Lordstown: Man vs. machine -- and GM was the big loser
Photo credit: WALTER P. REUTHER LIBRARY, WAYNE STATE UNIVERSITY
It did. But not in the way they had hoped.
Instead, it gave birth to "Lordstown syndrome," a term still used sometimes by academics and human-resource people to describe worker rebellion, including sabotage of products.
Socialist writer Ken Weller called the Lordstown story "working-class resistance to work itself."
The strife at the Lordstown complex was at its peak in 1971-72, a time of widespread U.S. societal upheaval. News reports from the period say unhappy assembly line workers put foreign objects in engines and gas tanks, intentionally left parts off vehicles, slashed upholstery, scratched paint and even set fires.
The victims were Chevrolet Vegas — intended to be GM's import fighters and meant to roll off the highly automated Lordstown assembly line at the rate of 100 an hour.
Instead, the plant was plagued by extraordinary employee absenteeism and turnover and high rates of on-the-job drug and alcohol use, according to the reports. The turmoil was punctuated by walkouts.
The rebellious workers inspired more than a few research papers and books; a documentary film, Loose Bolts?; and a critically acclaimed theatrical movie, Blue Collar, co-starring a serious and angry Richard Pryor.
Production since then: 14 million cars and trucks
Initial products: Chevrolet Caprice, Impala, Bel Air
Today's products: Chevrolet Cobalt; Pontiac G5 and Pursuit (for Canada)
Life on the line
Time has softened real-world memories of life on the Lordstown line.
"They would cut wires or something. We usually caught it," said plant retiree Roger Green, 68, of Vienna, Ohio. The damaged cars "never left the plant 'cause we'd do a double-check down in the repair department," he told Automotive News.
Green started at Lordstown in 1966, the year the plant opened. He planned to quit in the first year because work was so brutal — but wound up staying until 2000.
"In about the mid-'70s, things kind of calmed down," he said. "Today it's a whole different plant out there."
His son David, 38, agrees. He's the president of UAW Local 1714, which represents employees at the stamping and fabricating plant that is part of the Lordstown complex. Local 1112 represents assembly workers.
"Things have definitely changed," the younger Green said. Employees are members of teams instead of just cogs in a huge machine, he said.
David Green doubts that management-labor relations were ever quite as bad as stories from the period portray. But he acknowledges that even for him, it was years after he started in 1989 before anyone asked his opinion on how to improve production.
"You were a piece of meat. You were a number. That's how it was," he said. Now, "you like coming to work if you are part of the program," said Green, who holds a master's degree.
The elder Green credits Herman Maass, Lordstown manager in the late 1990s, with guiding the latest transformation of the complex. Told to prepare it for shutdown, Maass instead went to bat for the complex with the company hierarchy, Green said.
Another former manager was Gary Cowger, now GM's global manufacturing vice president.
Maass, 68, who retired to Tennessee in 2001, told Automotive News he brought with him to Lordstown the teamwork and problem-solving concepts he had learned in stints at Buick City in Flint, Mich., and with Saturn in Spring Hill, Tenn.
But he credits Lordstown workers with accepting the reality that they had to cut costs significantly, increase productivity and improve quality.
Ironically, early in his career, Maass had been a body shop superintendent at Lordstown and had told workers to leave their minds outside when they came to the plant. More than two decades later, as plant manager, he told them: "Whoa, whoa, whoa. I was all wrong. That was a major mistake. Now I really want your brains."
As for Lordstown's bad reputation from the early '70s, Maass said it was well-deserved.
"It was bad," mostly in the chassis and trim departments, he said. "They were probably the toughest years of my life."
Lessons for others
Improvements at Lordstown were slow in coming, says Richard Freedman, distinguished service professor of management at New York University's Leonard N. Stern School of Business. Over the years, Freedman has used GM in general and Lords-town in particular in case studies, mainly to teach graduate business students "how not to do it," he said.
At Lordstown, GM tried to solve its organizational problems with technology and automation and demonstrated little insight into the value of workers, Freedman told Automotive News. The company hired a young, educated work force with high aspirations and then put them into mindless, repetitive jobs, he said.
Typified by Lordstown, GM executives accepted change "slowly, reluctantly and late," he said. "Eventually they do the right thing."
A footnote: Lordstown today is one of the 10 most productive assembly plants in North America, according to the 2007 report by Harbour Consulting.
The Chevrolet Cobalts built there earn slightly better than average initial quality ratings, according to J.D. Power and Associates.
The formerly beleaguered Lordstown complex got two more boosts this summer. GM added a third shift to meet growing demand for the Cobalt. And GM announced plans to produce its next compact car, the Cruze, at Lordstown beginning in 2010.