March 18, 2019 / 10:06 AM / 3 months ago

Far-flung job offers pose tough choices for GM Ohio workers

TOLEDO, Ohio (Reuters) - General Motors Co built the final Chevrolet Cruze small car at its Lordstown, Ohio, assembly plant on March 6, despite demands from President Donald Trump, Ohio political leaders and the United Auto Workers union not to close the plant and leave nearly 1,500 workers laid off.

General Motors production worker Dina Mays works on the 10-speed transmission assembly at the General Motors (GM) Powertrain Transmission plant in Toledo, Ohio, U.S. March 6, 2019. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

Dina Mays, a 14-year veteran of Lordstown Assembly, was not at the plant for its last day. She had already moved on to her new workplace, GM’s Toledo transmission plant, where the automaker builds 10-speed transmissions for popular pickup trucks.

The U.S. auto industry is heading into a new cycle of plant closings and job cuts. Sales in the world’s second-largest vehicle market are projected to fall. Consumers shifting away from traditional sedans such as the Cruze have left GM with more workers assigned to building cars than the market can support.

But GM has the reverse problem with trucks - for now, it cannot build them fast enough. That is helping GM find new jobs for displaced sedan plant workers, and blunt attacks from the UAW and politicians.

The automaker recently announced it will add 1,000 jobs at a plant in Flint, Michigan, to build a new generation of GM’s largest pickups.

A GM spokeswoman said last week that 538 workers from a Detroit plant slated to close in 2020 and nearly 100 from Lordstown have already signed on in Flint to fill those jobs.

That and other job opportunities could cushion the blow for most of the 1,450 workers currently laid off at Lordstown. The Ohio plant is one of five North American GM plants slated to close by January 2020.

GM Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra has said the automaker expects to have 2,700 job openings by early 2020 at other thriving plants, enough to absorb nearly all of those displaced in plants in Maryland, Ohio and Michigan willing or able to uproot for work hundreds of miles away. GM said another 1,200 affected hourly workers are eligible for early retirement.

Based on a plant-by-plant count provided by GM, if every worker displaced or soon to be displaced volunteers for or accepts a new job - and those eligible to retire do so - that would potentially leave up to 500 GM workers jobless, far fewer than the thousands decried by the UAW and Trump.

Ohio is a key state for Trump’s 2020 re-election chances. In July 2017 he vowed in Youngstown, Ohio, near GM’s Lordstown plant, that those auto jobs were “all coming back.”

“Don’t move,” he told residents. “Don’t sell your house.”

On Sunday, Trump tweeted that he had spoken with Barra to demand she “do something quickly” to keep the Lordstown plant running. GM responded, “Our main focus remains on our employees and offering them jobs in our plants where we have growth opportunities. We have opportunities available for virtually all impacted employees.” The company said the ultimate fate of the plant will be decided in contract negotiations with the UAW this fall.

NOMADIC LIFESTYLE

Mays and other veteran GM factory workers have been pushed into nomadic lives before. Mays is on her third GM factory in 15 years. In 2005, she moved to Lordstown in northeastern Ohio after being laid off at a GM plant in Baltimore, Maryland.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It’s rough,” Mays said.

Her eldest son is at college and a 12-year-old son remains with relatives near Lordstown. “But I have to be able to support myself and my kids.”

After 25 years with GM, she has five years until retirement, so transferring “was the best decision I could make.”

For those who move, GM offers a $30,000 cash package to offset costs. If the company has jobs for laid-off workers elsewhere and they refuse them, they lose their supplemental pay and are eligible to hire on again only at their “home plant” - in this case, Lordstown.

SCANT OPTIONS

For Joe Stanton, 55, transferring 160 miles (260 km) to Toledo from Lordstown made sense.

With 25 years at GM, he also has five years to go before he can retire. He rents an apartment with Mays just outside Toledo to cut costs. He moved from Pittsburgh to Lordstown in 2006 when his GM plant there closed. He owns two homes, one near Lordstown and one in Pennsylvania.

Stanton misses his adult son in Pittsburgh and girlfriend near Lordstown but said he is lucky not to have small children or sick parents to care for so he could move to Toledo.

If the UAW renegotiates a new product for Lordstown, retooling the plant would take years, Stanton said.

“That’s a gamble I wasn’t willing to take,” he said.

For those left behind, the outlook is bleak.

Tod Porter, chair of Youngstown State University’s economics department, estimated Lordstown’s closure could cost more than 8,000 jobs including at auto suppliers and service providers, in an area still affected by steel mill closures decades ago.

Slideshow (4 Images)

Dave Green, president of UAW Local 1112, which represents workers at Lordstown, said he is fighting for the plant to reopen but added unemployed GM workers have scant options.

“If you don’t want a job flipping burgers for minimum wage, you got to get the hell out of here,” he said.

Reporting by Nick Carey and Ben Klayman in Toledo, Ohio; Editing by Joe White and Matthew Lewis

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