In the heart of the heart of the country: The strike at Lordstown - Peter Herman

Vega assembly line at Lordstown, 1972
Vega assembly line at Lordstown, 1972

A detailed historical account and analysis of the dispute at the General Motors Lordstown plant in the early 1970s, examining the largely self-organised workers' sabotage and the union-controlled strike.

Submitted by Steven. on December 18, 2009

By Peter Herman

This article is interesting not so much because the Lordstown strike was a major event in history but in the way that the union controlled the anger of the workers. The union helped to limit workers sabotage, absenteeism and stop a possible wildcat strike. They decided to have a short strike, which management was more than willing to allow and by the end of the strike, most workers thought that it was pointless. The union also helped to keep apart other autoworkers in Ohio that were on strike from the Lordstown strikers. In the end, the union strike helped management 'modernize' the factory even more.

As you drive through the Ohio countryside on the turnpike between Youngstown and Cleveland, you suddenly pass an enormous factory, stretching for almost a mile along the highway. This startling sight is the General Motors Lordstown installation, a major plant built for over $100 million in 1966, and employing over 13,000 people. Comprising a Fisher Body Fabricating plant, a Chevrolet Assembly plant and a Chevrolet Truck plant, the Lordstown complex manufactures mainly the Chevrolet Vega subcompact. It is the fastest and most highly automated assembly line in the world, producing more than 100 cars per hour. Its construction incorporated some of the most advanced technology for production efficiency. All jobs were divided into small parts; new computerized robot welders were installed. GM proudly announced that Lordstown represented the plant of the future. They little expected that within a few years Lordstown would have become a national symbol for blue-collar discontent.

When asked why they work at Lordstown, workers consistently reply: 'the job's a drag, but you can't beat the money.' GM built the plant in an area where most workers were used to working in the plants and mills of the Youngstown-Akron steel and rubber industries, where working conditions were poor and pay and benefits relatively low. GM had no trouble recruiting workers; even older men gladly gave up their accumulated years of seniority at the mills to come to work at Lordstown, where physical working conditions were better and the pay higher. Although GM pays wages that are relatively high for unskilled labor (a new worker will make about $11,000 a year), few workers at Lordstown have any considerable savings or financial security. Many of them dream of quitting their jobs and going into business for themselves, but most can't. One worker explained that:

"GM has a way of capturing people in that a guy comes off the street and gets a job, and he's making more money there than he ever made in his life before, and so at first it's a real shock, you've got a lot of extra money. But you know, you watch TV, how they advertise, advertise-you've got to have this, you've got to have that and pretty soon this dude's out spending like Mr. Millionaire. And then, if you work at Lordstown, that's instant credit. He's got credit and pretty soon he's charging all kinds of stuff. I know a guy who works with me; he's been married for a year. He bought a $16,000 home, and with interest and everything on a thirty-year loan, it's costing him $48,000. Then he had to borrow a thousand dollars for his car, and he had to buy his wife a washer and dryer, and he's got furniture payments, and then they got a little baby on top of all that, holy smoke, and they've got thirty-some fish too. He says he's got thirty-eight dependents; he's got to have all the money he can get."

Such a worker, of course, is not really spending like a "Millionaire." Most of his expenses are necessities for a young family, and in the inflationary economy of recent years during which the real wages of industrial workers have declined, the wages at Lordstown are barely sufficient for family to maintain itself without deprivation; many workers actually do not make enough money to pay their bills. To meet this dilemma many wives work, and since someone has to take care of the young children, the man often works the night shift and the woman works during the day. One worker described his family situation:

"I never get to see my wife. When I'm going out the door she's coming in, and when I'm coming in, she's going out. We have little conferences to work things out and sometimes it runs into overtime. Last week, I got a reprimand for being late to work. I told my foreman that I needed to talk over a problem with my wife and he said, "Look, this is a business. We got no time for that. Up a tree with your marital problems."

Most workers are locked into their jobs at Lordstown because they can't get better work or money elsewhere. It is this money which makes them bear the deadening monotony of the same operation performed over and over and the inexorable rate of the line which does not permit any variation in pacing. People at Lordstown often work a compulsory 50-hour week; 10 hours a day doing the same job. A rate of 100 cars an hour means that the worker has to repeat his or her operation every 36 seconds. The Vega itself becomes a hated object. Few Lordstown workers Vegas; most speak negatively of them. One worker described his feelings about working at Lordstown:

"You do it automatically, like a monkey or dog would do something by conditioning. You feel stagnant; everything is over and over and over. It seems like you're just going to work and your whole purpose in life is to do this operation, and you come home and you're so tired from working the hours, trying to keep up with the line, you feel you're not making any advancement whatsoever. This makes the average individual feel sort of like a vegetable."

The scene at the change of shifts is eloquent testimony to the workers' hatred of their working conditions. The shift going into work hangs around their cars in the parking lot or idles slowly toward the plant. In contrast, the workers coming off the shift dash out of the plant, leap into their cars and go racing away with horns blaring and tires squealing.

A few years ago, major magazines (such as Life and Newsweek) published feature articles about work on the assembly line. When they attempted to explain why workers were discontented at places like Lordstown, these media stressed the monotony and boredom of assembly-line work. The workers were treated with sympathy, but even so the interpretation is superficial. The real key to the dissatisfaction of the workers is the system of power relations in which they find themselves, a set of interlocking structures of power and authority of both management and unions which are designed to render them isolated and powerless and which enhances the boredom and monotony of the work itself. The first symptom of these relations is the climate of fear at the plant. One worker said:

"The whole plant runs on fear. The top guy in that plant is scared of somebody in Detroit. And the guy below him is scared of him and, man, it comes right down to the foremen, and the foremen are scared to death. And when they're scared to death they really put the heat on the people, and the people are scared to death 'because they're afraid to lose their jobs. And they know if they don't do the work they will lose their Jobs, 'cause the stupid union 11 tell you, them guys, they think they've got a great union, but, man, they don't do nothing."

Feelings of fear are endemic at all levels in the plant but the distinction between a member of management and a worker, within the structure of power, is fundamental and extends to such apparently trivial matters as segregated parking lots, eating facilities, and separate dress codes. For a manager, however low in rank, the corporation is "us"; for a worker, GM is "them." When I asked a general foreman (a low-level job) how he handled a bad decision handed down from higher management, he made this distinction clear:

"A foreman, being a member of management, has to accept this decision, he is part of the decision, and he cannot let the people know that he is in agreement with them. If he is in sympathy with the people, he's dead as a foreman; he's lost the ball game as far as conducting his job satisfactorily as a member of management. If he's in sympathy with the people he certainly cannot let it be known. There's been many a time when my heart's gone out to an individual I've had to discipline, when I've had to do something distasteful, but I had to do it, with the thought in mind that this is my job, that I am part of this decision, that this is the way it has to be."

To accept a promotion from assembly line worker to foreman is to cross the power line from "us" to "them." One worker, who had been a foreman at Lordstown till he quit disgust, explained what it was like:

"After accepting a position of a management trainee, I came to really find out how underhanded the salaried personnel were in their dealings, 'cause they accepted me to go to their schools of what they wanted you to do and how to conduct these "brainless idiots" out on the line, these "people who function mechanically," you know, "anybody can do the job that these idiots we got down there do," you know, "train a monkey and we can send him down." This type of talk they gave to show me that I was better than this guy that worked on the line. The school tried to show me how I could get somebody's goat and be cool about it. I couldn't believe this. Here were grown foremen teaching me Gestapo-type tactics."

Authoritarian control is a way of life at Lordstown. On entering the parking lot, one sees a huge sign announcing that this is Private Property, that GM disclaims all responsibility for any damages one experience, and that the lot is under surveillance by closed-circuit TV. When I talked one of the top Lordstown executives, I was only mildly astounded to see a portrait of Napoleon frowning at me off the wall over his desk. Workers at Lordstown need a written excuse if they miss work. If late to work, they may be given a disciplinary lay-off, ranging from the remainder of the shift to a week. A foreman can give a formal Direct Order, which must be obeyed, or the worker faces discipline for insubordination. A worker needs his or her supervisor's permission to leave the line to go to the bathroom, and the foreman can easily delay granting such permission. Lunch pails are regularly inspected to "prevent thievery." Armed security guards at the doors ask to see one's plastic identification card. One Lordstown worker justly remarked that by working at the plant he:

"came to find out that all dictators are not in communist countries. The Lordstown complex is its own individual dictatorship with their own little island, and everybody there falls under this dictatorship."

The union procedures aggravate the powerless situation of the worker on the line. if a worker has a grievance, say against a foreman, he does not make the complaint himself but must ask that very supervisor to call the union committeeman. This fact alone inhibits the filing of many grievances, since the offending foreman might well develop a grudge against the worker. Once the committeeman has been called, the aggrieved worker has nothing more to do with the case, which is handled through the highly bureaucratized and slow-moving grievance procedure. The case often takes several months to resolve, by which time the matter is often irrelevant. One worker said:

"It's the worst feeling in the world when you call your committeeman and he comes and writes something on a piece of Paper and goes away, and that's the last you ever hear of it, you're still left doing the job."

The roots of the present relationship between the company, the union and the rank and flue workers at Lordstown lie deep in the history of American labor. In the great sit-down struggles of the Thirties, the union, in exchange for the right to be recognized as the bargaining representatives of the workers in contract and strike negotiations agreed to discipline workers who engaged in unauthorized sit-down actions or who sought to exercise some control over the productions process. This trade-off was unacceptable to many workers and there was a massive wave of sit-down strikes in the spring 1 of 1937, right after the collective bargaining agreement was signed by GM and the union. For a time, the workers gained control of the speed of the line. The union actively struggled against these workers' actions and succeeded in control the situation. The measures taken were described by The New York Times:

"1. As soon as an unauthorized strike occurs or impends, international officers or representatives of the UAW are rushed to the scene to end or prevent it, get the men back to work and bring about an orderly adjustment of the grievances.

2. Strict orders have been issued to all organizers and representatives that they will be dismissed if they authorize any stoppages of work without the consent of the international officers, and that local unions will not receive any money from the international union for any unauthorized stoppage of, or interference with production.

3. The shop stewards are being educated in the procedure for settling grievances set up in the GM contract, and a system is being worked out which the union believes will convince the rank and file that strikes are unnecessary."

Thus, from the very beginning, the union agreed to work hand in hand with GM in disciplining workers who acted on their own or who raised demands not recognized in the written contract, particularly the demand to have a say in the decisions about production.

During the long boom of the auto industry after the Second World War, the majority of the UAW members, who experienced the deprivation of the Depression, acquiesced in bargaining for a larger share of the financial pie. Since the industry was expanding rapidly in those years, management could afford to make substantial increases in wages and benefits, especially since such wage costs could be passed along to the consumer in the form of price increases and the UAW's role was grudgingly accepted. When nationwide wildcat developed over "local issues" of working conditions after the signing of the 1955 contract, the UAW disciplined the more militant locals and established a system that made working conditions issues part of the bargaining at the local level to help get rank and file demands more under control.

In the UAW "strike" against GM in 1970, company-union collusion was apparent. The long and costly strike was designed by GM and the union, according to the Wall Street Journal, "to help to wear down the expectations of members," "to create an escape valve for the frustrations of workers bitter about what they consider intolerable working conditions," and to "strengthen the position of union leaders." GM in return expected the strike to stabilize the union's control over the men and to "buy peace in future years." When local negotiations lengthened the strike beyond the period planned by the union, GM actually lent the UAW $30 million to help them meet their strike insurance expenses, and engaged in secret talks to help the union leadership settle what threatened to become a "messy strike beyond the control of the top leaders."

During the years 1970-72, the US auto industry, despite its great wealth, was operating under considerable pressure. Profit rates and sales were down; there was significant foreign competition on the domestic market. The entire industry was only operating at about 80 percent potential productive capacity. In these circumstances, when major capital invest was made reluctantly, there was great pressure to justify the $100 million already spent on Lordstown. In the fall of 1970, the plant was converted to manufacture the new Chevrolet Vega, a subcompact designed to meet the rising Japanese challenge (Toyota, Datsun) on the American market. The Lordstown complex; Fisher Body and Chevrolet Assembly manufactured the Vega from start to finish and was supposed to be efficient enough to make all the Vegas for the entire USA.

Given the stagnation of the auto industry, the most obvious way that the corporations had of holding profit margins up was to increase the productive efficiency of the workers. The assembly line at Lordstown was designed with this kind of efficiency in mind. The goal was to reduce excess movements by workers to an absolute minimum and thus to shay seconds of waste time off each job. It has been estimated that if each Lordstown worker works 1 second per hour more for a year, GM would increase its profits for that year by $2 million. The effect of the "advanced" technology at Lordstown is thus to increase the intensity and pace of work for the assembler. Lordstown represents the quintessence of Taylorism.

After the line was converted to make the Vega, GM to test the full productive capacities of the plant, and rasied 2 the speed of the assembly line from 60 cars per hour an unprecedented 100 cars per hour. One worker said:

"We were already working hard, but it got ridiculous after they raised the speed of the line. The first day they brought out a sign 'First time in GM history, 100 cars/hour' and some of the old-timers cheered, but I just thought we were fools to take it. Then they started getting competitive, and told us that the first shift ran 110 cars an hour. Pretty soon even the old-timers got sick of that shit and said, 'If first shift wants to put out 110 cars, fuck it, let 'em. We're not going to do it."

During 1971 the situation became serious for GM at Lordstown. Absenteeism, already high, increased greatly, and many workers began letting cars go by on the line without doing their jobs. There were also cases of active sabotage. The repair lots quickly filled with Vegas, and the "Car of Year" (according to Motor Trend magazine) became rapidly known to buyers as a repair-prone vehicle. Sales sagged badly and the Vega not only failed to overtake Datsun and Toyota but lagged behind Ford's Pinto. GM decided to get tough with the plant and in September, 1971, they announced that the entire plant was to be placed under the management of the General Motors Assembly Division (GMAD), a special team of managers, the following month.

GMs intense concern for worker efficiency explains the rapid rise within the corporation of GMAD, which, since its formation in 1965, has gained control of 18 GM plants and 75 percent of all GM car production. The essence of GMAD is the drive for production efficiency. They have instituted a competition among their 18 plants, which involves daily auditing of each plant's efficiency and quality by a centralized computer. Each plant's standing is publicly posted. Bonuses and promotions for GMAD officials are related to performance in this internal competition, and the pressures it generates on each plant's management are intense. These pressures have created an extremely tough disciplinary ethos in the management of GMAD plants.

The announcement of GMAD's impending takeover sparked a brief wildcat strike in the Lordstown Fisher Body plant. In October, GMAD's first move was to tighten even more the efficiency of the entire Lordstown complex. They laid off close to 300 men, and dispersed their work among the other workers. They also introduced severe new disciplinary measures to try to curb absenteeism and sabotage. Instead of controlling the workers, GMAD's repressive measures stiffened their determination not to buckle under. In the first few months of GMAD's tenure at the plant, over 5,000 formal grievances were filed. Conflict sharpened; absenteeism, sabotage, and work slowdowns mounted. The New York Times reported significantly that:

"Both union and management were surprised by the depth of resistance . . . among the work force," and the President of the UAW local declared that, "a decision to work at their old pace to protest the change had come from the rank and file, not from the union leadership."

The Vegas just weren't being made, or if they were, as one Lordstown worker put it, "I'd hate to buy one. If they last six months, I'll be amazed." Claiming that the workers' lack of discipline made production impossible, GMAD resorted to sending the men home early each day, in hopes of forcing them to obey by such de facto wage cuts, but this measure, too, failed to control the resistance. Instead, production fell so low that the situation became critical for management.

The union local through this period tried simultaneously to express and contain the discontent. The union leadership had not initiated the workers' resistance; they restricted them selves to generalized statements of support, promise of a strike, and insistence that the workers remain within the bounds of contractual legality. Here are some sample leaflets passed out by the union:


. . Both the International Union and your Local Union strongly urge that no matter what provocation is put forth by the Company that all members . . . maintain strong Union discipline and fight this battle with GM in a legitimate manner. Do not engage in any acts of sabotage.



PROFITS: GMAD doesn't care about your working conditions. They have always put profits before human values, that's why they have started a reign of terror in the plants.

TERROR: Using Hitler's method of terror GMAD hopes to scare the people into meeting their unfair standards. They hope to provoke a wildcat strike so they can get more hostages for their terror program. DO NOT BE PROVOKED INTO A WILDCAT STRIKE!! That is the Company game. The local Union is now preparing . . . a legal strike with the full support of the International Union . . . . Vote yes for strike action. Let's support the people who are fighting to make and keep this a decent place to work.



The workers realize that the union is entirely serious about its insistence that the people obey the "laws" set down in the written contract. One worker explained:

"Our union is Miss Goody-shoes, see? We have a contract, and both GM and the union are supposed to keep it. The only trouble is, GM breaks the contract about twenty times a day, while the union sticks to the letter of the contract. Look, the fans broke down where I work the other week and the temperature went up to about 110. Our committee man threatened that we would take our shirts off, which is against the rules, if they didn't fix the fans. I told him: you can take your shirts off, you can take your pants off, but the cars are still being made and we're fools for doing it. Listen, if we want to get those fans fixed, let's all quit work and go sit down on the rail for an hour. That's 100 cars; they'll be going bananas in the top office. But the committeeman said he didn't even want to hear about such an idea. So I went to the other guys and said, let's sit down for an hour, but they all said, is the union behind this? When I told them no, they said forget it. See, the union won't back 20 or 30 guys who sit down. They'll let them be fired, and it's nothing to GM, they can afford to lose 20 guys. But for the guys, it's their job."

Such refusals by the union have an enormously inhibiting effect on actions initiated by the workers. Why does the union refuse to back such direct attempts by the workers to affect their conditions? Union officials justify themselves by pointing out that the grievance procedure is there to handle small matters, and that the union can't strike a 10,000-man plant over an issue that affects 30 people. They further note that work stoppages force the union to bargain about the disciplining of the men rather than the original issue. The obvious rebuttal that established procedures do not exhaust all possible strategies is beside the point. The real issue concerns the nature of the union's power. Ever since the collective bargaining agreement of the Thirties, the union has been a kind of junior partner of the corporation. The union's goal has been the health and well-being of the industry, its prosperity and smooth functioning. In exchange for a wage and benefit package, the union agrees to be responsible for making sure that the workers do nothing to challenge or disrupt the operations of the factories or such changes in production as the corporation deems necessary to keep up profitability. The union guarantees as the contract puts it, "management's right to manage." Unauthorized "spontaneous" actions by groups of workers are direct threats to the union, and naturally it will not support such groups of workers when the company moves against them. In many cases the union will itself seek to impose sanctions on such workers.

Local leadership is not really free to change these facts of power. If a union local backed up a strike without clearance from the International, they would be faced with immediate cutoff of union funds and threats of Trusteeship, under which the International declares the local leadership dissolved, and appoints its own officers. A the International leadership, in turn, would be forced to see that locals enforce work discipline, because GM can make some very powerful threats to the UAW, such as refusing to cooperate or help in national negotiations, as when GM loaned the UAW $30 million in 1970 or moving assembly factories Out of the USA to lower-wage countries (as the president of Mitsubishi Motor Company, noting that Japanese wages are one-fourth those of the U.S., recently asked, "Would it not be more profitable for an American manufacturer to import compacts instead of spending vast sums on developing its own models?")

It is no wonder that, by and large, union leaders are pleased to see unauthorized strikers fired by the corporation. Only if the causes of discontent are so widespread and acute that independent actions by workers threaten to lead to a spontaneous explosion of the entire plant, does the union find it necessary to act. By January 1972, it was evident that such a situation was at hand in Lordstown. Thousands of grievances had been filed, production had broken down and sabotage (damaged motors, slashed seat covers, ripped out wiring) was chronic. On February 1, the union held a strike vote. Despite the fact that many workers had lost their savings in the 1970 strike, and all were hard-pressed because of the money lost during the short work weeks of the last few months, 85 percent of the union's membership turned out to vote and 97 percent voted to strike. These numbers are overwhelming evidence of the mood at Lordstown; normally, there is much apathy about union votes, and a 40 percent turnout is considered good. This strike vote indicated that the workers were willing to risk making a considerable sacrifice to do something about working conditions. Many workers, most of them young and inexperienced about strikes, sincerely believed the union leaflets which claimed that the local and International were prepared to bargain seriously about working conditions. The local leadership was itself young and newly-elected. President Gary Bryner, only twenty-nine, was a hip character who quoted phrases out of The Greening of America while promising to struggle for "humanization" of working conditions. Workers had a real willingness to trust the local and go along with their strike strategy.

During the month of February, local leadership and International representatives, including UAW Vice President Irving Bluestone, negotiated with GMAD, while continuing to insist on strict "legality" from the workers; no wildcats or sabotage. GMAD continued sending the men home early, worsening their economic situation, since they were not, of course, on strike and therefore received no strike funds from the union.

The union faced a dilemma. It was, no less than before, committed to remaining within its established sphere of power. GMAD was applying tremendous pressure on the union to get control of the men, because production was slipping. On the other hand, the union had to deal with a unified and angry local rank and file that had already absorbed a lot of punishment and were obviously not going to merely obey GMAD just because the union told them to.

The strategy the union developed was a short strike, in which the issues were defined narrowly and legalistically at the bargaining table, arid generally and militantly in the union propaganda. With GMAD, the union merely asked for the restoration of the 300 men laid off or disciplined since October, as well as a few other small technical changes in rules. This would make it possible for GMAD to grant concessions which didn't mean much while the union claimed a "victory," which would be fine with GMAD if it meant regaining control over the plant's working force. In short, if the union "won," GMAD won.

In its propaganda to the workers, the union had repeatedly asked them to hold off acting on their own, because a legal strike was the way to handle their problems. It had promised that the strike would be a fight to humanize working conditions, break the "Hitler" power of GMAD, etc., etc. The Union figured that the strike would drain the militant energies of the workers and possibly restore leadership to the union officials. The union evidently hoped to palm off the carefully planned opposition between their promises to the workers and their actual intentions, as the inevitable gap between "utopian" desires and "realistic" objectives.

The strike began on March 5. The next day The New York Times reported two salient facts:

"The international board of the union told local leaders when it authorized the strike that strike benefits would not be available for too long . . . . (and) Vega dealers would have a 30 day stock of Vegas."

The basic orchestration of the strike on the highest level of GM and the UAW is evident. GM in effect said: we'll let you lift the lid to let the steam off, but only for a few weeks. In any case the strike must not cut the supply line of Vegas to dealers. The UAW duly relayed this message to the local leadership. One older worker, one of the few who voted against the strike remarked:

"I've seen it before. The International is just giving them enough rope to hang themselves . . . . They see a kicky young local so they go along. They authorize the strike . . . but they don't give 'em no help. They don't give 'em no funds. They don't even let the other locals come out with them. So the strike drags on, it's lost, or they 'settle' in Detroit. Everybody says, "There, it didn't pay."

The strike went off as planned. There were many eager volunteers for picket duty, ready to construct wood barricades and to build fires against the bitter cold weather, but the union only permitted "symbolic" small pickets and held long meetings (attendance compulsory if the worker wanted to receive strike benefits) in which they explained how valuable the UAW was to the workers, how many programs they offered, how they were winning at the bargaining table, etc. Tough questions from the rank and file were not answered, on the pretext that negotiations were at a delicate stage. Meanwhile, GMAD granted the rehiring of the 300 workers laid off in October. Apparently, they had been under some pressure to do this from GM. The New York Times reported:

"The Lordstown strike even caused dissension within management as to (GMAD's) policies, revolving around the question as to whether these policies are not perhaps out weighed by the labor trouble."

On March 25, settlement of the strike was announced, and the local held a return-to-work vote. Again, the numbers are eloquent. Only about 40 percent of the local voted, of whom only 70 percent voted to end the strike despite the severe economic pressure to return to work. Most workers, on returning to the job, found little if anything changed. The restored 300 jobs made little difference to the average assembler, and of course, the basic conditions of working at the plant were the same, they had never even been discussed, much less negotiated. Gary Bryner speaks of the strike as a "total victory" and one which "built union people." In a narrow sense, he is right about, the victory. The union achieved what it set out to do. The only trouble is that it didn't set out to do anything to change conditions at the plant.

The strike certainly did not build union people. Two months after the strike, there was widespread feeling that the union had not dealt with the workers in good faith, that it had bargained, as one worker put it, "just to get us back to work." But in the absence of any other sense of power or organization, with the widespread feeling that they are help less without the backing of the union, the majority of workers at Lordstown felt confused, cynical, apathetic and sold down the river. When the executive officers of the local ran for reelection during the summer of '72, there was no interest in the election; only about 30 percent of the union members showed up to vote. Bryner admits that now he is booed and greeted with catcalls by the workers every time he leaves his union office building and enters the plant.

When I asked Bryner how he squared his claim that the Lordstown strike achieved total victory with the evident general dissatisfaction with the settlement, he said:

"Look, this is a very political union. If a guy is running for union office, he may make a lot of promises, and if a worker is naive enough to take his statement at face value, I suppose he's going to be disappointed."

Of course, the politics of the union extend far beyond elections. In fact Bryner's words apply to his own strike propaganda, and to the entire union's goals and behavior. To believe the union's promises is indeed to be naive. Bryner Continued:

"When you look at it realistically, we set out to change nothing in the strike. We said, let's return to the condition of October, '72, and we'll wait until 1973 to negotiate about all the other issues."

At the time of the strike, the local said, don't wildcat or commit sabotage, we'll deal with working conditions through our strike. Now, the local President, in effect, is saying, "Don't worry that the strike didn't do anything. We'll handle it all in the 1973 national negotiations."

Lordstown has become a symbol, but it is not qualitatively different from other auto plants. It is a slightly exaggerated version of conditions all over the country, and perhaps represents the future of many plants. It is interesting, therefore, to compare the Lordstown strike to another that began in April, 1972 at the GM plant in Norwood, Ohio. Norwood makes bigger GM cars, such as the Firebird and Nova. Its assembly line is slower than Lordstown's and its workers are not so young, but basic working conditions are the same. The Norwood strike developed over similar issues of lay-offs and disciplinary grievances, but the strategy of control by GM and the union differed from that at Lordstown.

Norwood is not the only GM plant which makes the Firebird and Nova, and there was a dealers' overstock of these cars. Hence, as New York Times reported,

"Unlike the Lordstown strike, where there was an outcry from the management of Chevrolet to settle quickly because the Vega was losing ground to the Ford Pinto, there was little pressure from within the company on the Norwood negotiations."

The Norwood strike has aspects of a lockout; GM was glad to have the UAW pay the workers while they sold their overstock of cars. This time, however, there was no indication from the UAW International that there was a time limit on strike benefits, making it clear that the International's unwillingness to finance a - long strike at Lordstown was not dictated by its economic situation but by the marketing considerations of the Vega. The Norwood strike dragged on for 172 days and was finally settled with GM. making no concessions. One Norwood worker remarked, "The whole thing was a joke. But, yes, I voted (to go back to work). I need a job."

The original justification of industry-wide unions such as the UAW was to coordinate and unify the power of workers at different plants. But despite the similarities of issues at Lordstown and Norwood and their overlap in time, the UAW never attempted to utilize GM's vulnerability at Lordstown to put pressure on GM for a Norwood settlement. Instead, the union kept the two strikes in watertight compartments.

Lordstown workers were very interested in the situation at Norwood, but the union provided no information about it. Indeed, one could see things like, "How come we went to back work and Norwood's still out?" written on the bathroom walls at Lordstown.

In the fall of 1972, the International union adopted a familiar strategy by making strong but vague claims that a major effort to ease "workers' boredom and dissatisfaction would become one of the union's bargaining goals in the 1973 contract negotiations." But later in the year, to no one's surprise, evidence began to mount that such was in not fact the case. In December, the Wall Street Journal indicated that "most demands [the 1973 contract negotiations] will probably focus on escape from the job [i.e. more time off] . . . rather than on changes in the job itself," although, as Ford's director of industrial relations was candid enough remark, "there is very little evidence in fact, none that I'm aware of to suggest that a reduction in working time will increase employee satisfaction while at work."

While it is true that most workers would like more time off if it did not entail a loss of pay, proposals for "escape from the job" completely fail to come to terms with the issues of power relations in the plant, a failure which is, of course, perfectly intentional. In fact, some of the plans for "escape" are double-edged, and function as a bribe to help the workers. For example, UAW President Leonard Woodcock praised as "very imaginative" a plan by UAW Vice President Kenneth Bannon to reduce worker discontent by giving him "more paid time off, by crediting him with a percentage of the hours he works in a year." Clearly, this plan seeks to control the growing problem of absenteeism in the plants, since management can deny a worker their paid time off if they fail to log their time on the job in the prescribed way. One can imagine GM very readily giving each worker an extra week paid vacation, if that would guarantee his or her regular, disciplined presence on the job for the rest of the year.

As for the organization of the assembly line, President Woodcock has bluntly stated that "this should not be a matter for confrontation in collective bargaining," because to make it a bargaining issue, the union "should have some idea what the solution is. We don't." The union is obviously not changing its ways in 1973, but will remain solidly integrated into the structures of power which preserve management's control of the industry. This fact is the beginning of wisdom in understanding the auto workers present situation and constitutes the central conclusion to be drawn from an analysis of the strike at Lordstown.

Recently, there has been much discussion of "blue-collar blues" and such notions as "alienation" and "dehumanization" on the assembly line. Work in America, the HEW report, is a typical contribution to this discussion, and affords a good example of misleading ways in which the debate is carried on. The report speaks of the sources of dissatisfaction among American workers; powerlessness, lack of opportunity, monotony, low self-esteem. It also suggests some practicable "humanizing" remedies; autonomous work, challenging jobs, job mobility, self-government for the plant, community, etc., etc. Only in a two-page section, entitled "Obstacles to the Redesign of Jobs," do they mention the little matter of corporate profits, and blithely suggest that, on the basis of their research, long-range production will go up if jobs are redesigned with such "humanization" in mind. Quite aside from the remarkably flimsy and superficial evidence they adduce in their appendix, the authors fudge the fact (admitted by UAW officials) that reconversion of major industry along the lines suggested would be enormously costly and that immediate profits and productivity would sharply decline. This fact, by itself, makes non-sense of the report, since nothing has convinced businessmen that they have anything to gain by such costly tinkering. The most one could expect is some trivial cosmetic exercises, analogous to the ecologically "clean" images being projected, currently by the oil companies.

But these considerations do not get to the essence of the matter. American businessmen are deeply convinced that a business's ability to compete in the national and international market is directly related to management's strict control over the decisions affecting production. Hence, to relinquish serious decision-making powers to the workers (which, businessmen correctly perceive, is the real issue behind the talk of humanization and alienation) would be to agree to the economic ruin of their companies. Given such attitudes, the HEW Report must be understood as an exercise in public relations, a deliberate attempt to confuse discussion of the subject of workers' discontent in America, a subject which, if considered seriously, raises fundamental questions of the power relations between capital and labor.

Why don't the workers at Lordstown organize themselves do something about their working conditions? After all, they build the cars; they could stop the line any time. Centrally important, of course, is the economic vulnerability of each worker, and the atmosphere of fear and mistrust that is generated by the carefully structured isolation and powerlessness of the individual worker. For another thing, after 8 or 10 hours on the job, workers usually don't have energy for much besides their families, a little beer or pool, and whatever private interests they have. One of the workers I met told me:

"Look, I get up at five, and don't get back till almost six. By the time I wash up, eat dinner and maybe play my guitar an hour, I'm through for the day. I suppose I should read my contract and go to union meetings, but I figure I'll leave it to my committeeman."

By the way, one can't blame anyone for not reading the contract. The local Lordstown contract alone runs 166 pages and is written in the most abstract bureaucratic language which alone might justify in the workers' eyes a special caste of officials who can read it.

Living conditions around Lordstown also inhibit organization and natural groups. GM built the plant out in the countryside of northeastern Ohio, and the workers live in the 50-odd towns and trailer parks within a 40 mile radius of the plant. There is no common center to the workers' lives; after work, each employee, much like a middle-class suburban commuter, drives to his own town and does not see his workers till the next day. They rarely get together to talk about the plant, their lives, or shared concerns.

The heterogeneous character of the work force at Lordstown helps keep the workers divided. Only intermittently do they perceive their common situation and, as elsewhere in the United States, their animosities are often focused on each other. The young "long-hairs" distrust the older "hillbillies" (Appalachian people from West Virginia and Pennsylvania), whom they consider hard-core company men, or "grits." The feelings are mutual, and hillbillies often do not like longhairs. The hillbillies are also often racists, and dislike the 10 percent black population as well as the small groups of Puerto Rican and Cuban workers. The blacks, accustomed to the smoldering racism among the older rank and file, particularly resent the local union leadership, which they feel is a white clique intent on keeping blacks out of the union power structure and such elite jobs as the skilled trades.

Several years ago, a few blacks took over the leadership of the bankrupt Lordstown credit union, and by hard work turned it into a profit-making business. Now the UAW local is bidding to take over the credit union again, which the blacks naturally resent. The blacks at Lordstown have formed a non-union caucus, the only workers' organization at Lordstown not sponsored by the union. So far, the caucus has been quietly trying to build support and solidarity among the blacks at Lordstown, and has not initiated any major actions at the plant. The caucus is not anti-white in official ideology, but its leaders feel that for now the blacks must go it alone to improve their group situation at the plant.

Only three hundred women are employed in the 13,000 worker complex. Women are victims of sexism both from foremen and from their fellow workers. The male workers resent them, feel they get the easy jobs, and it is widely assumed that any woman working at Lordstown "makes money on the side," i.e., is a prostitute. Women are harassed by crude sexual propositions, sometimes from foremen.

A woman of twenty described to me her isolated situation on the line. Resented by the older women for being young and pretty, she was constantly insulted and propositioned by the men. Her foreman mingled his sexual advances with threats of discipline. She wished to make an official case against this foreman but needed corroborative witnesses. The foreman had approached her openly, within hearing of other workers on her part of the line, but they all refused to testify for her. "Look, I've got a wife and child. Do you think I'll risk my job for you?" she was told. There are women union officials at the plant, and many women feel that the union is unconcerned with their problems. The privileges of a small, all-white group of skilled tradesmen further divides the workers. The "skills" involved are such things as repairing broken machinery, skills which only require a few weeks to learn, and which do not in themselves justify the existence of a special category of worker. One of the central functions of the skilled trades category is to create a special-interest group within the work force. Skilled tradesmen have much more variety and autonomy in their jobs than a worker chained to the assembly line. They consider themselves an elite, one skilled tradesman, a college dropout, referred to himself as a "technocrat" and superior to the assembly line workers. Since skilled tradesmen traditionally hold a disproportionate number of official union positions, they are often a powerful group who look after their own interests first. Their loyalty to the union is correspondingly far greater than that of the assembly workers. As strong union supporters, the skilled tradesmen were highly visible during the strike at Lordstown, serving often as pickets. This visibility, which at first suggests militance, is in fact an indication of the essentially conservative role of the skilled tradesmen. Skilled tradesmen were not involved in sabotage and would be highly unlikely to initiate any unauthorized direct actions to slow down or gain control of production.

The union organization, as we have seen, actively contributes to the fragmentation of the workers by favoring special groups, making false promises, and by failing to provide a true picture of what is going on in the plant, at other GM plants, and in the automobile industry as a whole. The union also skillfully co-opts other centers of potential organnation by its committee system. There is a community committee, a black committee, a women's committee, and there was a pro-McGovern committee in 1972. These committees exist to try to convince groups that the union is concerned and looking out for them. They also defuse possibly explosive sources of organizational energy as well as keeping union officials aware of the intensity of discontent among different groups.

Much at Lordstown resembles descriptions of U.S. auto workers two decades ago. Workers hate their jobs and put up with them because "the money's good." They dream of escaping from the assembly line but few do. They expect and hope that their children will have a better life than theirs. But there is also an identifiable "new generation" of workers at Lordstown. The average worker's age at the plant is about 26. These workers' parents experienced the Depression and never had expectations that work would be anything but hard and unpleasant. For the parents, the high pay and benefits at Lordstown and the modern plant conditions would seem highly desirable. Such older workers, favored as well by the union's seniority system, do not really understand why the young workers are so unhappy. But the young workers have had very different experiences. They have had more education and grew up in the Fifties and Sixties, a period of rising affluence for a large spectrum of the American people. From the promises of the general culture, the young workers have learned to expect a decent life, which includes pleasure and leisure, some meaning in their work, and some control of it. They are less willing than their parents to accept fifty or sixty hours of meaningless work for the sake a large pay envelope.

The workers realize that many of them are at Lordstown for good. They are also beginning to understand that they can not expect the union to provide them with a better working life. Gary Bryner concedes that there is a growing demand for "instant justice," that young workers are fed up with the bureaucratic sclerosis of the union.

These young workers trusted the union during the strike of 1972 and were severely disappointed, but this experience can lead to a clearer insight into the function of the union. Next time the workers will believe the union's promises less readily and give up their own direct actions less easily.

Whether these workers' discontents will erupt into a major confrontation between the workers and the corporation depends on many factors. Now, as always, the workers have the potential power to regulate or to stop production. But to be able to utilize this potential, the workers must overcome the fear and isolation caused by the divisions within and between plants, and come to a politics of their own through their actions. The economic situation of GM and the US as a whole will influence the range of options open to the corporation and the union in response to serious pressure from the workers. We can not tell what the future will be. But analysis of the Lordstown situation can help to distinguish between possible futures and impossible ones.

Text taken from

Originally published in Root and Branch, The Rise of the Workers Movements. (Greenwich: Root and Branch, 1975)

  • 1 The rest of this word was missing from the text. It appears as "spring" in Root & Branch.
  • 2 again, text was missing here but appears as "raised" in Root & Branch.



2 years 5 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on November 30, 2021

Not sure how to edit the text but from the Root & Branch book:

1. spring

2. raised


2 years 5 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Fozzie on November 30, 2021


Not sure how to edit the text but from the Root & Branch book:

1. spring

2. raised

Thanks, I have sorted that and some block quoting tag crimes.