WHEN: Wednesday from 10:30 to 11 a.m.
WHERE: General Motors’ Lordstown Complex, outside East Plant, 2300 Hallock Young Road
ATTENDING: Cruze Kickoff featuring Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, GM North America president Mark Reuss, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-17th, Lordstown Mayor Michael Chaffee, the Boardman High School band and the Chevy All-Stars.
With the Lordstown General Motors plant just days away from the formal launch of the Chevrolet Cruze on Wednesday, Vindicator reporter Grace Wyler sat down with the leaders of Lordstown’s two United Auto Workers locals to talk about the new car, the launch and the new General Motors.
UAW Local 1112 president Jim Graham, its shop chairman Ben Strickland, and Local 1714 president David Green and its shop chairman Will Adams reflected changes they’ve seen at Lordstown over the years. Here are excerpts from that conversation:
Q. Do you think that the employees on the floor at Lordstown have more invested in the success of the Cruze than they have had with products in the past?
WILL ADAMS: I think that in both of our local agreements, our team structure always gave the employees some ownership. But even though we have that same team structure, I absolutely think management is more focused on making sure that the employees understand that [management] is listening. The ownership is there, and it’s more heightened now than in the past. People on the floor are now really feeling like they have a lot of ownership in the product that they pass on to the customer.
DAVID GREEN: There is more information and better communication. I think people on the floor are getting more information now than they ever did before from the company and the communications team.
ADAMS: In the past, a lot of people didn’t know what [market] segment the Cobalt or
Cavalier was in. If you walk into the plant today and ask what segment the Cruze is in, what it is competing against, the average person on the floor could tell you. Everybody is focused on the small car and making this thing as cost-competitive as it could be and with the highest quality it can be.
BEN STRICKLAND: The [Lordstown workers] know that if we don’t build a quality car, we are not going to survive. So they are more quality-driven, more quality-oriented. They know it is our future. They know that when that car comes off the end of the line, if that car’s not a quality car and that car don’t sell, they lose their jobs. We went from a three-shift operation all the way down to a one-shift operation and everybody was panicked. They know this is their future. They know that if we don’t build a quality car the first time, we don’t play in this game no more. We all understand that. People want to be part of that quality-driven aspect. It’s not like the old days, where they didn’t care. They do care.
JIM GRAHAM: Right now, it’s not a General Motors car anymore. This is our car. People have total pride and respect for the product that we are producing. You walk in there right now; the emotions and the attitude about the car are sky high. As Will said, everybody knows about this car because they let our people in right at the start.
Q. Have the employees on the floor been more involved in the Cruze development and launch compared to other launches?
GRAHAM: Years ago, when they launched the Vega, at some points during the launch process, [the management] would came into the plant to tell our people, ‘Okay, you are part of the process, here is the process.’ But this process would have been ongoing for months, sometimes years. When we worked on the Cavalier, they let us in a little bit sooner. When we worked on the Cobalt, they let us into the process a little bit sooner than they had with the Cavalier. This project is the first launch I have ever been part of where they let people in at the ground floor of the launch.
q. How is the launch going?
GRAHAM: They are taking this very slowly and methodically, which is something we have never done before. If there is an issue, we stop the line, correct the issue and the line goes on, which is why we are producing a minimal amount of cars right now. ...We just don’t want to run into the same mistakes as some of these other quality Asian companies that recall 14 million vehicles in six months, I won’t mention their names. We don’t want to get into that same thing that they got into; we want to make sure that when it gets to the customer, it is 100 percent.
Q. Have there been any problems with the launch?
GRAHAM: Well, we have 500 suppliers and some of them are in Europe — they were building parts for the European model [of the Cruze] first, the Asian model first. We’ve sold 270,000 cars in Europe, which is unheard of in Europe. It is their [GM’s] first global car.
GREEN: It is the first time they have sold a car nameplate globally, I believe.
GRAHAM: So those parts sometimes, occasionally, don’t fit in our product. So we stop the line, make sure it is corrected at the source, and continue. We have not had big issues like we had with the Cavalier, the Vega, the Cobalt. We have just had small issues.
STRICKLAND: Fits are always an issue. Fits are one of the biggest things that we are being judged by. But in terms of the global market and our global competitors, we are just as good, if not the best, as far as fits. We have gotten that system down.
Q. What exactly do you mean by “fits”?
GRAHAM: Have you ever seen that commercial for a Mercedes-Benz where they put the ball bearing and they roll it down along the fits? That shows people that everything was where it is supposed to be and everything fits. We can do the same thing with the Cruze. If you look at the Cruze fits, everything is perfect; everything is right on line. Before we didn’t have that luxury. The car is well engineered.
Q. What are some of the other elements of the Cruze that set it apart from GM’s previous compact cars and from other cars in the segment?
STRICKLAND: The biggest thing is that they gave it a European look. The second thing is the fuel mileage.
GREEN: The interior space, the comfort, the wideness. Everyone that gets in says, “Wow, this is wide, the seats are so comfortable.” I own a Cobalt, and after about two or three hours in the Cobalt, it’s just not real comfortable. But the Cruze is a good drive. You’ll be able to take it on long trips.
GRAHAM: The engineering, the design of the car... The biggest comment I’ve received from people who drove it is how quiet the car is. First of all, you can’t hear it when it takes off — it sounds like an electric car; there is no sound. And when you’re inside, it’s so well-engineered it’s quiet. That’s unheard of in a small car.
GREEN: The construction of the car is pretty damn good. It’s very impressive. For us, it’s real refreshing to see that because we know that people are going to get in these cars, and they are going to be solid; they are going to be safe.
GRAHAM: There are 10 airbags. All those airbags go off at the same time; God forbid, it’s going to look like the Michelin man.
Q. What kind of response have you gotten about the Cruze from the community?
GRAHAM: I have received phone calls from as far away as Indiana, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, from people who want to put the car on display. It’s not just restricted to this area. I think that people in the Valley understand how important this car is to the Valley. But we are getting positive responses from a lot of places outside the state. It’s great; it’s just fantastic.
GREEN: I’ve seen a lot of excitement and buzz around the car. And I think Jim is right that the people in the Valley are extremely excited; they know more than the folks in Cuyahoga or folks in West Virginia or anywhere out of the area, just because they live here, and this car is being built here. And so the economic impact that it has on the people of the Valley makes it a little more exciting right around here.
Q. What kind of response have you gotten from people outside of the Mahoning Valley?
ADAMS: I took the car home [in Cuyahoga County] one day, and I went to the convenience store just to see the reaction. I was actually amazed by the amount of people who came around the car, looking. It was a really neat experience, to see the kind of excitement that that car generates. I just wanted to see if people noticed it, and they did. People liked the car and they wanted to know what it was. I think there is a lot of excitement around a Chevrolet product. Wherever that car goes, it generates excitement. Everybody is really interested in what this car is about.
GREEN: For me, its refreshing to see all these people from Detroit who have come down, who are so concerned about this product. In previous launches — and the Cobalt comes to mind — we were building a good car, but we were building to compete against the competition, and they don’t want to compete any more. They want to beat the competition. You can’t compete anymore — you’ve got to be a step ahead of everybody or you are not going to win in this game.