‘We’re the Sacrificial Lamb’: Lordstown Workers On the UAW Plant Closures

By Carter Eugene Adams
Organizing Work via Portside

 

Nov 11, 2019 – 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.”

Continue reading ‘We’re the Sacrificial Lamb’: Lordstown Workers On the UAW Plant Closures

What’s Really Behind the Creation of Pennsylvania’s New E-Verify Law?

By Ryan Deto
City Paper Pittsburgh

Nov 6, 2019 – In Pennsylvania, it’s not uncommon to hear politicians dog whistle to nativism, especially when it comes to labor.

Last month at the Shale Insight conference in Downtown, President Donald Trump received a large applause when he told the crowd he would “always put America first.” In a special election for state senate earlier this year, attack ads were levied against candidate D. Raja (R-Mt. Lebanon), an Indian-American businessman who runs a software company that employs workers from his native India and in Allegheny County, for “outsourcing” jobs and “importing talent.”

And now, a new law has hit Pennsylvania’s books that harks back to similar themes.

On paper, the Construction Industry Employee Verification Act, aka House Bill 1170 (HB 1170) — known more commonly as the E-Verify law — looks to tackle problems associated with labor fairness and to ensure everyone is following the same rules.

It passed with overwhelming support on Oct. 7, moving swiftly through the legislature before Gov. Tom Wolf (D-York) let it lapse into law without signing. (When Pennsylvania governors don’t veto bills within 10 days of reaching the governor’s desk, they become law.)

But there are disagreements on whether the law, which will require employees of construction companies to be run through a verification system to determine if they are legally allowed to work in the U.S., will be able to accomplish those goals.

The bill requires all private construction employers statewide to run new hires through a federal E-Verify system, an electronic database that checks the legal work-status of new hires by comparing the employees’ information to that of the Social Security Administration and federal immigration officials. More than 20 states have mandated the use of E-Verify in some or all industries.

Proponents of the law say it helps catch violators who employ off-the-book workers and thus avoid paying taxes and workers’ compensation fees. But opponents say the law will disproportionately hurt immigrants, noting the ineffectiveness of similar laws in other states and arguing it could lead to the deportation of undocumented immigrants and exacerbate a labor shortage. Labor unions and immigrant advocates are now wondering why the E-Verify law passed so quickly, and why these potential shortcomings were not fully vetted. Continue reading What’s Really Behind the Creation of Pennsylvania’s New E-Verify Law?

The Return of the Strike

The picketing GM workers and impending Chicago Teachers Union action suggest a dramatic revival of striking as a tactic.

By Sarah Jaffe
The Progressive

Oct 8, 2019 – Friday night on the picket line at the General Motors facility in Langhorne, Pennsylvania involved pizza reheated over a firepit, supporters dropping by with beers and snacks, and a dance party to Carly Rae Jepsen.

It was the eighteenth day of the strike, which shows no signs of ending as of this writing. Spirits were surprisingly high despite the cold. Strikers in their UAW shirts and supporters were cutting up pallets for firewood, and planning a potluck for the following weekend. “Maybe it’ll be a victory celebration!”

The strike at GM, now at twenty-three days the longest in decades at an American auto manufacturer, came as a surprise even to longtime labor observers like me. Certainly, the workers have ample reasons for anger. GM’s CEO made $21.87 million last year while the workforce is splintered into tiers (new hires who do the same work get paid less than longtime employees) and dotted with permatemps. But because the action of the strike has been all but dead in U.S. manufacturing for decades, a massive strike at one of the Big Three car companies has seemed like a pipe dream.

Yet now, the workers are dug in, holding picket lines twenty-four hours a day and determined to see the end of the tiered system and the use of temps, and a revived though still small left is determined to show solidarity.

Of course, we’re still nowhere near the strike frequency levels seen before Ronald Reagan’s crushing of the air traffic controllers’ union in 1981. Acts of rebellion in recent years have been more likely to be occupations, uprisings, the kinds of dispersed mass protests that spread virally from city to city, as in the Occupy movement and the Movement for Black Lives. The Trump era brought back the mass march, alongside more disruptive actions like the airport protests in response to the Muslim ban. But the strike, long considered gone, is creeping back into favor.

Chicago Teachers Took the Lead

It was the Chicago Teachers Union in 2012 that revived the strike in dramatic fashion, defeating state and city officials determined to make teachers’ strikes a thing of the past. In the process, it provided a template for a reshaping of public sector unions that have allowed those unions to survive the 2018 Janus decision, which ruled that union fees in the public sector are unconstitutional. The teachers struck “for the schools Chicago students deserve,” and rallied the community to their side. They reminded us all what it looks like when city streets are filled with workers making demands. Continue reading The Return of the Strike

Pennsylvania Is Ready For A Just, Clean-Energy Future

By Colleen Kennedy
OurFuture.org

Oct 7, 2019 – Pennsylvania is ready for a just, clean-energy future. Ever since 1859, when Edwin Drake ushered in the modern era’s addiction to fossil fuels when he struck “rock oil” in Titusville, our state has been at the front lines of the extraction industry’s booms and busts. We are way past ready for a Just Transition to renewable sources of energy and a sustainable future for us all.

For a century and a half, we’ve watched corporations pull poisons from the ground, then leave the health and safety of our communities in ruins as they move on with all the riches. From poisoned rural waterways to the nearly catastrophic explosion at a South Philadelphia oil refinery earlier this year, no part of the state has been left unscathed. But even after a century and a half, the extraction industry still thinks the people of Pennsylvania can be fooled by its false narrative. We won’t.

Rose Tennent, a longtime conservative pundit and surrogate for the Trump campaign, now leads this unholy choir in Pennsylvania. She recently penned an op-ed decrying Senator Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to ban fracking entirely under her presidency.

Presumptuously claiming to speak for all Pennsylvanians, Tennent argues Warren’s proposal will kill the “desirable” jobs that have accumulated in the state as a result of the fracking industry, which she irresponsibly calls “responsible.”

Let’s talk jobs first – because the statistical data Tennent relies on is grossly inaccurate. She overstates the positive impact the fracking industry has had on communities.

Speaker Mike Turzai, Tennent’s extraction-loving wing man in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, doesn’t even bother to remove industry emblems from the handouts he uses to promote fracking. Like Tennent, he touts the number of jobs he says fracking has created in the state. But we need to look beyond this headline to get to the truth. Continue reading Pennsylvania Is Ready For A Just, Clean-Energy Future

DEP Lawyers Up As Grand Jury Investigation Into Shale Gas Moves Forward

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By Don Hopey
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Oct. 3, 2019 – The state Department of Environmental Protection has hired outside legal counsel to deal with the state attorney general’s criminal investigations of “environmental crimes” involving the shale gas industry in southwestern Pennsylvania.

The DEP confirmed Wednesday that it has retained the law firm of Pietragallo Gordon Alfano Bosick & Raspanti to represent it in the probe.

The department also said that three law firms have been hired to represent DEP employees.

The criminal investigation was initiated by State Attorney General Josh Shapiro at some point prior to August 2018. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in January this year that the attorney general’s office had accepted referrals from the Washington County District Attorney Eugene Vittone, assumed jurisdiction over “several criminal investigations” and that a state grand jury has been hearing testimony. Continue reading DEP Lawyers Up As Grand Jury Investigation Into Shale Gas Moves Forward

You Asked Questions on Climate Change in Pittsburgh. We Got Answers.

A recycling container in Construction Junction’s drop-off lot in North Point Breeze. The poster shows the bottles, cans, tubs, jugs and jars that can be recycled in the City of Pittsburgh. (Photo by Teake Zuidema/PublicSource)

From what’s being done to support electric vehicles and composting to how the Green New Deal would affect Pittsburgh’s historic buildings and churches, this Q&A covers it all.

By Juliette Rihl
Public Source

Sept 18, 2019 – As part of the Covering Climate Now global reporting initiative, we asked you, our PublicSource readers, to tell us what you wanted to know about climate change in Pittsburgh. We selected six of your questions and answered them for you below.

1. Is there any chance of a plastic bag ban? How big of a difference would it make?

It’s difficult to evaluate chances for a plastic bag ban but the chances of it happening before 2021 are slim. Earlier this year, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf signed legislation that prevents municipalities from banning or taxing plastic bags until the end of 2020. In the interim, state agencies are researching the potential impact of such bans. Pittsburgh City Council unanimously opposed the legislation in a letter to Wolf on June 27.

Councilwoman Erika Strassburger said city council is looking into ways to decrease plastic bag consumption. If legislation is enacted at the city level after the end of 2020, a focus would be on equity, she said. “If there’s a [plastic bag] fee involved, we don’t want the burden to be on those who have the least ability to pay a fee,” Strassburger said.

Some local organizations and businesses are taking matters into their own hands.

Animal welfare organization HUMANE ACTION Pittsburgh, for example, started an initiative called “no plastic please” to encourage local residents and businesses to reduce their consumption of plastic. Although the initiative has broad community support, director Sabrina Culyba said getting retailers to opt in has been challenging. “A lot of businesses, their bottom line is at stake when it comes to making these switches,” she said. HUMANE ACTION Pittsburgh’s website lists participating restaurants and retailers.

Giant Eagle is currently conducting its own research on how to decrease the use of plastic bags in its stores. “Historically, Giant Eagle’s focus has been on recycling… But as an organization committed to our communities and our planet, we recognize that we have a responsibility to do more,” Dan Donovan, director of corporate communications, wrote in an email to PublicSource.

In a 2019 report by the environmental campaigning organization Green Peace on grocery store chains and plastic pollution, Giant Eagle scored poorly; it was ranked No. 16 out of 20 retailers for its overall practices regarding single-use plastics. Giant Eagle operates nearly 500 grocery and convenience stores.

While reducing plastic bags is one step toward sustainability, it’s not a fix-all solution. Sustainable Pittsburgh, a nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable development in the region, is facilitating cross-sector conversations on how to tackle the problem of single-use plastics in the region. “It’s going to take more conversations to figure out what we can do here,” Executive Director Joylette Portlock said. “Because it’s not just straws, and it’s not just plastic bags.”

And, reusable bags aren’t a perfect solution. Studies show that the environmental impact of producing one reusable bag is the same as producing 131 plastic bags.

2. How much interest or investigation has there been into starting a compost waste program in the city?

The City of Pittsburgh accepts yard debris and Christmas trees at certain drop-off locations, but does not provide disposal of other forms of organic waste. Department of Public Works Director Mike Gable wrote in an email to PublicSource that the idea of a citywide compost program is being discussed, but no plans have been made yet. The City’s “Zero Waste” program aims to divert 90% of waste from landfills by 2030.

The absence of a citywide compost program isn’t due to a lack of interest. Laura Codori, founder of the local vermicompost company Worm Return, said she often gets calls from people asking if there is a compost drop-off site or pickup service. “People want to do this,” Codori said. She recently co-proposed a compost drop-off program to the Department of Innovation with Anthony Stewart of the environmental consulting firm DECO Resources.

3. If the Green New Deal or a similar proposal were to be enacted, what would that mean for Pittsburgh’s historic buildings and churches?

While the version of the Green New Deal that was struck down by the Senate in March doesn’t address historic buildings specifically, it does call for “upgrading all existing buildings in the United States.” However, buildings with historic designation are exempt from the International Building Code’s energy code at this time. They’re not subject to the same energy standards. It’s hard to say if, or how, future legislation could change that. Continue reading You Asked Questions on Climate Change in Pittsburgh. We Got Answers.

Trump Administration’s Snap Change Is ‘Cruel And Mean-Spirited’

Wolf’s State Human Services Secretary Denounces Measure

By J.D. Prose
Beaver County Times

Sept 23, 2019 – Calling the Trump administration’s proposed changes to a federal food assistance program “cruel and mean-spirited,” a cabinet secretary for Gov. Tom Wolf said Monday that 200,000 Pennsylvanians could lose their benefits.

“The Wolf administration vehemently opposes this change,” said Pennsylvania Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller in a conference call with reporters about the possible changes to eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly known as food stamps.

Miller’s department estimates that 2,544 Beaver County residents and 1,564 Lawrence County residents could lose their benefits under the plan.

President Donald Trump’s administration has proposed prohibiting states from raising or eliminating income limits that allows them to give federally-funded food benefits to people who would not otherwise qualify.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the change would save $2.5 billion a year, but supporters of the current system say it would hurt struggling low-income families, children, seniors and the disabled.

Trump administration officials have also argued that changing the rule would help reduce cases of fraud, but Miller said that in Pennsylvania the fraud rate in SNAP is just 1 percent and “lower than every other human services program.”

Miller said that a Pennsylvania family of four is eligible for SNAP benefits if it earns a maximum of $40,000 annually. However, under the Trump administration’s proposed change, that same family would only be allowed to earn $32,000 or less to be eligible, leaving many families without access to food.

“SNAP helps low-income families reliably keep food on the table without choosing between basic needs,” Miller said. Continue reading Trump Administration’s Snap Change Is ‘Cruel And Mean-Spirited’

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