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The Lordstown Strike of ’72: Dreams Of Factory Liberation Deferred

March 18, 2019

By Steve Wishnia

LORDSTOWN, Ohio—The General Motors plant that sprawls over a former cornfield along Interstate 80, shuttered since the company stopped production there earlier this month, is the site of one of the great what-ifs of American labor history: a three-week strike in 1972 by 7,500 workers who were not just demanding better wages, but rebelling against the boredom and petty tyranny of factory life.

Missed opportunities: What would life be like for today’s autoworkers if things were different in ’72?

“It was a workforce that decided they weren’t going to be treated like robots, but like human beings,” Tim O’Hara, the recently retired vice president of United Auto Workers Local 1112, tells LaborPress.

The 1972 strike was technically against speedup. When the General Motors Assembly Division (GMAD) reconfigured the plant in 1971 to produce the new Chevy Vega subcompact car, it axed more than 500 workers and set the pace of the assembly line at an unprecedented 101 cars per minute. “No other plant ever built 101 cars per minute,” says O’Hara.

“You clip on the color hose, bleed out the old color, and squirt,” a 22-year-old paint-shop worker told writer Barbara Garson. “Clip, bleed, squirt, scratch your nose. Only now the Gee-Mads have taken away the time to scratch your nose.”

Workers often couldn’t finish their tasks in the 36 seconds that pace demanded. Car quality suffered, and the more than 1,000 “disciplinary layoffs” crashed into the resentment of workers, most of whom were in their early 20s. Returning Vietnam veterans’ attitude, O’Hara says, was “I was just getting shot at in the jungle, and this guy with a shirt and tie isn’t going to tell me what to do,” and “the new rebels” of the post-’60s counterculture didn’t like it any better. 

“We had 17 strikes. Three of them were authorized,” former Local 1112 president Al Alli once quipped.

O’Hara, who started work at the plant in 1977, remembers his older brother coming home from the second shift in time for the family dinner, telling them workers had walked out because “they threw Joe out for dropping a screw on the floor.”

“New foreman, a real Gee-mad-man. Sent a guy home for farting in a car. And another one home for yodeling,” a second-shift worker who lived in a hippie-style collective house with his wife and several coworkers told Garson. Sabotage happened occasionally, he said—“you can’t keep up with the car, so you scratch it on the way past”—but in management’s eyes, “if you miss a car, they call that sabotage. They expect the sixty-second minute. Even a machine has to sneeze. Look how they call us in weekends, hold us extra, send us home early, give us layoffs. You’d think we were machines by the way they turn us on and off.”

“The guy with the Afro, the guy with the beads, the guy with the goatee, he doesn’t care if he’s black, white, green, or yellow,” Gary Bryner, Local 1112’s 29-year-old president, said at the time. “They just wanted to be treated with dignity. That’s not asking a hell of a lot.”

“If you were 22 and had a job where you were treated like a machine and knew you had about 30 years to go, how would you feel?” another UAW official said.

Those streams, dubbed the “Lordstown syndrome” and “industrial Woodstock” by the media, came together in the strike that began March 4, 1972. It won a partial victory. The assembly line was slowed to a more conventional pace, and most of the workers given disciplinary layoffs got back pay. But there was no structural change in how the job was run.

In the ensuing years, says O’Hara, management became less confrontational, and workers who were getting older and raising children were less inclined to blow a day’s pay on a wildcat walkout.

Still, Lordstown symbolizes what might have been. What if the labor movement, which has long sought shorter hours, could have united with the women’s liberation movement, which wanted both to move into the workforce and have men put in an equal share of child-raising and housework, and the ’60s-counterculture vision of a society where work was fulfilling and people had plenty of leisure? What if that could have created a society in which part-time work was the norm, and even if the job was far from fulfilling, you could still make a living without being bullied by the bosses and the workweek tyrannizing your life? 

That would have required massive political coalitions that were largely implausible back then. Women now head some of the nation’s largest unions, but in 1972, they were a fledgling AFL-CIO “constituency group.” 

It’s not that unimaginable, however. Labor is usually overlooked in the history of 1960s activism, but today’s public-sector unions were mostly organized then, and 1970 and 1971 saw almost 5 million workers go out on strike—more than in any two-year period since the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics began keeping records after World War II. Northeast Ohio was both a center of 1930s labor militance—the United Rubber Workers’ sit-down strike at B.F. Goodrich in Akron in 1936 and the “Little Steel” strike in Youngstown in 1937 were landmarks in the development of industrial unions—and a regional center of the circa-1970 counterculture.

If the Lordstown strike had sparked an organized movement, would we now be in an era where Amazon “fulfillment centers” combine GMAD-intense speedup with electronic monitoring that was the stuff of dystopian science fiction in 1972, and pay little more than minimum wage?

Within a decade after the strike, however, the U.S. would see, not the humanizing of work, but the beginning of the era of massive deindustrialization, global outsourcing, and ruthless union-busting, ending the great working-class prosperity of the post-World War II era. In Northeast Ohio, it hit like the world’s biggest wrecking ball. The Youngstown Sheet and Tube steel company closed in September 1977, laying off 5,000 workers. The Mahoning Valley area, once the leading steel-producing center in the world, “never recovered from the steel mills leaving,” says O’Hara. He estimates it lost 50,000 direct jobs in steel and 30,000 to 40,000 in related industries.

The Delphi auto-parts company, which had a large plant in Warren, began moving production to Mexico in the 1980s. Employment at Lordstown declined from 12,000 workers in the late 1970s to 4,500 in the mid-2010s. Even then, “we were working six or seven days a week,” says O’Hara, and the Chevy Cruze, the last car it produced, was a much better-made vehicle than the Vega.

When the last Cruze rolled off the Lordstown assembly line on March 6, the plant was down from three shifts to one, and only about 1,500 workers were left.

“There’s no security now,” says O’Hara. “This is a story about the middle class and manufacturing.”

Lordstown’s former workers, along with several hundred at nearby parts suppliers, are now waiting to see if the UAW and Ohio’s “Drive It Home” campaign can persuade GM in upcoming contract talks to produce another vehicle there.

“They’re playing chess, and we’re just pawns on the board right now,” says O’Hara.

The dream remains, however. What if? And what still might be?

March 18, 2019

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