How Trump Betrayed the Autoworkers of Youngstown, Ohio - Rolling Stone
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Broken Promises: How Trump Betrayed the Autoworkers of Youngstown, Ohio

Trump made a pledge to the workers of the Lordstown plant that he could save their jobs and their city. Instead, the massive auto plant shuttered and 4,500 were left unemployed

United Auto Workers members and supporters picket outside the shuttered General Motors plant in Lordstown, Ohio, on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. In its negotiations with UAW, the automaker has reportedly offered to create a battery factory in the same area, but the work would pay far less than the shuttered plant. (Ross Mantle/The New York Times)United Auto Workers members and supporters picket outside the shuttered General Motors plant in Lordstown, Ohio, on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. In its negotiations with UAW, the automaker has reportedly offered to create a battery factory in the same area, but the work would pay far less than the shuttered plant. (Ross Mantle/The New York Times)

Protesting the Lordstown plant shutdown. “Trump talked about us keeping our jobs,” says a worker. “I was a sucker.”

Ross Mantle/The New York Times/Redux

I rode through your beautiful roads coming up from the airport. And I was looking at some of those big, once-incredible, job-producing factories, and Melania said, “What happened?” I said, “Those jobs have left Ohio . . . but they’re all coming back.” Don’t move. Don’t sell your house. — President Donald Trump, Youngstown, Ohio, 2017

Dan Aurilio’s seven-year-old son, Landon, is home from school. He hits a plastic ball with a plastic bat and looks across his Fort Wayne, Indiana, cul-de-sac toward the house across the street. “His one friend in the neighborhood lives there,” says Aurilio, a proud Italian American son of Youngstown, Ohio. A minute later, the neighbor’s garage door falls and so does Aurilio’s face, in solidarity with his boy.

“Oh, man, he’s going to have a bad afternoon.”

Aurilio looks out at Landon and the fields surrounding his new house in this strange town. “He had so many friends back home,” he says. “The first night here, I was awake and just kept thinking, ‘What the hell did I do to my family?’

After spending almost his entire life in Ohio, Aurilio now works at General Motors’ Fort Wayne GM assembly plant moving heavy parts to the line for the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra. At the end of the day, he’s logged eight to nine miles on his pedometer. He works 50 to 60 hours a week, taking as much overtime as he can while still being a good dad and husband. “You always have to save for rain,” says Aurilio, a sturdy 48-year-old man with a shaved head. “It’s always going to rain.”

This wasn’t Aurilio’s plan. He was raised in McDonald, near Youngstown, a small town filled with flags and neighbors sharing cook-on-the-stove lasagna with friends down the street. Aurilio was happy. Sure, his dad objected when he went to work at GM’s Lordstown plant in 2000, when he was 27. “Dad worked there for 31 years and hated every minute of it,” he says. But it was a good job with benefits, building small cars for Chevrolet: first the Cavalier, then the Cobalt, and finally the Cruze. If you have ever driven through Ohio on Interstate 80, you know where Aurilio worked. For years, there was a Jumbotron-size billboard of the Cruze just off of the tollway, with a parking lot for 4,500 employees.

That’s all gone now.

Not that the factory was perfect. Lordstown had no air conditioning, and in the hot, humid Ohio summers the temperature on the assembly line could easily hit 100 degrees. The factory had been the center of labor unrest and wildcat strikes in the 1970s, and it sometimes seemed like management still held a grudge. The work was good, until it wasn’t. The auto industry was cruelly cyclical and Aurilio would lose shifts when the economy tanked or gas was cheap and everyone bought SUVs. There were ghost stories about how the plant was going to close almost every year, but in 2016 it was still here.

“When I started working there, people asked me why I didn’t go to work at one of the steel mills,” recalls Aurilio. “Then they all closed down and I thought I was the smart one.” He laughs sadly. “I was for a while.”

Then Donald Trump got elected. Trump had a lot of support among the Lordstown workforce, and Aurilio remembers a co-worker coming in the day after the election with his arms over his head, shouting, “Trump, Trump!” Not coincidentally, that morning GM eliminated one of the shifts at Lordstown. Aurilio saw the guy again. “How’s Trump working out for you?” he asked.

Many workers believe the dropped shift was GM expecting Trump would roll back Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, a Barack Obama plan for carmakers to produce more fuel-efficient fleets by 2025. During the election, Trump pledged to lower CAFE standards from 55 mpg to 40 mpg. He campaigned on freeing corporations from Obama-era regulations, but ironically, in this case, it fucked the workers who elected him. Released from its CAFE responsibilities, GM could shut down production of the low-profit-margin Cruze and concentrate on building $40,000 SUVs. (GM says it was a reaction to poor sales.)

Still, there was hope. The president said so himself. He came to Youngstown in 2017 for one of his rallies and promised an economic renaissance in the area, urging Youngstown residents to stick around, the jobs were all coming back.

The exact opposite happened. In April 2018, GM cut the second shift. Shortly after the midterm elections, GM delivered the death sentence: The plant would close for good in the spring of 2019. Some of Trump’s fans at the factory held out hope that their president would intervene. Surely, Trump would do something, they reasoned, since he had just promised the jobs were coming back to Youngstown, not leaving.

Daniel Aurilla stands outside of his home with his son in Fort Wayne, IN on September 30, 2020. Aurilla took a job at the GM plant in Fort Wayne after the Lordstown factory shut down in Ohio.

Aurilio had to leave his hometown and move his family to Fort Wayne, Indiana, for work. He thinks Trump does “nothing that isn’t for himself.”

Maddie McGarvey for Rolling Stone

Aurilio didn’t believe it. With 18 years in, he was 12 years from earning a pension. His wife, Kristen, dreaded moving from their beloved hometown and gave Aurilio an ultimatum: any new job had to be within four hours of Youngstown. At exactly four hours, Fort Wayne barely qualified.

In early 2019, Aurilio and a co-worker moved to an unseen apartment in Fort Wayne. It was a few weeks before the last Cruze moved down the Lordstown assembly line, its white paint covered with the tears of sobbing workers.

On a snowy morning in January 2019, Aurilio went into his son’s playroom to say goodbye and fell on the carpet. He wept like he had never wept before. “Did you ever see Mel Gibson in Ransom, right after his son was kidnapped?” asks Aurilio. “I was like that.”

Things are better now that his wife and son are with him. They sold their house outside Youngstown last year. On the day they packed up, Aurilio saw his neighbor, a friend and co-worker, crying on his lawn mower.

“Sometimes, my son says he misses his friends or our old house,” says Aurilio, his eyes misting over. “And that’s real tough.”

As for Trump? “He’s a liar and a con man,” says Aurilio. “He does nothing that isn’t for himself. Why would this be any different?”

Youngstown, Ohio, was once a mighty place. Steel mills hummed during much of the 20th century. The tough town, located roughly halfway between Chicago and New York, hit a population of 160,000 in 1960, with factories throbbing 24 hours a day (Aurilio grew up two blocks from one). But then the mills shut down as it became cheaper to manufacture steel overseas. Youngstown Steel announced it was closing on September 19th, 1977, throwing 5,000 employees out of work overnight. The day became known locally as “Black Monday.” Today, the town’s population is 65,000. It became a symbol of Midwestern cities sliding into oblivion with Bruce Springsteen recording the lament “Youngstown.” That is never a good sign.

But one giant remained: GM’s Lordstown plant. Sure, the workers had to ride the jagged waves of the uncertain auto industry, but the plant remained a stalwart, becoming a presidential campaign stop, with Obama, John McCain, and Hillary Clinton donning hard hats and walking the floors. The plant survived the Great Recession and prospered. Ohio granted General Motors $60 million in tax credits for plant refurbishments, with the agreement that Lordstown would remain open until at least 2040.

All seemed fine until after the 2016 election. “People didn’t see it coming,” says Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, Lordstown’s most ardent defender. We talk at some picnic tables behind the local union, UAW 1112. The back part of 1112 hosted giant picnics for kids and raucous retirement parties, but with Lordstown closed, it is a ghost town on a windy day. “No one talked to us,” says Brown. “No one talked to community leaders.”

The terrible irony was that blue-collar workers in Youngstown saw Trump as their friend. In 2012, Obama carried the Mahoning Valley, consisting of Youngstown and its suburbs, by nearly 60,000 votes. Four years later, Trump won the valley by more than 20,000 votes, contributing to his winning the state by eight points.

“Trump talked about us keeping our jobs,” an autoworker tells me. He asks not to use his name because he now feels like a fool. “Hillary was all about us needing to retrain. I believed Trump. I was a sucker.”

General Motors, not amused that Trump’s promises had placed a public target on its back, insists the Lordstown shutdown was simply an economic move. “One of the biggest impacts, driving consumers from cars to trucks, crossovers, and SUVs, is fuel prices are low,” says Dan Flores, a GM spokesman who worked on the Lordstown closing. In other words, Americans will happily buy a Tahoe that gets 18 miles to the gallon when gas is $1.97 a gallon, like it was last month in Youngstown. One could make the case that Lordstown workers would still be employed if there was a gas tax, similar to what most European countries have had for decades. “We’ve done research that indicates when gas is about four bucks a gallon, that’s when it starts to impact what customers buy,” Flores says.

Lordstown is a microcosm of the Trump economy. Before Covid-19, Trump could crow that unemployment had dropped on his watch and that his corporate tax cut had freed up money for new businesses. But what’s clear is that the new jobs created paid less and offered little security. His tariff war with China left companies uncertain as to whether to expand or contract, and the country continued to see a hemorrhaging of good union jobs. And for all his campaign talk of keeping blue-collar jobs in the USA, there is little evidence of success. In 2017, Trump bragged about saving factory jobs at a Carrier plant in Indianapolis. In reality, the plant still shipped 600 jobs to Mexico. Now, the Carrier plant is surrounded by nonunion Amazon and Target distribution centers. They pay 60 percent of what an hourly worker makes at Carrier.

Shortly after General Motors eliminated Lordstown’s third shift in late 2016, Sen. Brown talked to Trump, expressing his concern about the situation. He told the president that he was going to introduce the American Cars, American Jobs Act; the legislation would put U.S.-made cars on equal footing with foreign-made vehicles and update the tax code to remove incentives for auto companies to offshore jobs. The president seemed interested, but there was no follow-up. “There’s no empathy there,” says Brown. “There’s no wanting to learn about their lives. There was no real give or take on what we can do together to help this plant.”

Brown kept the pressure on. After another shift was cut, he quixotically tried to shame GM CEO Mary Barra, the daughter of a UAW worker, into taking the $6.9 billion the company realized in Trump tax cuts and reinvest some of it either on the Cruze or by assigning Lordstown a new car. GM never responded.

Without presidential intervention, Lordstown was doomed once it lost the second and third shifts. Flores tells me it was impossible for GM to turn a profit on a plant running only a single shift. “The Cruze did very well, but we could not change the reality that people stopped buying them,” he says. He then references Obama’s auto bailout. “There is not going to be a third chance. We’ve had to make tough decisions.”

Senetor Sherred Brown photographed outside the former GM plant in Lordstown, Ohio.

Sen. Brown has tried to work with the president to save the industry, but says Trump blew him off.

Da'Shaunae Marisa for Rolling Stone

Brown reintroduced his legislation and again asked for Trump’s support. There was more silence. But Trump did have time to make his 2017 trip to Youngstown and tell everyone not to sell their houses. On November 26th, 2018, GM announced the plant would be closing, a second Black Monday for Youngstown. It was only then that Trump acted — by sending out angry tweets to Barra and searching for a scapegoat. He chose Brown. “Well, it’s one plant in Ohio,” said Trump. “But I love Ohio. And I told them: You’re playing around with the wrong person. And Ohio wasn’t properly represented by their Democrat senator, Senator Brown.”

This, of course, was ridiculous, but Brown expected it. He got into a brief pissing match with Trump, but realized it was pointless.

“He was probably as obsequious around Mary Barra as he is to many of these foreign leaders,” says Brown. “He has an inferiority complex with powerful, smart people. He’s good at bullying people in inferior positions. But I can’t imagine he’d talk tough to Barra and in any way pushed her hard to change her mind.”

Brown predicts Joe Biden will take Ohio back for the Democrats. It won’t be just because of Lordstown, but the closing is a symbol of the president’s phoniness. “There are so many betrayals and broken promises,” says Brown. “If he had done anything close to what he said he would, he’d win re-election, even with his racism and his mean-spiritedness and incompetence. But he didn’t.” Right now, Ohio is a dead heat, and a Trump loss here would be a deathblow. Brown began walking across the UAW’s lawn to a waiting car. “That’s why he’s going to lose.”

I spent a few days tracing the Lordstown diaspora, driving across the Midwest. I hit Fort Wayne to see Aurilio, and then Bedford, Indiana, to meet with David Green, the head of UAW 1112 during the plant shutdown. He had faithfully fought for his workers and wrote to Trump twice, with no reply. He earned the respect of Sen. Brown, who had Green as his guest at the 2020 State of the Union speech. His reward? After criticizing Trump for his Lordstown actions on Fox News, Trump punched down on the Twitter machine: “Democrat UAW Local 1112 President David Green ought to get his act together and produce. G.M. let our Country down, but other much better car companies are coming into the U.S. in droves. I want action on Lordstown fast. Stop complaining and get the job done! 3.8% Unemployment!”

“I was surprised but not surprised,” Green tells me not far from the small Indiana condo where he spends his weeks. “Trump is all bullshit, no action.”

In Youngstown I meet with Green’s friend Matt Moorhead, a fellow union official — with 24 years at Lordstown — at the Mocha House, a diner in nearby Warren. Even with his mask on, Moorhead is the mayor of the place, with former workers and other locals coming up and saying hello. After Lordstown closed, he took a job at a GM plant in Lansing, Michigan, about four hours away. It didn’t last long. He would make the long drive home to Youngstown on Friday nights. After a particularly hellish week, Moorhead packed up his Jeep to head back to Lansing. His wife had tears in her eyes. “You don’t have to keep doing this, Matt. It’s going to kill you.” He put in his notice the next day. An athletic man with craggy features, Moorhead now makes $10 an hour managing a golf course.

I ask Moorhead if we can drive over to the plant. He grimaces a bit. “I haven’t been over that way in a long time,” he says, his voice breaking a bit. “Too painful. But let’s do it.”

He turns the ignition and Public Enemy’s anti-Trump song “State of the Union” blasts out of the speakers. It’s about a 15-minute drive, and Moorhead provides a running commentary, pointing out a skanky strip club as a no-go zone and, as we get closer, gesturing at our four-lane road: “You could have the worst blizzard and these roads were dry as a bone. GM knew everyone had to get to the factory or no cars.”

Moorhead knows there’s an image that autoworkers have a cushy gig with endless cigarette breaks and boozing on lunch breaks. He talks about something different. In addition to the blistering heat, Moorhead describes Lordstown as a satanic mill where every second of your shift was choreographed. Whether you were installing interiors or riveting the Cruze’s body, you had 57 seconds to accomplish your assigned task and three seconds to move on to the next car.

“You had to ask to be able to take a piss,” says Moorhead. “Imagine doing that as a grown man. If you had to stop the line for an emergency, you’d get written up and be out without pay for a week. It’s like Dante’s Inferno.

When Moorhead walked to his car I noticed that his gait was hunched. He hurt a knee working in the interiors of Chevys and screwed up his back on the line. His gnarled hands grip the steering wheel. We pull into the plant parking lot, with its thousands of empty spots.

“Things are OK once you get the pattern down when you’re new,” says Moorhead, who saw Oxycontin abuse among his co-workers. “You’re healthy, right? But, say you’re always holding a riveting gun. You’re fighting to hold it so it doesn’t snap or miss. Twenty years of that and you destroy your hand ligaments, you destroy your elbows, you destroy your knees.”

Still, Lordstown provided a stable middle-class life for Moorhead, his wife, and two kids. But he watched the rise of Trump in 2016 with trepidation. Other workers talked about how the country needed a businessman president. “I remember thinking it was businessmen at GM who were always trying to cut jobs, so why the hell do we want a businessman?” says Moorhead.

Trump was elected, and GM started cutting shifts. The plant went from 4,500 employees to 1,500 in two years. Moorhead could see where things were going. There was much management talk of the need to “change Lordstown culture,” which workers saw as code of an imminent shutdown.

“I knew in a way Trump killed the plant when he neutered the CAFE standards,” he says. “It gave GM the excuse they were looking for. It was a governmental guideline that kept thousands of people working at no cost to the government.”

Moorhead was there for Lordstown’s final weeks. He saw friends fight inside the plant, taking their anger out on each other. He watched UAW chief negotiator Terry Dittes make his first appearance at the plant, telling workers to continue turning out a quality car and maybe, just maybe, the plant would be revived later in 2019 when the UAW bargained for a new contract.

So Moorhead and his friends kept busting their asses, and walked the picket lines when the UAW led a nationwide walkout against GM in September of that year. After 40 days, the two sides struck a deal, but there wasn’t a Lordstown resurrection. Detroit-Hamtramck, a fellow ailing plant, would get a second life with a billion-dollar makeover to build electric trucks. The UAW grudgingly accepted the permanent closing of Lordstown and two other plants in exchange for the raising of benefits for temporary and junior workers at other GM plants. (The new contract was approved by a 57 percent-to-43 percent margin).

Matt Moorhead on street Warren Ohio 09/29 2020.

Moorhead spent 24 years at Lordstown and says Trump’s policies “killed the plant.”

Da'Shaunae Marisa for Rolling Stone

Moorhead was crushed and felt that Trump, the union, and GM had all sold out Lordstown. He shows me a photo of his best friend. He clicks on a pic of Joe, a round, jolly co-worker. Moorhead starts to laugh. “He looked like a meatball or Mr. Kool-Aid,” says Moorhead with a smile. “We gave each other so much shit.”

Then his eyes well up. Years ago, Joe’s wife left him with two young daughters. He supported them by working overnight shifts at Lordstown. Joe started drinking whiskey alone in his garage, as his Lordstown job grew more and more precarious. On the night the plant closed down, Moorhead and Joe had a raucous party that seemed more like an Irish wake than a funeral. Joe and Moorhead talked about transferring to the same plant. But Joe kept drinking. He died of liver failure last year. Moorhead buried him on the first day of the UAW-GM strike.

“Did Trump and GM kill him?” asks Moorhead. “I don’t know.” His voice begins to break. “I do know I had to go to Lansing without a brother. I might have made it with a brother.”

I happen to be in Youngstown the week of the first presidential debate in Cleveland, 90 minutes up the road. It was an infuriating week for the laid-off and displaced Lordstown 4,500. GM had sold its plant to Lordstown Motors, a company that endeavors to build $45,000 electric trucks, and maintained a financial interest in the venture. The new company is nonunion, paying wages that you could make working for Amazon. It also currently employs fewer than 100 people. Trump had destroyed the eco-friendly CAFE standards, making the Cruze irrelevant, and then did nothing to stop GM from displacing 4,500 workers. The end result was two percent of the jobs paying half the wages building a different eco-friendly vehicle. Adding to the absurdity, GM announced its own electric truck would be available in 2021.

None of the autoworkers I talked to plan to apply if line jobs opened up, at half of their hourly rate, with Lordstown Motors. Well, except one. “I applied and hope they call me in so I can tell them to fuck off,” says Moorhead. (GM did break ground on a new battery-building plant in Youngstown in 2020, which could provide more than 1,100 jobs by 2022. But Flores told me the plant would not officially be a GM plant, so even if displaced Lordstown workers wanted to return, they would not accrue any GM service time toward retirement pensions.)

Trump and Mike Pence decided to make chocolate out of mud. Pence visited the plant and proclaimed a “renaissance” had arrived in northeast Ohio. Then, the day before the first debate, Trump, possibly infected with Covid-19, hosted Lordstown execs at the White House and held a press conference extolling their truck on the White House lawn. Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman was there. Brown was not invited.

“We begged Trump to help — he did nothing,” Brown said. “While we welcome Lordstown Motors, it’s nothing close to what it should be and nothing close to what it would have been if the president stepped up three and four years ago.”

On the same day, the government of Ohio held a hearing on clawing back $60 million in tax credits it had provided GM with the understanding that Lordstown would be kept open for another two decades. Both Moorhead and Green have thrown their weight into lobbying the state for a grab-back. “They left. That money should be spent on schools and roads,” says Moorhead.

Ohio settled for $28 million, roughly 47 cents on the dollar. GM must spend $12 million on infrastructure in the Lordstown area, a small price for cutting ties with a beleaguered workforce.

That night, Moorhead and I watch the debate at one of the golf courses where he plays during all of his unwanted free time. A few minutes in, Trump touts his economy, and particularly his role in the Buckeye State. “Ohio had the best year it’s ever had last year,” crows Trump.

Back in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Daniel Aurilio screams at his television: “Where is this happening, and why do I live 275 miles away in Fort Wayne then?”

In Youngstown, Moorhead watches in silence. In another room, members hoop and holler as Trump drops bombs, bullies, and goes over his time. Moorhead sighs. “Man, I am so tired.” He drinks some water and stares at Trump sweating and glowering on the screen. “So tired.”

Editor’s Note:
This piece has been updated to better reflect the events of the UAW strike.


In This Article: Donald Trump, GM, long reads, Ohio, Youngstown


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