By JORDYN GRZELEWSKI
During a July 25, 2017, rally in Youngstown, President Donald Trump made a promise to the crowd gathered at the Covelli Centre: “Those jobs [that] have left Ohio, they’re coming back.”
He told Mahoning Valley residents not to sell their houses, because “we’re going to fill those factories back up.”
In the audience of 7,000 people who had turned out to see Trump was Tommy Wolikow of Lordstown.
Wolikow had never been too interested in politics, but something about Trump’s message that day resonated with him. At that point, he was six months into being laid off from his job at the General Motors plant in Lordstown.
Both he and his fiancee, Rochelle Carlisle, had been among the 1,300 or so workers who were laid off in January 2017 when General Motors cut the plant’s third shift.
The plant cut another shift this past June, resulting in another 1,200 or so job losses, plus layoffs at companies that supply the plant.
The cutbacks at the plant stem from the sales decline of the Chevrolet Cruze compact car, which is built at the Lordstown plant.
Overall, auto-industry jobs in Ohio have decreased drastically over the past several decades. There were more than 40,000 auto-manufacturing jobs in the state in 1995. Last year, that number dropped to fewer than 20,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In September, there were 18,700 auto-manufacturing jobs in Ohio, according to preliminary BLS data.
Trump campaigned on the promise of bringing back these and other blue-collar jobs, a message that resonated with many in the Valley. Trump won Trumbull County, traditionally a Democratic stronghold, in the 2016 election.
Ironically, Wolikow and Carlisle clocked out from their last shift on Jan. 20, 2017 – the same day Trump was inaugurated.
At the time, Wolikow – a second-generation autoworker who started at the plant as a temporary employee in 2008, before getting permanently hired in 2013 – thought the layoffs would be temporary.
Now, nearly two years later, hope of returning to his dream job is fading – as is the hope Trump inspired in him that day in July 2017.
“I kind of turned into a Trump supporter at that time. I believed what he said,” said Wolikow, 36, seated at a table in the United Auto Workers Local 1112 hall in Warren. “Almost two years later, I’m seeing nothing but job losses.”
Right now, he is bringing in no income. His fiancee is working as a waitress, earning a wage on which it is difficult to support their family of five.
Over the past two years, they’ve trimmed their household budget, and Wolikow recently received some Trade Readjustment Allowance money, but it’s not enough to make up for the nearly $50 per hour they once made between the two of them.
Wolikow said he has racked up $16,000 in credit-card debt since getting laid off.
Life is tough right now, too, for Cheryl Jonesco and her fiance, Chuckie Denison, both 40. Denison works at the General Motors metal fabrication plant in Parma. Jonesco, who started at GM Lordstown in 2008, was laid off there in January 2017, then from the Parma plant in June.
Since then, finances have been tight. Jonesco has been dipping into her savings and relying on credit cards to get by. She is even considering a move that she doesn’t want to make – a transfer to a plant in another state.
Neither Jonesco nor Denison supported Trump. They were fans of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. They believe autoworkers’ belief in Trump was misguided.
Now they feel it’s their responsibility to fight for their jobs and the jobs of other laid-off workers. They have joined with Wolikow and Carlisle in participating in a labor movement that is calling on the Trump administration to take action to save the jobs the president has promised he will save.
“I’ve seen two plant closings, and I don’t want to sit back and watch another one close without doing anything about it,” Denison said.
Since Good Jobs Nation – a grass-roots coalition of labor groups that started in 2013 – visited the UAW Local 1112 hall in September, Wolikow and Carlisle, and recently Jonesco and Denison, too, have been traveling the country with the group to attend Trump rallies in hopes of getting the president’s attention. Wolikow has been to rallies in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Minnesota.
“Our mission is very simple: We hold the president and all politicians, whether Democrat or Republican, accountable to workers,” said Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of Good Jobs Nation. “We’re in a situation where Donald Trump won the White House in 2016 by promising to be a worker champion. He promised to deliver more jobs and better wages and punish corporate offshores. But that rhetoric has yet to become a reality for workers.”
Geevarghese called the GM Lordstown plant “a powerful example of Trump’s failure to deliver on the promises he made during the 2016 campaign.”
Specifically, Good Jobs Nation and its members from Lordstown are urging the president to sign an executive order to prevent the federal government from doing business with companies that send jobs offshore. GM, for example, produces some of its vehicles in Mexico.
“Our goal, working with the UAW local and laid-off workers, is to hold Trump accountable. He does have the power as the CEO of the United States government to either punish or reward companies like GM for their behavior through federal contracts, tax breaks and other public subsidies,” Geevarghese said. “What we’re saying is our tax dollars should only go to reward companies that create good union jobs here in the United States. Our tax dollars should not reward companies that shut down plants and move production to Mexico. The president can do that with a simple stroke of the pen.”
It’s a message that Dave Green, president of UAW Local 1112, supports. He, too, urged the president to follow through on his campaign promises in a letter sent to Trump in July. Green has yet to receive a response.
“I’ve tried to show the members that you can’t just support people on what they say, but what they do,” he said. “President Trump came here and said, ‘Don’t sell your houses. These jobs are all going to come back. All these auto jobs are coming back.’ And we haven’t seen that here. The proof is in the pudding. Until we see action, they’re just words.”
Asked about the group’s policy proposal, a senior White House official told The Vindicator it’s an idea at which the administration would be interested in looking.
“Certainly, the administration is very open to working with people who work with their hands on ways to stop the offshoring of American jobs, so that would be a proposal that would be interesting to see advanced in the private sector, then to see what kind of response we get in the administration,” the official said.
The official also highlighted some of the president’s policies aimed at revitalizing industry, such as renegotiating a trade agreement with South Korea and negotiating the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which replaces the North American Free Trade Agreement. USMCA has several provisions aimed at helping
autoworkers – for example, incentivizing automakers to use an increased amount of North American-made parts.
The official noted that the impact of these deals will take time to reach autoworkers. USMCA still needs to be ratified by Congress.
As for the Lordstown plant, the official said it would be difficult for the administration to solve the issue of consumers buying fewer small cars such as the Cruze.
“Having said that, if General Motors can take that plant and shift over another model, we’ve certainly created all the conditions for that to be a profitable venture,” the official said. “The hope would be that everything we’re doing to encourage the auto industry to locate on American soil would persuade General Motors to shift that plant into the production of another model, if that’s feasible.”
The official characterized the auto industry as a victim of past U.S. trade policy.
“It accounts for a very large share of our trade deficit. The president has committed to turn that situation around, and we’re seeing that happen – it just hasn’t reached Youngstown, which is unfortunate. But it’s hard to blame the president for that, because he’s doing
everything he can.”
For his part, Wolikow still holds out hope he and the other laid-off workers will return to work.
“That’s my goal. That’s why I’m doing everything that I’m doing,” he said.
But it’s getting a little harder to believe that will happen.
“[Trump] gave me a little bit of hope,” he said. “It’s dwindling.”