It is Easter Sunday and I’m wondering when the Department of Labor will announce the union vote by workers in the Amazon plant in Bessemer, Alabama.
As we drove back and forth through Ohio this past week I was reminded of the 1972 strike by young workers at the General Motors factory in Lordstown, just west of Youngstown.
Every other trip – and we’ve taken this drive dozens of times – the Lordstown GM plant was running, the parking lot full of worker’s cars.
This time it was quiet. There were no cars in the parking lot. The building sits there empty, waiting while some talk of a future producing something not made by GM and not by UAW members.
Each time we drove by the empty Lordstown factory I kept thinking about the Bessemer vote and Amazon because in 1972 GM Lordstown was a lot like Amazon.
America’s then-newest big auto plant used state-of-the-art technology with the ambitious — perhaps overly ambitious — goal of rolling 100 new cars off the line every hour and (a few years later) to stay ahead of the smaller cars from Japan that were just making their first tiny dent in the booming American market.
But what passed for robotics in the mid-1960s didn’t prevent GM from needing roughly 8,000 auto workers, and sometimes more, to run the line in three shifts. Nobody knew it at the time, but this was the peak — and the beginning of the end — of a post-World War II era of America as the world’s undisputed global economic powerhouse driven by blue-collar union clout forged in often long and occasionally violent strikes. Many of the men — and it was mostly men — who filled the job rolls at Lordstown held two-year and four-year college degrees, because the roughly $6-an-hour pay topped all the other jobs in eastern Ohio, and offered the eventual promise of a sturdy ranch house with an affordable mortgage, a kids’ college fund, and maybe a boat or vacation home in middle age.
“I had to take a pay cut to become a school teacher,” recalled John Russo, who worked for a short while in the late 1960s at a nearby Oldsmobile plant and who later became an authority on Lordstown history as (now retired) director of Youngstown State University’s Center for Working-Class Studies.
The stereotype of the early 1970s is that union workers were hard-hat-wearing conservative “Archie Bunkers,” looking to wail on anti-war hippies. And yes, those things did happen, but the reality could be much more complicated, especially at Lordstown where the late 1960s hiring surge created a workforce heavy with baby boomers, and an average age of just 24.
This new generation of factory workers soaked up the patchouli-scented, bell-bottomed culture that was in the air all around them. Some grew their hair down their shoulders and sprouted beards or mustaches. Some used their coffee breaks to go out and get high. Almost all chafed at authority, not just from the factory bosses who were constantly on their case to speed up the assembly line, but also their UAW union leaders who didn’t “get” this new breed.
The young lords of Lordstown found the assembly line — 35 second bursts of a dull, repetitive task, and a 5-second break before the next Impala or Vega rolled up — to be soul-crushing work. Botched cars — some of them slashed, deliberately sabotaged by angry workers — piled up in the giant lot outside the factory. A good chunk of the labor force had little fear of conflict with their bosses because they’d recently returned from the front lines in Vietnam.
Russo recalled that during his later research he asked a Lordstown employee if he’d been afraid of losing his job during the 1970s labor strife. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” the man responded. “I just had 500,000 Vietnamese trying to kill me. You think I’m scared of GM?”
It’s Easter Sunday, 2021 and I’m waiting for the Amazon union vote.