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Layoffs Loom for Lordstown -- a Product of Gas Prices, Not Trade Policies

GM Lordstown plant
Lordtown is cutting from three shifts to two because demand for the energy-efficient Cruze has dropped.

Editor's note: We'll have more coming on the Lordstown layoffs Thursday morning on WKSU.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST: The day of Donald Trump's inauguration is also the last day for the midnight shift at the General Motors assembly plant in Lordstown, Ohio. About 1,200 people will lose their jobs. Trump blames GM production in Mexico. As M.L. Schultze of member station WKSUreports, the reality and reaction in Lordstown is more complicated.



M L SCHULTZE, BYLINE: When the Chevy Cruze officially rolled off the Lordstown assembly line in 2010, the high-school band played. Politicians cut ribbons. And some of the hardest times for the U.S. auto industry seemed to be over. Contrast that with GM's announcement of the layoffs. It came at the end of a press release, saying it needed to, quote, "align production output." GM blames cheap gas for lagging small-car sales. So does 

Glenn Johnson
UAW Local 1112 President Johnson says Lordstown's longtime stability makes these layoffs a culture shock.

  Glenn Johnson, who heads one of two unions at the GM complex.

GLENN JOHNSON: Ford is feeling it. Honda's feeling it. Toyota's feeling it. Everybody's feeling the shift away from small car.

SCHULTZE: Johnson has worked here for 40 of the 50 years since GM turned open fields near Youngstown into 6 million square feet of assembly lines, metal and paint shops. Except for bankruptcy in 2009, work here has been steady.

JOHNSON: It's really hard to look team members in the face and know that they're not going to be able to provide for their family in the manner that they've been accustomed to.

SCHULTZE: Preparing for the layoffs, Lordstown schools are waiving student fees and starting a food pantry. Amy Domino, who's taught here for 11 years, says some fear the layoffs are the first - not the last - for GM. And she notes they're playing out against a history of economic uncertainty in the region.

AMY DOMINO: I know that there, since the moment I was hired here, has always been kind of the idea of, oh, this school's going to close at any moment based off of, you know, what happens with GM, another industry in the town.

Amy Domino
Teacher Amy Domino says economic uncertainty is ingrained in the region.

SCHULTZE: Donald Trump addressed and channeled that anxiety in his campaign and directly to Lordstown afterwards. In a January 3 tweet, he accused GM of shipping the Cruze's Mexican-made hatchback to the U.S. duty-free. It warned, make in USA, or pay border tax. But fellow Republican mayor Arno Hill says few here are pointing fingers across the border.

ARNO HILL: I don't think anybody blames the Mexican-built Cruze hatchback for what's going on.

SCHULTZE: GM did make 29,000 hatchbacks in Mexico and shipped 4,500 of them tax-free under NAFTA to the U.S. But Hill notes that Lordstown turned out nearly 190,000 Cruze sedans last year. He does some quick math on the hatchback.

HILL: They can do that in two shifts - maybe a little bit overtime, you know, depending on how things are rolling.

Historical production at GM Lordstown
GM transformed more than 900 acres of open space into one of its largest auto plants 50 years ago.

SCHULTZE: Union president Johnson says he'd welcome any additional work. But Lordstown had no room when GM introduced the hatchback. And retooling for a sliver of the market didn't make sense. Johnson still has a Hillary Clinton magnet on his office door. Like most union leaders, he campaigned for her. But a lot of his members went for Trump. People like James Moyers, who works in the wheel room.

JAMES MOYERS: We build 400 cars a shift. So we throw about 1,600 tires a night.

SCHULTZE: Moyers has been here for more than a decade. So he's among the roughly 2,400 workers whose jobs are likely safe. He's seen the impact of automation and of outsourcing. The specifics of these layoffs aren't as important to him as the decades of decline in manufacturing. He likes that Trump took on Carrier and Ford over foreign outsourcing.

MOYERS: Well, he's going to make it a fair playing field. That's what he's promised. And I think - from what's already been accomplished, I think he's going to attempt to do that.

SCHULTZE: But Lordstown is not waiting for Donald Trump to act.

DAN CROUSE: I'm with the commerce center. I'm just giving her a tour, OK?

SCHULTZE: Dan Crouse markets the Ohio Commerce Park, a former Army depot. 

Rail cars at Ohio Commerce Park
Hundreds of acres of the old Army depot are now occupied by rail cars, pyramids of pipe and the massive parts for a new power plant.

  These days, it includes a new restaurant-distributor company and an aluminum processor. Behind them - hundreds of acres of railcars, pipe, locomotives and the massive parts for a nearly $900 million high-tech power plant under construction nearby. Crouse acknowledges, though, that the number of new jobs in Lordstown pales in comparison to those lost in a single shift at GM. That's one reason he's glad Donald Trump is taking office.

CROUSE: The fact that somebody is looking at Middle America and not news America, not Hollywood America, not Florida America - they're looking at the nuts and bolts, mom-and-pop America - I'm actually thrilled.

Buy American bumper stickers
Concern about American manufacturing is one reason many union members parted with their leaders and voted for Donald Trump.

SCHULTZE: But as Lordstown demonstrates, the story of what's happening with American manufacturers is often more complex than can be summed up in a tweet. For NPR News, I'm M.L. Schultze.

M.L. Schultze is a freelance journalist. She spent 25 years at The Repository in Canton where she was managing editor for nearly a decade, then served as WKSU's news director and digital editor until her retirement.