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The End of Lordstown, The End of Manufacturing Jobs in America

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Sarah Jaffe has an outstanding long-form article in The New Republic on the closing of the General Motors plant in Lordstown, Ohio. That plant, which I hardly have to tell you all because I know each LGM reader bought and has read A History of America in Ten Strikes, is the center of Chapter 8 of the book. The Lordstown strike was a hugely important moment in American history, one that could have been transformational, but being 1972, one which also ran up against structural changes in the American economy that left it as a “what might have been” scenario as recession, unemployment, inflation, and capital mobility followed.

Anyway, Sarah interviewed me for this all the way back in March (which I remember because I was in Pullman, Washington for Spring Break and it was very cold and snowy and I did this outside, escaping research in the surprisingly boring Tom Foley Papers for a few minutes even if I was freezing). She quotes me at length and while I don’t usually include long quotes from myself when I link to things, she really allows me to explain many of my thoughts about the transformation of the economy after World War II and especially Lordstown.

The 1972 strike at Lordstown became a national news story. Playboy reporters turned up to interview the workers about their frustration with the plant. Labor historian Erik Loomis, author of A History of America in Ten Strikes, explained that the 1972 Lordstown action symbolized the unrest among a new generation of workers who weren’t satisfied with what the assembly line offered. By 1972, Loomis explained, the UAW had been in place for around 35 years. Most of its earliest members had retired. Legendary UAW leader Walter Reuther—who was still president of the union when Aurilio began working at Lordstown—was gone, but only just, and UAW leadership wasn’t much younger than Reuther had been. “For them, given what they had lived through, working a mind-numbing job—it is as mind-numbing in 1972 as it was in 1942—the benefits, they were good enough,” Loomis said. “Obviously, for that generation that was coming back from Vietnam, it wasn’t.”

The old-guard leadership of the UAW didn’t see how they had laid the groundwork for a new generation of employees, surrounded by protests everywhere (Kent State, where four students were killed by National Guard troops during a protest, was a little more than half an hour’s drive from Lordstown), to start demanding more from their working lives than logging 40 years of 40-plus hours on a monotonous assembly line.

Things were changing in Washington, as well. Congress was considering major upgrades to the New Deal social contract that brought a fair amount of prosperity to the working class in exchange for longstanding labor peace. Under the ambitious overhaul of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and even via Richard Nixon’s surprisingly forward-looking battery of domestic policy reforms, such as the earned-income tax credit, momentum appeared to be building behind major egalitarian initiatives such as full employment and a universal basic income. “This was this moment where it looked like everything was possible,” Loomis said. But the protest over the speed-up didn’t seem to make much sense to a leadership that had acquiesced to management’s total control decades earlier.

The struggle among workers to win more meaningful power on the job, as Loomis explained, had been for decades “a daily battle between workers and foreman over who is really controlling the workplace.” In the 1930s, the big industrial unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) fought to bring dignity to factory work, and to the rank and file in the steel and coal sectors, by winning both improvements in the working conditions (e.g., rules dictating what could and could not be demanded of employees) and freedom from work, via a shorter workweek. Reuther’s aim, Loomis said, was “to have the UAW or the CIO be at the table on every major policy decision in the United States, whether it has to do with unions or not.”

But after World War II, business fought back. Congress passed the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947 (known colloquially as Taft-Hartley, after its Republican legislative sponsors), which cracked down on union organizing and shielded open-shop factory regimes from organizing drives. A growing Red Scare led to the purging of the Communists (and other leftist activists) from the UAW and much of the broader labor movement. The purges gave Reuther more control over his union, but backfired in terms of the quest to expand the power of labor. With the “Treaty of Detroit” with GM in 1950, the UAW largely ceded control over the production process in order to win a five-year contract with good wages, benefits, and pensions. “You get enough to live on,” Loomis said. “But at the same time, you really give up any control over your own life, and that never really changes in the American workplace.”

The 1972 Lordstown strike revived (all too briefly, as things turned out) the demand from organized labor for workers to exercise some control over the moment-to-moment process of production. Yet the Lordstown action also ended up marking a different kind of turning point for factory work in America. Employees won a few of their smaller, concrete goals, such as getting laid-off people rehired, but the international caved in to management when it came to the demands among Lords-town wildcatters for greater control over their own working conditions. “They were unable to win freedom from work,” Loomis said, “or freedom from that kind of work, because they were just starting a conversation and it never had the time to really come to fruition.”

The main limiting factor was a prolonged economic slowdown. In 1973, a major recession hit, miring the American economy in stagflation, and deindustrialization began in earnest. Workers started demonstrating to keep plants open rather than shutting them down with strikes. The Lordstown strike, Loomis said, “could have meant, ‘Let’s rethink the future of work while we still have these jobs.’ That moment is lost once everybody just starts hanging on to what they’ve got.”

O’Hara started at Lordstown in 1977, just as the steel mills were being shut down in nearby Youngstown. The age of strikes at Lordstown was now all but over. As the area lost jobs and people, and the tax base for the schools and social services was shrinking, a job at GM, O’Hara said, was still “the golden ticket.” The jobs might have been monotonous and hazardous, but they were union jobs. “To this day, you have people jealous of UAW workers because we were making good money,” Aurilio recalled. “All these people lost their jobs. They were struggling. Everybody knew what we made an hour. Everybody knew when we got a bonus. It was front page news.” In such conditions, the community was less sympathetic to the possibility of a strike that might augur further short-term losses for the local economy. And anything resembling the former spirit of solidarity that launched the UAW was in decidedly short supply, so far as ambitious reforms such as greater worker control were concerned.

The workforce got older, too, and settled down. “As you started your family, as you bought a house, then you had to come to work,” Aurilio said. “You couldn’t be this radical. You still stuck together, but that wildcat theory went out the window.” The renegade strikers at Lordstown remained GM’s poster children for radicalism within the union, but as the 1970s wound down, the reality was very much the opposite, O’Hara recalled. “We’ve kind of agreed to everything that they asked us to, to have job security.”

It’s still hard, Loomis said, to imagine what the Lordstown workers could have won in 1972, because the strikes arose in such spontaneous fashion, with strike leaders largely crafting their demands on the fly. “They didn’t really have articulated goals about what they wanted,” he said. “But they knew what they didn’t want, and they didn’t want a future—that they ended up having—of a lifetime working in a factory job. That is a very interesting moment and one that—in a different world—might have opened it up to a different kind of conversation about the future of work in America.”

The announcement of the closure of the plant in 2018 reminded a lot of people of “Black Monday,” when the first steel mill shut down in 1977, O’Hara said. The steel industry struggles onward, though Trump’s tariffs haven’t brought back the boom times, any more than his tweets are going to bring back Lordstown. And perhaps, Loomis said, we’ll look back on this moment at Lordstown as yet another turning point—as the end of large-scale industrial production in America. “Which is terrible,” he noted, “but at the same time, given the trajectory of where things are going, it is time to quit being nostalgic about the past and organize for the future with whatever economic world we have.”

I’m especially happy she included that last line. It’s sad that Lordstown closed. It’s really the end of an entire era in the American economy, one where blue collar labor could earn great money working a factory job. But those jobs are never, ever coming back and if they do, it’s going to be machines. It stinks to start over, rebuilding the working class in new sectors of the economy, but with unions not spending enough on organizing as they wound down their membership rolls, it’s where we are. But there’s nothing about home health care or McDonald’s or Walmart that is any worse than working for GM, except that the latter has had unions for decades. The jobs were still crappy. Bad jobs are where millions of people are at and where they will remain. While we do need industrial policy in this country, it’s also time to step away from the nostalgia for the 1960s and move forward into creating a new era of workers getting paid what they deserve.

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