During a recent meeting with The Vindicator Editorial Board, regional chamber boss Tom Humphries was asked if he could shed any light on a couple of rumors about the future of General Motors’ Lordstown assembly complex.
One: That the giant automaker is planning to invest $50 million on an upgraded paint process.
Two: That the sprawling GM assembly plant in Lords-town will shut down for a year for retooling. The goal supposedly is to prepare the facility for the building of SUVs and trucks – as well as continuing the production of the successful compact car, the Chevrolet Cruze.
The word rumors is italicized to emphasize that any chatter about the future of the Lordstown complex is not based on official information from headquarters in Detroit.
Indeed, despite his long-standing relationships with union leaders and managers at the plant, and his many contacts in the business community and local and state governments, Humphries, chief executive officer and president of the Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber, is as much in the dark about the automaker’s future plans as the man on the street.
Humphries did say he doesn’t believe the local plant will be shut down for any length of time because the Chevrolet Cruze is one of the company’s best-selling vehicles.
In his meeting with Vindicator editors and writers, Humphries described the chamber as “the monitor” with regard to GM’s presence in the Mahoning Valley. But he acknowledged that neither he nor anyone else outside the company’s executive suite has any way of finding out what’s being planned for the Valley’s major employer.
There may be one exception: Ohio Gov. John R. Kasich.
Humphries told the newspaper that only the governor has the ability – and the influence – to get in touch with Mary Barra, chief executive officer of General Motors, and other decision-makers.
Thus, the headline for this column is an appeal to Kasich to intervene on the Valley’s behalf. All that’s needed is for him to get on the phone with Barra and ask this question: What is General Motors planning to do with the Lordstown assembly plant?
It’s not an idle query.
The uncertainty surrounding the future of the GM Lordstown complex has been heightened by recent actions that have affected employment levels.
Gov. Kasich is undoubtedly aware of what has taken place.
In January, GM eliminated the third shift because demand for small cars has been weak due to consumers switching to sport utility vehicles and trucks.
The end of the third shift resulted in 235 layoffs in the fabricating plant and more than 600 in the assembly facility.
About 100 union workers at Comprehensive Logistics in Austintown also lost their jobs. Comprehensive Logistics does sequencing for the Lordstown plant.
Magna Seating Systems in Lordstown, where the seats for the Cruze are built, laid off 75 employees. And Jamestown Industries in Austintown, which makes the front and rear bumpers for the Cruze, laid off 15 workers.
But the bad news didn’t end there.
Because of the large inventory of new Cruzes – there is a 90-day supply, while a 60-day level is the norm – production was halted the weeks of March 13, 20 and 27.
GM has announced that it will have more down time at the Lordstown plant this summer to align with consumer demand for the Cruze.
Given the economic importance of the complex to the Valley, any down time is cause for concern.
The governor, whose administration has gone the extra mile to ensure that Ohio remains one of the leading hosts for the automotive industry, must find out what’s going on with Lordstown. The lack of credible information is giving rise to worst-case scenarios.
What if General Motors decides to discontinue the production of the Cruze and permanently shut down the plant?
It’s a question that needs to be asked.
History will show that the movers and shakers in the Valley failed to ask – and answer – a similar one three decades or so ago when the steel industry was showing signs of collapse.
That failure to address an obviously touchy subject resulted in this region being caught unprepared when the major steel-making plants closed and thousands of Valley residents lost their jobs.
This writer accompanied a delegation of political and community leaders to Chicago for a meeting with the director of the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s regional office.
After several of the Valley representatives detailed how the closing of the steel mills had shattered the economy, the EDA director asked the following question: What are your plans for rebuilding the region’s economy now that steel has gone?
No one was prepared to provide a definitive answer. As a result, it has taken decades for this region to finally come up with the formula for reviving the economy.
Thus, the concern about the future of GM’s Lordstown plant.
A call from the governor to CEO Barra would not only provide some urgently needed insight into the company’s plans, but it would convey the message that Kasich is fully committed to GM having a presence in the Valley for a long time.
So why call on the governor when there’s a president in the White House who won a lot of Democratic votes in this region by promising to make the auto and steel industries great again?
For the simple reason that President Donald J. Trump has ignored repeated calls, including those from The Vindicator (editorially and in this space), to get a commitment from General Motors for future investment in the Lordstown complex.
It is revealing that the only good news for the hourly workers at the plant since Trump took office in January was the payment of thousands of dollars in profit-sharing checks based on the $12 billion in profits GM made in 2016 from its North American operations.
And the president had nothing to do with that.
Lest Trump’s defenders attempt to give him credit for the largess, consider this: In the early days of the American auto industry’s collapse, then New York City businessman Trump said the administration of President Barack Obama was wrong in bailing out General Motors and Chrysler. Trump said bankruptcy was the proper course of action for the giant automakers because it would force them to become more efficient by cutting operating costs.
Fortunately, Obama refused to let the industry die on the 2008 Great Recession vine and pushed Congress to provide billions of dollars in loans to GM and Chrysler.
Not only has the federal government been repaid in full, but the two companies are now profitable.
Given that a majority of the voters in Trumbull County and a goodly number in Mahoning County bought the snake oil that Trump was peddling about reopening the giant steel mills and forcing the American automakers to expand their operations in the U.S., this question must be asked of him by the people of the Valley: What have you done for us?