GM’s Lordstown, Ohio assembly plant has become a symbol of both GM’s hard times and its best hopes for a turnaround after a $50 billion federal investment. A recent bump in sales because of the government’s “Cash for Clunkers” program has allowed GM to call back more than 1,000 workers from layoff. So it was a natural backdrop for a return visit by President Obama, who held a roundtable with workers and then gave a stump speech from the factory floor for his economic policies and health care reform. But this is not your father’s GM anymore and nothing about it as clear-cut as it seems — even if you are the leader of the free world and head of the government that holds a controlling stake in the automaker. At one point, Obama — veering from his prepared remarks — suggested that health-care reform would allow the UAW-represented workers in the audience to negotiate better wages.
“Think about it. If you are a member of the union right now, you’re spending all your time negotiating about health care. You need to be spending some time negotiating about wages, but you can’t do it,” he said.
In fact, the UAW locked itself into a contract limiting wages and changes to health care, without the ability to negotiate with a threat of strike, until 2015. These stands were agreed to by the union at the prodding of the Obama administration, which demanded that union autoworkers accept lower wages — as a condition to the bailout that saved Lordstown — to match non-union workers at Toyota plants in Kentucky and Honda plants in Ohio.
Even so, Lordstown is something of a success story for both the UAW and GM, and Obama’s remarks were punctuated with enthusiastic applause. After winning deep concessions from the UAW in 2007, GM agreed to invest $500 million to retool the plant to make a new fuel-efficient small sedan, the Chevy Cruze.
Obama had nice things to say about the Cruze, which GM expects to get more than 40 miles-per-gallon in highway driving.