I’m catching up on some episodes of “The Weekly,” a half-hour documentary series produced by The New York Times for FX. It’s very well made, and gives both face time to the paper’s intrepid journalists and air time for more details than can often fit into print.
Episode six of this season (reported by Sabrina Tavernise and produced by Alyse Shorland) was “The End Of The Line,” about the shutdown of the General Motors plant a few months ago in Lordstown, Ohio, which left thousands of people unemployed. These were good, union, blue-collar jobs with an average salary of $85,000 in a factory that was the heartbeat of the entire community, with all of the businesses and communities nearby relying on those workers to keep the local economy humming. Unfortunately, GM decided it was no longer going to make compact cars like its Cruze model, instead moving further into development of electric cars, so its Lordstown facility was no longer needed.
You can argue the business decision or the attending political issues all you like, but what struck me in the story was the reaction of many of the plant workers who were determined to stay in Lordstown. Even though GM offered them the opportunity to move to other plants, receive retraining if necessary, and a $30,000 subsidy, only seven hundred UAW members accepted.
Because I’ve done it several times in my career, I know that having to pick up everything you have and leave the community you call home is difficult. It’s hard to separate from family and friends and your support system to start over again in a new place that will take time to get used to. But stubbornly staying in a town that no longer offers you any professional opportunities — certainly not at your previous income level — is shortsighted at best, economically disastrous at worst.
No other car company is going to come in, reopen the Lordstown plant, and put all those people back to work. As Tavernise says in “End Of The Line,” the automotive work force is changing, with more software engineers and fewer tailpipe manufacturers. Gathering together with fellow unemployed union members to commiserate and protest isn’t going to change that fact, nor is sitting around praying and hoping. They simply have to accept the fact that their lives have been upended, and the only way to provide for themselves and their loved ones is to move to where the jobs are.
One of the workers Tavernise profiled in the episode had been at that GM plant for 22 years, which left him three years short of vesting in a full pension, which would bring him a steady retirement income for life. Of course, he’s pissed off about being laid off, but I was disappointed to see him refuse to take a new job with GM elsewhere, which would have allowed him to reach that goal in just three more years. At that point, if he and his family wanted to move back to Lordstown — by then sure to be a depressed region — they could. Or they might find their new venue, complete with a regular paycheck, would make them feel welcome enough to stay. But unless he takes the first step, he’ll only be miserable. And probably broke, too.
The reason we left DC to come to St. Louis in 1999 was that I wanted to do talk radio in an environment that let me by myself. There were exactly zero such opportunities in Washington, so I had to find someplace new that would be a good fit for me professionally and for Martha and our then-four-year-old daughter personally. We didn’t know anyone here or much about the area, but we dove in, adapted, made it our home, and have stayed two decades, with no plans to leave anytime soon.
Sometimes, change is good. Sometimes, it’s a mandate. But stubborn resistance to change rarely does anyone any good.