The future of General Motors Lordstown Assembly Complex looks bleak, as GM announced the end of Chevrolet Cruze production Monday.
The plant will no longer build the Cruze as of March 1, 2019. No new product is in the works for the plant, the company said.
The 6.2 million-square-foot plant along Interstate 80 has been a fixture in the Mahoning Valley since vehicles starting rolling off the line in 1966.
Behind the imposing structure, the last three years at Lordstown have been marked by the declining popularity of the Cruze.
The Valley’s car carved out a spot as a top competitor in the compact-car segment after its 2010 release.
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As consumers opted for larger models, Cruze’s declining sales spelled trouble for the plant’s 4,500 employees and the community that supported by the plant’s success.
ROLLING OUT CHEVYS
At 10 a.m. April 28, 1966, Lords-town’s first car left the assembly line. The first four-door Impala sport sedan was built for Martin Chevrolet of Warren.
“The first car off the line brought a cheer from workers and newsmen gathered around,” the front-page of the April 28, 1966, Vindicator reported.
Lordstown had a fair share of labor strife in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. A look through the Lords-town Assembly archives will tell a story of walkouts, near strikes and actual strikes.
A January 1972 Vindicator story depicts the impact of labor trouble.
Various labor disputes had cost the production of 12,000 Chevrolet Vegas and 4,000 vans, and $3.3 million in wages were lost in the first quarter of that year. In early March 1972, workers went on strike, which lasted until the end of the month. By March 28, Vegas were rolling off the line again.
In the 1990s, the plant came close to closing.
Herman Maass, plant manager at Lordstown from 1996 to 2001, told Inside Business Magazine he received a call in October 1996 about the future of Lordstown.
“I received a phone call from a GM executive in Detroit that a decision was made not to put a new product in Lordstown after 2000,” Maass said. “I was mad, and I asked the executive if there was anything we could do to change their minds. He basically said that the manufacturing costs at Lordstown were so high that he didn’t see how we could possibly make that kind of significant improvement because it had never been done before.”
Jim Graham, who started at the plant in 1968, was president of Local 1112 from 1997 to 2011. The union has represented the assembly plant workers since 1966.
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Word of the closure of the Lordstown GM complex sent ripples throughout the Valley. For many, the news conjured images of 1977’s Black Monday and the news of the demise of steel mills and the jobs that employed so many.
U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Howland, D-13th, said so much in his initial statement: “Today our generation is facing a new Black Monday in the Mahoning Valley. GM’s announcement is devastating for the men and women working at Lordstown and everyone here in the Mahoning Valley.”
Maass met with union leadership and told them management wasn’t the enemy, but the foreign competition was.
“They [were] trying to kill us,” Graham said. “The only way we can survive is by working together.”
Maass and Graham went out together and promoted the plant.
“It wasn’t a hard sell,” Graham said. “We had to take concessions today so we can live to fight tomorrow.”
EVOLUTION AT THE PLANT
Former UAW Local 1112 president Glenn Johnson started on the line at Lordstown in 1977.
He noticed changes to the plant’s technology during production of the Chevrolet Cavalier and Pontiac Sunbird in the mid-1990s.
Today, the plant has about 1,200 robotic cells with more than 23.5 miles of conveyor, which makes Lordstown among the largest single-line manufacturing facilities in the world.
The Cruze launched in 2010 at Lordstown and quickly rose to success in the United States.
“We knew it was an exciting vehicle and it would fit a niche market,” Johnson said.
In 2014, GM invested $50 million to upgrade the plant for the next-generation Cruze.
THIRD SHIFT CUT
After increasing each year from 2011 to 2014, Cruze sales dropped 17 percent from 2014 to 2015 and fell again in 2016.
The day after President Donald Trump was elected in 2016, GM announced the ending of Lordstown’s third shift.
A total of 1,245 workers – 1,202 hourly and 43 salary – were affected by the cut.
Low gas prices caused pushed buyers toward sports utility vehicles, stunting the popularity of the compact Cruze.
CRUZE SALES SLOW
December 2017 marked the eighth-consecutive month of declining Cruze sales. The compact Cruze sales for the year were 151,026, down 17.9 percent from the 184,044 Cruzes sold in 2016.
Michelle Krebs, executive analyst for Autotrader, attributed the sales decline to a “double whammy” – retail buyers’ continued preference for sport utility vehicles, and GM’s efforts to reduce its fleet sales.
To accommodate the sales slowdown, the plant scheduled more than 10 weeks of downtime throughout 2017.
Despite the slowdown, which showed no signs of relief, Glenn Johnson optimistically looked to spring.
“Hopefully, there will be some incentives on the Chevy Cruze and we get our customers back in the seats,” he said.
MIXED NEWS FOR CRUZE
Despite the slumping sales of the Cruze, Chevrolet announced the 2019 Cruze sedan and hatchback April 2018.
“Cruze is a cornerstone of Chevrolet’s car strategy, bringing new customers to the brand,” said Steve Majoros, Chevrolet marketing director for Cars and Crossovers, in a statement.
“It really shows the commitment of the company to keep Chevy Cruze in its lineup and to provide job security for the team members here in Lordstown,” Johnson said.
One week after unveiling the 2019 Cruze, GM announced that Lords-town’s second shift would be eliminated June 15.
The development halved the number of employees at the plant from 3,000 to 1,500. The announcement came after March 2018 marked the Cruze’s 11th consecutive month of sales declines.
At a Youngstown rally in July 2017, President Trump told local residents not to sell their homes, because “we’re going to fill those factories back up.”
Local politicians, however, allege that his policies have hurt the auto manufacturing industry.
In a letter to GM CEO Mary Barra, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown contended that Trump’s corporate tax cut failed to incentivize investment in American industry.
He called the decision to cut the plant’s second shift, “particularly galling after your company received massive tax benefits from the recent enactment of the corporate tax cut bill.”
On the day that Lordstown’s second shift ended in June, GM announced plans to build its new Chevrolet Blazer in Mexico.
“GM employs over 15,000 production workers in Mexico, pays the workers less than $3 per hour and exports over 80 percent of the vehicles to the U.S. to sell here,” Terry Dittes, the union’s vice president for GM, said in a statement. “This is all happening while UAW-GM workers here in the U.S are laid off.”