labor "We're the Sacrificial Lamb": On the UAW Plant Closures
The Monday after Thanksgiving last year, workers at the General Motors Lordstown Assembly Plant in Ohio were called in for a 9 a.m. meeting. This was a rare occurrence.
“I don’t know, was it three sentences long maybe? ‘Hey, you’re unallocated.’ …No one had ever heard of ‘unallocated’,” says John Sandquist, Jr., a 25-year employee of GM. “We didn’t know what that term meant… Basically, it meant ‘you guys are closing.’”
The Lordstown plant is the former home of the Chevy Cruze and 1,600 workers. For almost a year now, no product has been coming out of the plant, with workers transferred, forced into early retirement or just out of work. Over the past year, GM has transferred over 700 workers from Lordstown to various plants across the country, mostly out of Ohio. According to the tentative agreement between GM and the UAW, the plant closure will be permanent.
Sonya Woods, a 25-year employee of GM, who was transferred to Bowling Green Kentucky, says she had to either move, or lose everything she’s worked towards.
“Gotta go or I lose my pension, lose my benefits,” said Woods. “They got us screwed. There’s a big group that have ‘95 seniority, 25 years, and we lose a lot if we don’t follow it. We don’t have much choice.”
Last week, outside of the shuttered factory, four workers held the picket line, along with 49,000 other GM employees still on strike, even as news of the proposed agreement between GM and the UAW started to circulate. The four were getting ready to transition to other plants when the strike was called. The locals at their new plants allowed them to come back to Ohio to do their strike duty at their home plant, as the Lordstown plant closure was one of the issues on the table between GM and the UAW.
At the picket, workers stood around a burn barrel. Harsh orange streetlamps illuminated an empty, fenced-in parking lot. The 6.2 million-square-foot behemoth factory acted as an eerie monument to what was once an industrial hub in northeastern Ohio. It was silent except for the drone of trucks driving by on the Ohio Turnpike.
“This used to be non-stop traffic, non-stop. Look, nothing!” said Agnes Hernandez, a 23-year GM employee.
“This is the truck gate,” added Sandquist.
“There would be lines, remember?” replied Hernandez. “We’d have lines of trucks coming out here.”
After a moment, Hernandez realized Sandquist didn’t have his signature clothing item: his orange vest.
“Go get your vest on! Come on, OVS!” Agnes jokingly shouted.
This group of friends, who spent nearly every day together in this plant for decades, called themselves the “Orange Vest Society.” The orange vest is standard attire for workers in the plant. But whether or not a given worker was wearing orange was semantics. Those in OVS felt they had another layer of protection between them and management. Having the solidarity and at times friendship of those on the shop floor gave workers a sense of “you watch my back, I watch yours.”
The origins of this group are vague, but as Dan Santangelo, a 25-year employee of GM put it, the roots of it are solidarity and comradery. “Management would start something with one of us, and it just started as a joke: ‘You mess with one person in Orange Vest you mess with us all.’ We don’t know who came up with it, maybe it might have been Jeff” — OVS member and fellow worker on the picket line – “came up and said, ‘we should call ourselves the Orange Vest Society.’ So, that’s what we did. On our last day here, we spray painted it on the wall behind out team center.”
The proposed contract appears set for ratification. Besides the plant in Lordstown, it cements the closure of two more GM facilities — Warren transmission and Baltimore transmission — three of the four that were on the table.
GM’s stated the reason for the Lordstown closure was the Cruze’s poor sales performance in the United States, with consumers opting for larger SUVs and trucks. But months after the shuttering, GM announced the production of a strikingly similar vehicle , the Onix, to be built and sold in Mexico. GM has also announced its revitalized production of the Chevy Blazer in Mexico, shortly after shuttering the Janesville, Wisconsin plant where it used to be made.
Workers think the production of the Onix could have taken place at Lordstown Assembly and kept the plant open. Sandquist feels the continued closure of Lordstown has little to do with the product they produced and more to do with GM attempting to fracture worker power and solidarity.
“This community, this plant — we’ve always built a good product here for 53 years,” said Sandquist. “I believe it’s something personal they have against the local 1112, it’s something personal against this plant because the union was strong here and we cared about the community. They’re more concerned about profits.”
For workers in Lordstown, transfers to plants hours from home, buyouts and early retirements are their consolation prize.
In 2007, workers were understanding of concessions needed to keep the company alive and acted accordingly. 12 years later, with record profits recorded and salaries for company executives in the tens of millions, workers want what they’re owed.
But trying to negotiate that has been difficult. The six weeks of the strike have seen agreements proposed and then removed in the same day. Negotiations stalled, started and stalled again. The latest draft of the proposed contract is four volumes long.
As Parma, Ohio UAW Local 1005 President Mike Caldwell explains, it’s necessary. “Every single thing in [our] shop was negotiated,” said Caldwell. “At one point in time, someone had to fight for it and negotiate for it.”
The new contract between the UAW and GM meets many demands that sent workers to the picket line. Those include a revised healthcare plan; gradual wage increases and a path for temporary workers to be hired on full-time.
By not pushing further on running product through Lordstown, UAW officials in Detroit have affectively abandoned shuttered plants in pursuit of other demands. Lordstown assembly, Warren transmission and Baltimore transmission plants are the union’s biggest concessions.
“We’re the sacrificial lamb in this one,” Sandquist said. “They’re gonna sacrifice Lordstown for the good of the whole, and the whole UAW membership. I get their point, but it sucks for us, and I’m pissed off about it.”
Caldwell weighed in on Lordstown remaining closed after members of local 1005 voted to ratify the contract, 438 for, 404 against. “It’s still kind of a sad spot for everyone that that plant is still slated to close,” he said. “It’s very disappointing, with that plant closing, that destroys that entire community.”
Keeping the Lordstown plant closed means workers have a difficult decision to make: either lose their jobs or transfer to another plant. Workers who did not qualify for early retirement were given the one-time offer to transfer and continue working until they’re eligible to collect their pensions and retirement benefits. The new proposed agreement offers a buyout, but according to the highlights of the agreement, distributed by UAW, that buyout doesn’t offer much.
For workers who choose the buyout option, they agree to terminate their employment and benefits, save for some pension benefits. In return, they’re offered a sum of money, between $7,500 and $75,000, based on years of service.
While that may seem like a lot offered, that money is just that: money. No benefits, no health care. And for people living paycheck-to-paycheck, those benefits are all they have. For those with more seniority, they’re choosing between cash or decades worth of pension and retirement benefits.
The four members of the Orange Vest Society decided to transfer so they can make it to their pension and keep their benefits. They’ll be eight hours from Lordstown in Bowling Green, Kentucky and six hours away in Bedford, Indiana — leaving their families and their community.
“It sucks. Every one of these people right here around this burn barrel is going through that,” said Sandquist. “He has a family that is here and he’s gonna be eight hours away, same with Agnes, same with this man Dan over here. He’s got a wife, two kids. Agnes has got grandkids now for Christ’s sake, she ain’t gonna see them grow up.”
“What do I do now? Facetime?” said Hernandez. “I mean you can’t see everything on Facetime. You know, it’s like my grandson, he’ll be two in January and he looks at me through the phone it’s almost like he has to do a double-take to see and hear my voice. Just so he knows me, I have to keep repeating who I am. It’s so, it’s horrible. It’s like, ‘oh my god, he’s gonna forget me.’ Being that young he’s gonna forget who I am, you know, and that to me is just heartbreaking.”
In addition to uprooting their entire lives and leaving family here in Ohio, this also means the end of the Orange Vest Society.
Even off the shop floor, through the upheaval of the plant closure, OVS became a way for workers to look out for each other.
“I went through a very bad time before I had to go to Bedford (Indiana), I was almost as low as killing myself, that’s how low I was.” said Santangelo, as a result of having to leave his family, his home and his community. “Not only did my blood family reach out to me, but these guys did as well,” he said. “Jeff would call every other day to check in. ‘How you doing?’ He would try to get me talking. That’s. That’s the Orange Vest Society.”
“ I think this was our mentality.We came to work to have fun and to work. In that order,” explained Santangelo. “We made it enjoyable. We made it worth our while to be here.”
“Yeah, but the place is so miserable you had to do something,” added Sandquist.
As the night goes on, the conversation shifts and changes, from heated discussions about the proposed contract to jokes about how many liquor bars and sex shops there are in Kentucky. The remaining OVS members talk about home, about what, and who, they’re leaving in order to provide. There are also long moments of silence on the picket line, between the jokes and contract talk. Against the backdrop of the shuttered plant, there’s this feeling that this is the end of an era.
“It was like a second family,” said Hernandez. “I mean we hung out together, we’ve known each other for 2o-plus years. These are my brothers.”
Agnes and Jeff go into the Styrofoam cooler next to the wood pile under a small nylon canopy. After a few minutes the two emerge with plastic cups. Dan had declined the offer earlier and joins the toast emptyhanded.
After the toast, the group sits and talks for a while longer before slowly, one by one, leaving.
Shortly after midnight, Sandquist is packing up his chairs and getting ready to head back to the union hall to sign out before finally going home. Before he heads out, he reflects on the future of the Orange Vest Society. “We might end up having a little chapter down in Bowling Green, one in Bedford, some of our friends up in Toledo will have a little — there’s a couple of us everywhere but the original core group is split up,” he says.
“That’s the stuff that pisses you off even more, you know, it’s the friendships, your family, your secondary family. You’re not gonna spend time with them no more, or you know, have them relationships. Talk on the phone or text, see what’s up with them but not like you use to. Kinda at the end, it’s over and it’s sad.”