As recently as five years ago, GM's Mansfield-Ontario Metal Center was operating at full-tilt boogie. The state-of-the-art presses at the 2.9 million-square-foot plant pounded away "like a train moving at full speed," in the words of Charles Bias, stamping out car doors, roofs, hoods, dashes and countless other large panels and parts.
Following in the footsteps of his father, who worked there thirty years, Bias started at the plant in 2000 in production, working his way up to the skilled trades. "I was working all the overtime I could stand, and some I couldn't," he says. Today the company that once could not get enough of Bias's labor finds no use for him at all. He was told to clean out his tools at Christmas 2008 in a layoff of several hundred. Last summer, 574 took buyouts. The remaining skeleton crew of about 420 will be transferred somewhere else in GM's dwindling archipelago once Mansfield's plant falls silent on January 29.
Despite clear signs of trouble, GM's closure announcement stunned Mansfield workers, who took pride in their award-winning productivity. "Everybody's not in the best mood," says Arnold Salyers, a forklift driver and former union rep, interviewed as he moves stacked parts. "This here was--and still is--the number-one stamping plant that General Motors has throughout the United States and North America."
At one time it would have been impossible for GM to shutter its Mansfield plant. Built in 1955, the big-box facility was soon making components for 90 percent of all GM cars, coast to coast. A citadel of hillbilly proletarian militancy, the plant erupted repeatedly in strikes. The largest, a 1967 wildcat, exploded when managers suspended two crane operators for refusing to load stamping dies at a shipping dock. Believing the company was moving the dies to avoid paying the overtime required to test them in Mansfield, practically the entire membership of Local 549--2,652 workers--walked out, bringing GM production nationwide to a screeching halt. The New York Times observed that the wildcat "nearly paralyzed the world's largest industrial corporation" and "embarrassed one of the nation's biggest labor unions." UAW president Walter Reuther promptly seized the rebel local, and GM began diversifying its stamping operations.
The Mansfield closure is the endpoint of broader developments long in the making. Shop-floor militancy ebbed with the 1973-74 recession, UAW leaders retreated into concessionary bargaining and union power eroded in the 1970s and '80s as parts manufacturers relocated production while foreign-owned transplants such as Toyota, Nissan and Honda started popping up in the South. "The crisis for the UAW," said Chrysler retiree and longtime union dissident Mike Parker, "is in not having organized all the other plants."
The Big Three were at a competitive disadvantage because of "legacy costs," the pension and healthcare benefits first wrested by the UAW in the 1940s and '50s. Had the UAW organized the transplants, compelling them to pay such benefits too, or had the United States adopted national healthcare, the playing field would have been leveled. But the UAW did not organize well and the Big Three never pushed concertedly for national healthcare, despite the crippling effect on their bottom lines. "These are ideological firms," explains historian Nelson Lichtenstein. "These firms don't want to legitimize government regulation, General Motors in particular."
For a time, Mansfield's GM plant actually added workers, peaking at 4,800 in the 1980s, a decade when the plant was thoroughly modernized. Up to just a few years ago, the company was still installing brand-new presses on the shop floor. But when oil prices spiked in 2008, consumers shunned GM's gas-guzzling SUVs. Credit, so critical to auto sales, dried up in the financial crisis. Reeling, GM closed assembly plants, including one in Moraine, Ohio. That sealed the fate of Mansfield's once-vital operations. GM's highest-capacity stamping plant in North America became a stand-alone outlier, its shipping costs prohibitive. As GM, hemorrhaging cash, threw off its qualms about government intrusion to obtain a $49 billion bailout, its survival plan targeted Mansfield for excision.
Workers who took the buyout say that what they miss most about their jobs is the pay. Paul Frey, a die maker, started apprenticing at GM in 2003 at $25 an hour, more than the $19 he made as a journeyman at Therm-O-Disc, a nonunion temperature sensor manufacturer. Frey found GM "more demanding," but he advanced to $32 an hour and liked the closer relations between skilled-trades and production workers at GM, which he attributes to the union sensibility that "we're all working toward the same goal."
Not every worker mourns the plant's death. "I'm glad it's over for me," says Lodema M'Poko, a mother of two unable to resist the pay. "Actually, if I could turn back the clock, I would never have taken that job. I'm still dealing with aches and pains." Even Charles Bias, who misses the job and believes its loss cost him his marriage, found handling large auto parts brutal: "In nine and a half years' employment at GM, I received two major cuts from metal, I blew out my right knee, I had a partially torn ligament in my right elbow and I tore my left bicep muscle."
Those who kept their positions with GM despite its restructuring are being displaced in their own way. Mark Haney, a 32-year-old die maker, is shifting to a Marion, Indiana, stamping plant. His parents came to Ohio in the civil rights era as children when his grandparents sought better jobs than they could find in Mississippi and Florida. His mother went to work at GM, his father at Ohio Brass. Now Haney, with three boys of his own, is embarking on his own migration. "We have to move," he said, "and go where the work's at."