YOUNGSTOWN – On March 17, the Youngstown Warren Regional Chamber will bestow its annual Spirit of the Valley award on General Motors Corp. The award honors persons or organizations that made a positive impact on the area in the past year.
Members of former United Auto Workers Local 1112, which represented the GM Lordstown Assembly Plant and are still smarting from its closure, found the choice of GM to be galling. In a media interview, Dave Green, former president of the local, likened it to a smack in the face.
GM closed the Lordstown plant in 2019 but much has changed since. The bitterness has subsided and in a complete turnaround, Mahoning Valley leaders are now brimming with optimism over GM’s commitment to the startup Lordstown Motors Corp., which purchased the former plant, and neighboring Ultium Cells. The automaker has a big stake in both Lordstown factories, which will open this year.
Officeholders and business leaders say the plants position the Valley as the epicenter of the electric vehicle industry.
But to the autoworkers who had to uproot their families and move to another state to work at another GM plant, or stay in the Valley and start all over, the chamber’s award is like adding insult to injury. The plant didn’t have to close, they say, claiming that GM’s investment in the new companies is part of its plan to replace highly paid workers with lesser-paid ones.
Autoworkers share this viewpoint in the new documentary, “Bring It Home,” which details how the plant closing affected its workers.
The film premieres at 8 p.m. March 23 on the World channel as part of the America Reframed documentary series. It will also begin streaming for free on WorldChannel.org at the same time.
Written and directed by Carl Kriss of Cleveland, the film puts a face on the autoworkers as they decided whether to stay or leave town.
Kriss follows a handful of families through the process. News footage, archival film and interviews augment the film.
Kriss is a Chicago native who attended Kenyon College in Ohio. In 2017, he moved to Cleveland, where he works as a photojournalist for WKYC-TV. Before that, he lived in Los Angeles where he worked as a film editor on documentaries and TV shows that aired on the History Channel, National Geographic and Amazon.
“Bring It Home” was originally scheduled to be screened at the Cleveland International Film Festival in 2020 but Kriss withdrew it in hopes the event would be in-person in 2021 and not virtual. This year’s festival, April 7 to 20, will again be virtual because of the pandemic.
“I also wanted to wait until after the 2020 election so the film wouldn’t be viewed as political,” Kriss says. “So many pundits had turned the GM Lordstown plant into a political football and I wanted people to focus more on the human impact the closure had on the Valley.”
Kriss acknowledges the optimism that has arisen in the Valley in the past year over Lordstown Motors and Ultium Cells. But he says it does not diminish the impact of his film or the warning it sounds.
“Anything that brings jobs back to the Valley is a great thing,” he says. “But I think that [to fully understand] what will happen in the future with Ultium and Lordstown Motors, how workers will be treated by the startups, it’s important to look at [how these companies were started]. It’s important because if you look at what GM did, and when and why they did it, there are questions.”
Kriss notes that GM received a federal bailout in 2008, and many people thought it had a responsibility to keep the plant open because of that.
GM was making record profits at the time it shuttered the Lordstown plant, Kriss says.
“Why they did it was to push the union out and hire people at lower wages,” he says. “It’s a trend across the country. It’s important to ask: Was this so the company can survive? Or because corporations are trying to achieve more profit for shareholders?”
As the situation in Lordstown unfolds, Kriss says he will consider revisiting the issue for a follow-up film.
“It would be interesting to see what happens with Lordstown Motors,” he says. “It’s great that jobs are coming back but the question is, ‘What kind of jobs are they going to be?”
Lordstown, Kriss says, is “Ground Zero” for this industry tactic.
“What we’ve seen is GM starting a process in which they unallocate [a product to] a plant, then they partner with a startup and hire people at lower wages. And companies tend to copy each other. So people need to ask if they’re OK with this.”
Kriss notes in his film that Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, declined to be interviewed.
The shutdown of Lordstown Assembly affected 1,500 workers. About 1,000 stayed with GM and accepted job offers at plants in other states.
“Bring It Home” focuses the most on Tom and Tiffany Davis of Girard and their family, as they go through the tense and uncertain days leading up to the plant closing. Tom eventually took a transfer to GM’s Bowling Green, Ky., plant. His wife is a teacher and his children are in grade school. So he left his family behind for months, traveling home every weekend. The family eventually relocated to Kentucky.
The film also focuses on Tiffany King, a former autoworker who chose to stay and start a cheesecake bakery and further her education; Rick Marsh, who also transferred to the Kentucky plant; and Dave Green, former president of UAW Local 1112, who transferred to the GM plant in Bedford, Ind.
Pictured at top: Tiffany Davis of Girard teaches fifth grade at Lordstown Elementary School. She and her husband, Tom, were faced with a decision when the plant closed.