Dave Green describes the effect of General Motors idling its Lordstown, Ohio, factory largely in personal terms.
The site employed 14,000 workers in the late 1980s, recalled Green, who has served as the president of its union local, United Auto Workers 1112, since May 2018. By the present decade, when it was assembling the Chevrolet Cruze, its workforce had shrunk to 4,500. In the past two years, those employees have disappeared too, as GM slowed the plant's production, then decided in November to halt it altogether, part of a plan that would save $6 billion.
The labor organization's effort since to negotiate new work for the factory and save as many jobs as possible isn't "a political thing," Green said in a meeting with Democratic 2020 presidential hopeful Beto O'Rourke, the onetime Texas senatorial contender. "It's about people."
But as his meeting with O'Rourke illustrates, the situation's political overtones have commandeered much of the spotlight.
Not only did GM's decision about Lordstown, just one of five factories it's idling, draw immediate condemnation last fall from Trump as well as congressional Democrats and Republicans, it has since become an early flashpoint in the 2020 presidential campaign.
[Related: Trump pressures GM to re-open Lordstown plant]
Trump, aiming to keep his edge in swing states such as Ohio and Michigan that contributed to his 2016 victory, had a similar reaction when Harley Davidson blamed his tariffs for a decision to move some motorcycle production overseas from Wisconsin, a Rust Belt state that Trump won by just 23,000 votes.
Without the 44 electoral votes contributed by Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio, the outcome of the 2016 election would have been dramatically different: 271 votes for Democratic contender Hillary Clinton and just 260 for Trump.
With that much at stake, it's no surprise that a president who prides himself on taking the fight to his opponents keeps punching. During a weekend Twitter rant in mid-March, he criticized both GM and the union and insisted that the Lordstown plant be reopened. "I want jobs to stay in the USA and want Lordstown, Ohio, in one of the best economies in our history, opened or sold to a company who will open it up fast," he tweeted.
In a subsequent speech in the state on March 20, Trump urged workers in his audience to drive to Lordstown to try to force GM to reopen the plant.
While Trump says GM has benefited from his easing of federal regulations and a GOP-led corporate tax cut that recharged the U.S. economy, luring new investment from overseas manufacturers such as Toyota, O'Rourke accused the president of failing Lordstown, telling television network NBC the president has "done nothing to reverse the losses we've seen here."
UAW, for its part, has filed a lawsuit attempting to block the plant shutdowns, arguing that they violate a contract with GM that stretched through September. The automaker says the future of the factories will be worked out during talks on a new agreement.
In the meantime, more than 1,000 of the workers at the Lordstown plant and the Detroit-Hamtramck factory in Michigan have already been placed in jobs at other GM sites, a spokesperson said, and about 1,200 were eligible for retirement. GM, which has a U.S. workforce of more than 90,000, says it has invested nearly $1 billion in four Ohio sites that employ about 4,000 people since 2016.
"We just want to keep building cars here," said Green, the union president. "I know some people don't like unions; they think we’re thugs. We’re just working people. We just want to have a seat at the table, be honest and open. A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. There’s dignity in work."