DETROIT — Business vs. politics. It’s a choice General Motors will likely have to make following a significant backlash to the company’s plans to idle and potentially close five plants in North America.
The plans, announced last month, were initially praised on Wall Street. But in the political arena, they’ve kicked up a storm of protest that the highly profitable automaker is being greedy, sacrificing American and Canadian jobs to find cheaper labour in Mexico and betraying the taxpayers who bailed it out a decade ago.
GM hasn’t wavered from the plans. But outside pressure is mounting, and the groups applying it sound convinced that they can force the company to re-examine its decision and save at least one of the plants during the 2019 contract negotiations with the UAW.
On paper, the Detroit-Hamtramck plant in Michigan appears to have the best survival chances. It’s newer, has received substantial investments in recent years and is closer to other facilities — including GM’s battery plant and r&d operations — that are key to the automaker’s next generation of vehicles.
And it would represent a smaller commitment. Detroit-Hamtramck, according to LMC Automotive, has a total capacity of 160,000 units, compared with 410,000 at the Lordstown, Ohio, plant also slated for shutdown. Cutting Lordstown would make a much bigger dent against GM’s nearly 1 million units of underutilized capacity.
But Lordstown and its allies, including President Donald Trump himself, have mobilized quickly to cast the plant as the sympathetic symbol of GM’s restructuring and job cuts. UAW Local 1112 President Dave Green partnered with the Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber of Commerce for a campaign called “Drive it Home, Ohio” to persuade GM to increase its investment in the plant, rather than shut it down.
The group’s efforts include having more than 5,000 schoolchildren write letters to GM CEO Mary Barra urging her to keep production in Ohio, distributing signs to residents and businesses to hang in windows, and raising funds to escalate its campaign.
“We plan on traveling around the state as early as January and doing events every week to keep us in the news,” said Green, a 29-year UAW member. “We don’t want this to die. We’re going to continue to let GM know we are part of the family and want to continue to be part of the family.”
Trump, who campaigned as a champion of Midwest auto workers, has lavished far more attention on Lordstown than on Hamtramck since Barra announced the restructuring moves on Nov. 26.
“You know, the United States saved General Motors,” Trump said, referring to the 2009 government-led bankruptcy, “and for her to take that company out of Ohio is not good. I think she’s going to put something back in soon.”
For that to happen, state and local officials and the union would have to step up with enticements of their own, said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labour and economics at the Center for Automotive Research.
Meanwhile, in Canada, Unifor National President Jerry Dias said he and Unifor officials spent two hours on Dec. 20 outlining for some of GM’s top executives in Detroit a series of options and solutions to keep the Oshawa plant operating beyond 2019.
Dias said GM executives did not “unilaterally close the door on keeping the plant open.” However, the meeting didn’t include GM CEO Mary Barra, Dias said.
Key players at the meeting for GM were Alicia Boler-Davis, head of global manufacturing; Gerald Johnson, head of North American manufacturing, and new GM Canada president Travis Hester.
“They said they had listened to our proposals and would get back to us one way or the other by Jan. 7,” added Dias during a press briefing at Unifor Local 444/200 offices across the Detroit River in Windsor. “I am optimistic that they understand the importance of the Canadian market to their global operations.”
The lobbying effort for the Detroit-Hamtramck plant has been more subdued, but it’s revving up as Lordstown’s profile rises and union leaders in Canada make their own push to save the Oshawa, Ontario, plant from a planned shutdown. In Detroit, UAW Local 22 on Thursday, Dec. 20, hosted a small demonstration at the plant to show “unified support with UAW leadership as well as state and local representatives,” and planned to deliver letters to GM headquarters the next day.
Frank Stuglin, UAW Region 1 director who oversees the plant, said the union expects to ramp up its efforts on behalf of all the U.S. plants next year, as the UAW enters into formal contract negotiations with GM. As things stand now, Stuglin said, neither Lordstown nor Detroit-Hamtramck has the edge in being able to secure a lifeline from GM.
“This is the start of it,” he said. “A lot of things are going to come next. We’re going to figure that out as it goes.”