Union still thrives at GM plant

Has dealt with merger, declining membership

Tribune Chronicle / Liam Bouquet Robert Morales, president of the United Auto Workers Local 1714, which represented workers at the General Motors Lordstown fabrication plant, stands outside the union hall. The local no longer exists because last year, it merged with UAW Local 1112, which represents the assembly plant workers.

LORDSTOWN — Since the 1980s, unions have dropped steeply in membership and influence in the United States and Ohio alike.

After 30-plus years of economic conditions disrupting heavily unionized sectors and political winds turning against organized labor, the percentage of union membership among U.S. employees in 2017 hit the lowest point since 1983, when the government began tracking membership numbers.

Today, only 6.5 percent of private-sector employees are in a union.

Although the United Auto Workers remains one of the most powerful unions in the U.S. — with a membership that has steadily grown over the past seven years — they have shrunk from 1.5 million members at their peak in 1979 to approximately 415,000 in 2017.

United Auto Workers Locals 1112 and 1714 have represented workers at the General Motors Lordstown Complex over the last half century, surviving both de-industrialization and the 2008 recession.

After last year’s downturn in Cruze sales and mass layoffs at GM, UAW 1714, which represented workers at the fabrication plant, and UAW 1112, which represented the assembly plant workers, decided to merge in an effort to cut costs for GM and better secure the jobs of the 3,000 workers they represent.

So after 47 years, UAW 1714 came to an end.

Robert Morales, the president of Local 1714, said although it was sad to say goodbye something so important to many members’ identities, they were able to celebrate its history.

“We had a celebration on Dec. 9,” he said. “It was for active and retiree members to come together and talk about the history. We had over 700 members show up, and everybody had a great time. We thought it was important to do that.”

Morales said all members in Local 1714 committees were being welcomed onto committees in the merged union.

“We are trying to incorporate our ideas and our identities. But we are in the same fight together, being able to provide for our families and our communities,” Morales said.

Both UAW locals have a rebellious, and often effective, history.

Local 1112 led the famous 18-day strike in 1972 in response to layoffs and their time to complete a task being cut nearly in half, with workers rebelling even before the strike by clogging the system with 5,000 grievances. In the end, the strike proved effective and many laid-off employees were reinstated.

Dave Kimmel, a retiree member of 1714 who has been with the local from the start, said 1714 had its own contentious relationship with management.

“The fabricating plant opened in 1970, and through the 1970s — ’71, ’72, ’73 — we had our own wild cat strikes,” Kimmel said.

Unlike many other unions, both Lordstown locals voted against the introduction of Quality of Life Programs that GM pushed in the ’70s in an attempt to improve relations between workers and management, believing the management-dominated programs were designed to undermine union leadership, according to John Russo, the former director of the Labor Studies Program at Youngstown State University.

Even during the more precarious 1980s, the two local memberships remained resolute, fighting hard against concessions made in the national contracts in 1982 and 1984.

Kimmel said 1714 members, like many unions, weren’t just fighting for better wages, but for improving the working environment.

“We went through some hard times. The biggest issue was safety,” he said. “You were always in danger of getting cut, and a lot of people got cut. In a stamping plant, you are dealing with metal. We had small cotton gloves we had to wear. Well, the sharp edges of the metal would cut the gloves and cut you. We had a lot of discussions about that, and we got better gloves.”

“There are a lot of organizations that are still saying, ‘We need to destroy unions,'” he said.

He believes in the fundamental importance of unions, drawing a line between the decline of unions and the stagnation of workers’ wages.

“I wouldn’t have the things I have (if not for my union),” he said. “When I knocked at the door, GM gave me a job. Everything else I’ve had from that point — my retirement, my payscale, my benefits — was negotiated through the years. … We spent 80 percent of our time in that plant, working 10 to 12 hour days, seven days a week. We were able to negotiate to make good money.”