Not Trump’s fault: Linda Balogh does not blame the US president for the job losses © Jeff Swensen
Auto crisis hits Midwestern region that swung to Republicans in 2016 election
By Patti Waldmeir in Warren, Ohio
Dec 21, 2018 – “I bet [General Motors’ chief executive] Mary Barra’s hands don’t look or feel like my hands,” said Linda Balogh, 52, as she reflected on the toll that her years on the production line have taken on her body.
Now she is about to lose her job, at the GM Lordstown plant near Youngstown, Ohio. It is one of four US factories that Ms Barra plans to idle next year as the American auto industry embarks on its most extensive restructuring since GM went bankrupt a decade ago.
Ms Balogh will not be the last to face redundancy, as Ford and GM prepare for a US sales downturn and scramble to cut costs so they can invest in new technologies for a future when cars are increasingly self-driving, electric and shared.
GM has said it will cut more than 11,000 jobs in North America, and Ford may cut twice that number, though many will be overseas. The scale of those job losses will hit hardest in areas such as Warren near Youngstown, where the plant is located. It was already a potent symbol of rust belt decline after its steel mills closed 40 years ago, leaving it heavily dependent on a GM plant that will soon stop production.
Braced for change: Julie Yoest, left, and Lisa Dean fear the impact of GM’s plant closure but do not blame the president © Jeff Swensen
This is the kind of place that put President Donald Trump in the White House. Trumbull County, where the plant is located, is traditionally a staunch Democratic area that swung Republican to elect Mr Trump in 2016.
That “red wave” intensified in the recent midterm elections in Ohio, bucking the tide of Democratic victories in some other Midwestern states, with Republicans largely sweeping Ohio statewide offices. “The coasters (people from the East and West coasts) and liberals all want to talk about the blue wall suddenly being rebuilt?.?.?.?but nobody is paying attention to the new ‘red wall’” in places such as Ohio, said John Russo, a labor expert.
The Lordstown cuts will intensify the presidential election battle in 2020, local politicians said. Last year, President Trump promised to bring jobs and factories back to the area. So when GM announced its cuts last month, he was furious, calling it “nasty” to make the announcement right before Christmas and threatening retaliation against the company.
But most Lordstown workers, GM retirees, small businessmen and local residents, whether Democrat or Republican, said they blamed GM, not the president. On the Lordstown production line, her fellow workers “don’t think it has anything to do with Trump,” said Ms Balogh, a Democrat. “I think he was blindsided.”
Ms Balogh’s daughter Jordan, 30, lost her job when GM cut a shift in January 2017, on the day that President Trump was inaugurated. Her brother Jimmy Spisak, 53, was laid off when the second shift was cut in June this year. Production at the 6.2m square foot Lordstown plant, which makes the Chevy Cruze sedan, will end altogether in March.
Cruze sales have fallen 21 percent in the year to date, compared with the first 11 months of last year, according to consultancy Cox Automotive. Total 2018 sales could fall to half the level seen in 2014, analysts said, as US consumers move away from passenger cars to trucks and sport utility vehicles.
Union man: Dave Green says about 40 percent of local UAW members voted for Trump © Jeff Swensen So now it is Ms Balogh’s turn for a pink redundancy slip. She sat opposite her daughter and brother at the kitchen table of her parents’ home, in a modest middle-class house festooned with illuminated angels and holiday lights, as she contemplated a Christmas without knowing where she will work in the new year.
GM has said it has 2,700 job openings at other plants for the 2,800 US hourly workers hit by the latest round of cuts; 1,100 have already applied to transfer.
Ms Balogh may transfer to GM’s Toledo transmission plant, a three-hour drive from her elderly parents, her children and her retired husband.
“I feel like I’m 20 years old again, I have to start panicking, where am I going to live, who am I going to live with? I have a blow-up queen size mattress to throw on the floor, my daughter just gave me two lawn chairs, I have two extra TVs, silverware, a coffee-maker, I just need the bare minimum, my husband will cook and send food with me for the week, and I’ve got plenty of Tupperware,” she said. “But it’s a little unnerving to say the least.”
Over morning coffee at Nese’s Country Café, a local eatery patronized by many GM workers, Lisa Dean, 56, a 37-year veteran of Lordstown and no supporter of President Trump, said when asked if she blamed him: “No, why would I do that?”
Her friend Julie Yoest, 68, a GM retiree with 36 years at the plant, chimed in that she is babysitting her son’s dogs while he looks for a house in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
He will be forced to move there within a month due to the idling. “It was GM’s idea, the president had nothing to do with it,” she said.
Dave Green, president of the UAW autoworkers union for the plant, estimated that 40 percent or more of his members voted for Mr Trump in 2016, and said the president should share the blame with GM.
His union organized local school children to write 5,000 letters and Christmas cards to Ms Barra, pleading with her not to close the plant. “A decade ago, every taxpayer in this country bailed General Motors out. We invested in them, it’s their turn to invest in us.”
Some workers still hope the plant can be saved. John Kasich, the outgoing governor of Ohio, reached out to Elon Musk earlier this week, trying to entice Tesla to buy the plant.
But Kristin Dziczek of the Centre for Automotive Research said: “Elon Musk will not ‘save’ Lordstown,” which comes with a UAW workforce. The union said Mr Musk has restricted its ability to organize at his California facility.
Even the Democratic party chair of Mahoning County, Dave Betras, does not think that GM job cuts will destroy support for the president. “The fever has not broken for Trump here, not at all, it has been tarnished a bit, but we still have Trump fever, it’s just not as high.”