In 1966, General Motors opened a new auto plant in Lordstown, Ohio, a few miles outside of Youngstown. At that time, the Youngstown economy was pretty good. Three decades of unionism had turned the most brutal jobs in the nation into well-paying work that was turning the working class into the middle class. The future was bright. The nation was a huge steel producer. It was a country reliant on automobiles. There was work for the children and grandchildren of the immigrants who had flooded into these cities in the early twentieth century.
American automakers have always hated small cars. They were barely even American. The idea of a small car seemed impossible. Why even drive? Better to have giant boats that got 10 miles a gallon, but had cool tail fins. So when Japanese cars began to enter the market, the American makers were nonplussed. How would they respond? One way was to turn the Youngstown plant into a factory for the GM version of the small car, the Vega. But it was a low priority for the company, who never wanted to make a car like this in the first place.
American companies have always despised labor unions and worker power on the job. That was not different at the height of American unionism than it is now. It’s just that unions forced them to moderate their rhetoric. But U.S. shop floors, especially in the auto industry, were battlefields, fought every day between workers and foremen with the tool of the contract. The American method of employment simply had no tuck for any worker feedback or talkback. Foremen were petty tyrants of the worst kind.
American companies also were fat and happy. Seemingly guaranteed of a stable market, quality control became a problem. American cars were often poorly made and no one really cared. When the Japanese cars first entered the U.S., they weren’t that much better, but they soon significantly outpaced American cars in quality and longevity. This was not something the American manufacturers had planned for.
The industrial workforce was changing rapidly by the early 1970s. The generation that unionized the factories were retiring, often with pretty sweet pensions unimaginable when they were young. The American workforce in many factories was very young. By 1972, the average age of a worker in the GM Lordstown plant was 24 years old. They saw the life of their parents ahead of them and they cringed. If you came of age in the Depression, laboring away like a machine for good money but without using your brain seemed like a good deal. For young people who grew up in the relatively comfortable 1950s and 1960s, that was not so appealing. With the widespread belief that the future of America was one where working class people would have stable jobs and better lives, why should workers put up with employers speeding up the work? Why should they put up with foremen who were jerks? Why should they put up with their stodgy old union officials in Detroit who didn’t understand their problems? Why not rebel?
So, on March 5, 1972, the Lordstown UAW local went on strike against GM, against the UAW, and against their jobs being sucky. Both the company and the union were taken aback and both worked together to contain what became popularly known as The Lordstown Syndrome. The strike ended fairly quickly with some marginal gains for the workers, including some workers laid off due to the speed up brought back. But nothing about the underlying conditions changed.
Everyone saw what they wanted in Lordstown. Ralph Nader and George McGovern both showed up. Politicians worried about the future of America. Commissions issued reports. What no one understood was that this was the end of an era of American abundance.
In 1973, the oil crisis happened. The rest of the decade was dominated by inflation, recession, and capital mobility. In 1977, Black Monday happened in Youngstown, when the first of the big steel mills closed. More followed. Soon, Youngstown was a symbol of national blight. But the Lordstown factory provided some good paying jobs. The era of protest was over. Now, the workers understood the economic instability of their parents. The UAW local still had some militancy, but it was turning into what every union was doing in the 1980s and 1990s: praying their jobs would remain. The politicians had no answers except for bromides about education and retraining programs, all while working hard to send all those jobs overseas.
But, GM always hated small cars. And really, so do most Americans. It did give the Lordstown plant the Chevy Cruze. But Americans want big trucks and SUVs. GM wants high profits. The extremely high prices that Americans will pay for gigantic vehicles provides that profit. Getting rid of unions does too. So last year, like Ford, it decided to effectively end making small cars and announced it would discontinue the Cruze and close the Youngstown plant.
Today, 47 years and 1 day after the Lordstown strike, the Lordstown plant closed its doors.
When we are marking the end of industrial work in the United States, we might well claim March 6, 2019 as when the final nail went in the coffin. There are hardly any industrial unions anymore. The UAW and Steelworkers are shells of what they once were. The UMWA is a pension fund for aging retired miners. The United Rubber Workers and so many others no longer exist. There really is no longer industrial labor on any meaningful scale in the country anymore. Between automation and capital mobility and subcontracting, unionized industrial labor really doesn’t exist.
It’s devastating. Youngstown is even more screwed than it was before. That plant, the subject of Chapter 8 of my book A History of America in Ten Strikes, holds such symbolic importance in our history. It’s a symbol of what was and what could have been. It’s a symbol of the rise and decline of the American working class, coming out of the first Gilded Age and now entering the second. The decline of these cities is an avoidable national tragedy.
But at least GM executives will get some sweet bonuses this year.