By GRACE WYLER
When the final Chevrolet Cobalt rolls off the line this morning, the General Motors complex here will close an important chapter in the plant’s — and the Mahoning Valley’s — history.
“It is a car that has served its purpose,” said Ben Strickland, shop chairman for United Auto Workers Local 1112, which represents Lordstown’s assembly plant. “It has been a good car for Lordstown and it will be a car well-missed.”
The Lordstown complex, which will launch the eagerly awaited Chevrolet Cruze next month, is at the forefront of the new GM as a result of the Cobalt, union officials and plant managers said Tuesday, reflecting on the car’s six-year run.
“We are the cornerstone of GM going into the future,” said Local 1112 president Jim Graham. “That plant, our product, are the future of General Motors.”
The Cobalt — and the plant’s fight to secure it — has ensured the survival of the Lordstown complex and, by extension, the Mahoning Valley, Graham said.
“We know how to survive at Lordstown,” Graham said. “Our people recognize the importance of holding on to a product, not just for ourselves but for the entire Valley.”
When GM announced the end of the Cavalier, people across the country, and in Detroit, thought Lordstown would close, Graham said, because of the plant’s history of strained — and often hostile — relations between the local unions and the plant management.
But union leaders and plant managers had already begun to recognize their mutual interests, Graham said.
“Somewhere between the Vega and the Cavalier, we had an epiphany,” he said. “If you don’t have a car, you don’t have a union, you don’t have a Lordstown, the Valley implodes.”
So when the time came to fight for the Cobalt in 2001, the plant, with the support of the community, was able to rally around its shared future.
“We proved a lot of people wrong when they announced the Cobalt would be built here,” Graham said. “We became Lordstown — not management, not union, but Lordstown, Ohio.”
To ensure GM’s continued investment, the Lordstown unions accepted a host of concessions in a 2001 “shelf agreement.”
“We took concessions when other plants didn’t know what the word concession meant,” Graham said. “We knew we had to take them or we wouldn’t get the Cobalt.”
While local politicians, businesses and schools pulled for Lordstown with the “Bring it Home” campaign, the workers had to come up with creative ways to secure the Cobalt, said shop chairman Strickland.
“There was a lot of community effort, but the nuts and bolts start here [at the plant],” Strickland said. “There has been a lot of legwork. It’s taken all of us as whole to make this happen.”
By agreeing to take concessions and make changes over the past decade, Lordstown’s union membership has been at the forefront of the plant’s success, said David Green, president of United Auto Workers Local 1714, which represents the fabrication plant.
The culture on the plant floor has changed during the Cobalt’s run as communication and respect between the union and management has continued to improve, he said.
The changes Lordstown has made have put the plant “ahead of the curve,” and have been crucial to the plant’s success, Green said.
“The Cobalt has meant sustainability and longevity,” Green said. “For the Valley, it has meant the transformation from what it once was to what it will be.”