in for a long strike — many workers said they were fighting for their own rights, for something divorced from politics.
Barnhart, the forklift driver, stood out in front of the plant as a man in a passing truck called out, “Be tough!” and released a cloud of vape smoke from the window.
“We know this is our last stand, basically,” said Barnhart, who voted for a third-party candidate instead of Clinton or Trump in 2016, and said he wouldn’t link himself to a political party ever again.
“Where were these people,” he asked, “when we needed them?”