By Kalea Hall
On Robert Morales’ desk is a certificate of recognition for 20 years of service to General Motors and the United Auto Workers.
Without having an autoworker father, Morales, 46, doesn’t know if he would have that certificate or the title of president of UAW Local 1714.
“I’ve been elected four different times,” he said. “I think [my dad] would be very proud. I learned a lot through my dad. I am proud to say that I had the opportunity to know him.”
It’s a story of the Mahoning Valley. Generations of blue-collar workers have followed in their father’s footsteps. Together they produced steel, built cars and fabricated metal for various industries.
Morales is now sitting at a desk in a clean, white polo shirt with the GM logo on it, but he is no stranger to the hard, strenuous work of the blue-collar life. He lost some working years due to an accident at a now-shuttered fabrication plant. The accident cost him the majority of his ring and middle fingers on his right hand.
But the accident didn’t deter Morales from blue-collar work.
Seeing the burn holes in his father’s work clothes didn’t, either.
Less than five minutes away from Morales’ office is the General Motors Lordstown Complex where the Chevrolet Cruze is built.
Here is where Morales’ late father, Paul, worked from 1967 until his untimely death from heart complications in 1994 at age 47.
For a brief period, Paul and Robert worked together at the plant building the Chevrolet Cavalier and Pontiac Sunfire on different shifts.
“He would stop by my work area to say hello,” Morales said. “He would say, ‘That’s my boy.’ I got to be known as Paul’s son.”
Paul came to the U.S. from Puerto Rico as a boy. Paul’s father, Manuel Morales, worked in the steel mills.
Paul served in the Army before he got a job in 1967 at the Lordstown plant. He was a welder operator in the van plant until it closed in 1990. It was a job that required Paul to hold a heavy weld gun. Sometimes sparks would fly.
“His clothes would have burn marks in them,” Robert said. “You would see all the guys outside, and he would say if it was 90 degrees outside it was 110 inside. We were raised to work hard. You put in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. Work isn’t easy – that’s why they call it work.”
After his father’s death, Robert continued at the plant, working on the fabrication side where the metal framing is made and then sent over to assembly.
“When my father passed away, I was 23,” Morales said. “At that point, I knew what the UAW and GM had given to my father. For 40 years of my life the UAW has taken care of me.”
The Gonzalez family has played a part in the fabrication plant from the beginning.
Victor Gonzalez, 78, and his brother, Phil Gonzales, 70, started at the plant in the early days and now Victor’s daughter, Marisol Gonzalez-Bowers, is continuing their legacy.
“They used to call me ‘Little Victor,’” Marisol said. “‘You look just like your dad but you have more hair.’ It was fun. We would ride to work together and eat lunch together.”
“Every morning we would stop at Dunkin’ Donuts and have coffee and a doughnut,” Victor added.
Working together wasn’t just about the meals they shared, but the pride they shared for building cars together. Victor, in his Fisher Body shirt, is quick to admit he only buys GM vehicles.
“I remember he would come home with an oily metal smell on him,” Marisol said. “He was proud of his work.”
Marisol was terrified, but she wanted to feel the same pride and have the good-paying job with benefits her dad did. She started working in the press room stamping out parts in the mid 1990s.
“It was work,” Marisol said. “You were on your feet. It was steady moving.”
Marisol worked the line on the fabrication side of the Lordstown plant up until two years ago. Now, she works in the office helping her “brothers and sisters” on the line with human resource needs.
“The union, the brotherhood, is what I love,” Marisol said.
Her dad, now 13 years into retirement, smiles at Marisol as she talks about carrying on the legacy at the Lordstown plant.
“I’m loving it,” Victor said.
Hector Arroyo, 67, sits inside his sons’s United Steel Workers office, wearing a newsboy cap and a smile.
The Puerto Rican native has been a retired steelworker for two years, but his legacy continues through his son, Jose Arroyo.
By looking at Hector, it would be hard to gather that he worked in a rough and tough atmosphere for decades. A part hit him in the leg and caused a blood clot. He nearly died from his injuries, but he continued to go to work.
“I always called my dad the toughest 155-pound man on the planet,” Jose said.
To little surprise, Jose says he’s been through some pain, too, because of the blue-collar life.
“I watched my father go through numerous surgeries,” Jose said. “I had to have some back and knee surgeries. It takes a physical toll on your body.”
Jose is visibly union proud. He wears his pride in USW blue and golden-yellow colors, he talks of it constantly and he works it every day as a contract negotiator for several area locals. Hector keeps his pride on the inside, but he looks at Jose with admiration as he talks about becoming a part of the “brotherhood” of steelworkers.
“The term ‘steelworker,’ it was a nostalgic term,” Jose said. “Every time we went to the grocery store [my dad] knew someone. It was my first union job, and I got to work with my dad. How often do you get to work with your hero?”
Hector’s family, like the Morales’ family and the Gonzalez’ family, also came to the U.S. for work in the Youngstown steel mills.
Eladijo Arroyo, Hector’s father, worked for Republic Steel as a laborer and retired with a disability.
Hector graduated from high school and went right into the steel industry as a laborer and a crane man at Youngstown Sheet and Tube.
After the steel industry fell, Hector had several jobs until he was hired at Commercial Metal Forming, a tank head producer located on Logan Avenue. For 25 years, Hector worked at Commercial and eventually his son, Jose, was working under him and learning the ins and outs of being a tank head joggler operator. A joggler is a machine that puts an offset on a tank head.
“We worked side by side,” said Jose, who is now a business representative for the United Steel Workers. “It was awesome.”
“It was wonderful,” Hector said. “We had a good time together.”
Jose would often leave treats in Hector’s locker at Commercial.
“My mom used to yell at me for constantly giving him doughnuts,” Jose said.
Representing his dad as president of the USW Local at Commercial is Jose’s fondest memory. In 2015, after 19 years at Commercial, Jose got the call to work for the international union and represent local workers at various plants.
“We would always say we would leave together,” Jose said. “I left and he left within a month’s period. We ended up walking off into the sunset together.”