Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown–GM Lordstown Assembly

first-car GM Lordtown

Photo from mahoninghistory.org

The General Motors Lordstown Assembly Plant turned 50 this week. On April 28, 1966, the first vehicle came off the assembly line. It was a white 1966 Chevy Impala. [Stan Boney ran an interesting story this week on efforts to track down this car. All sources suggest it was scrapped at a local junkyard, but no definitive proof exists.]

I remember the photo in The Vindicator and the excitement in the Mahoning Valley of auto manufacturing augmenting the industrial base of the Valley. Yet within a few years, the darker side of this industrial dream emerged. In 1972, labor tensions culminated in a famous twenty-two day strike. The fundamental issue was that industrial engineers acted like they knew better how to organize the work than the line workers. Studs Terkel chronicled this classic example of worker alienation in his book Working.

In the early years, they produced some classic cars including Chevy Biscaynes, Impalas, and Caprices and some of the early Pontiac Firebirds. Then with the first fuel shortages, Chevy converted to manufacturing the Vega. It was notorious for engine block problems, and all the ones I saw were rusty within a few years. But I, and three college friends borrowed a friend’s Vega for a spring break trip to Florida. Apart from some overheating problems it got us down and back, a 2600 mile trip. This launched a string of forgettable but functional compact cars, the most famous of which was the Chevy Cavalier and it Pontiac twin, the Sunbird. Meanwhile, the van plant produced millions of vans and provided a life of employment for many, including a college friend.

In the early 2000’s rumors flew of the possible closing of Lordstown. In 2006, buyouts made possible a reduction to two shift. In 2008, GM’s bankruptcy threatened everyone’s future. Many credited President Obama with the rescue of the American auto industry, and auto manufacturing at Lordstown. Today, roughly 4500 are employed building the Chevy Cruze.

GM’s fifty years at Lordstown reflects the story of Youngstown working class–the desire to do good work for fair pay, management that forgets the value of the person, seeing them as another resource, and the economic  dependency of the Valley’s workers on a company ready when it suits them to pull up stakes, or cut jobs. Will GM come to realize the gift they have been given by the shifts that showed up year in and year out, sometimes exposed to paints, chemicals, and processes that broke down bodies too soon? Might a better story be written in future?

What are your Lordstown memories?  Did you or a family member work there, and if so, where?

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