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Lordstown, Revisited

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Sarah Jaffe has a typically excellent article about how the former GM workers at the shuttered Lordstown plant feel about the deal the UAW made with the company. They aren’t real happy. I provided a few words about the matter for the article.

In the 1970s, Lordstown was ground zero for working-class disaffection. “A new generation of workers who came of age during the counterculture and Vietnam War era had little interest in listening to the authority of the foremen in their factories,” said Erik Loomis, historian and author of A History of America in Ten Strikes. “They didn’t have much interest in spending thirty years working the drudgery of a GM assembly line either. They wanted more control over their lives on and off the job.” The workers struck in 1972, demanding changes to the production process, slowing down the assembly line and reining in belligerent managers. But the UAW leadership settled with GM for the usual terms: improved wages and benefits, rather than more control over production. “The Lordstown strike of 1972 could have been the first blow toward a new era of thinking about work and life for the American working class,” Loomis said. “Instead, deindustralization, capital mobility, automation, and union-busting decimated the working class.” 

The current strike was long-brewing, born of decades of concessionary contracts—particularly the two-tier (in practice, more like four-tier) wage system that was agreed to during desperate economic times in 2007. And once again, the Lordstown workers feel betrayed by UAW’s leaders. “To me, the strike was a huge fail on International’s part, because the membership did their job, and then some,” Denison said. The members from around the country came together not because the International leadership asked them to, he said, but “because they’ve been beaten down so much in the factory shop floor.” 

“The ability of UAW leaders in Detroit to reopen factories such as Lordstown is pretty limited. The union isn’t that strong anymore,” Loomis noted. “On the other hand, in the nearly half-century since Lordstown, union leaders also haven’t thought outside the box to empower communities such as Lordstown and have too often worked with companies to actively disempower workers in exchange for small contract victories and good relationships with the Big Three automakers.” 

Naturally, the best parts of the article are the ones where I am not talking. But at least linking to my own stuff is a good substitute for real blogging.

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