Sherry Linkon is a professor of English at Georgetown University and the editor of the blog Working-Class Perspectives. She is also a faculty affiliate of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. Her most recent book is The Half-Life of Deindustrialization: Working-Class Writing on Economic Restructuring.
On Monday, General Motors announced that it would soon end production at its Lordstown plant in the Mahoning Valley just outside Youngstown, Ohio, putting 1,500 people out of work. That’s in addition to the 3,000 autoworkers who’ve been laid off from the plant, which makes the Chevy Cruze, since 2017.
The shutdown of the Lordstown complex, which has been churning out Vegas, Cavaliers, and other compact models for GM since 1966, is part of a company-wide wave of cost-cutting moves that involves idling five North American plants—including a massive Hamtranck facility whose construction in the 1980s displaced thousands of Detroit homeowners—and laying off 15 percent of the automaker’s salaried workforce, some 15,000 workers. In a statement announcing the shutdowns, GM cited “changing customer preferences in the U.S.” and the need to “take proactive steps to improve overall business performance.”
For the Youngstown area, Monday’s announcement felt like a delayed case of déjà vu. Forty-one years ago, on September 19, 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced that it would close its Campbell Works Mill, laying off 5,000 steelworkers. Known as “Black Monday,” that announcement marked the start of a punishing series of shutdowns in the area. Over the next five years, nearly 50,000 people would lose jobs in steel and related industries in the Mahoning Valley.
The community has never fully recovered from deindustrialization, and its long-term economic and social struggles make this new closing at once familiar and even more painful. As Congressman Tim Ryan commented, “our generation is facing a new Black Monday in the Mahoning Valley.”
Many other political leaders expressed disappointment and anger. Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown released a statement describing the closing as “shameful,” noting that although GM had “reaped a massive tax break from last year’s GOP tax bill,” it did not “invest that money in American jobs” but instead moved production to Mexico. Brown called the decision “corporate greed at its worst.”
Yet alongside critical statements from state and local politicians, some cling to optimism. Lordstown Mayor Arno Hill said that he was “holding out for the best,” because the plant was not being officially closed—just “non-allocated,” which “means that there’s no product to announce to put in this plant right now.” James Dignan, president and CEO of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber of Commerce, told the Youngstown Vindicator, “We have to be hopeful [with] eyes opened and prepared for the next opportunity.”
But local residents recognize the cruelty of optimism—and they’re tired of trying to adapt to a changing economic landscape. In the late 1970s, economic apologists called deindustrialization “creative destruction” and described plant closings as part of the “natural economic order.”
In the 1980s, displaced workers found little help in retraining programs, which too often emphasized skills that weren’t needed. Having survived 40 years of false promises, economic struggle, additional closings, and declines in both population and hope, Mahoning Valley residents are rightly skeptical of appeals to what academics call “adaptive resilience.” They understand the real costs of deindustrialization.
The fall of Youngstown since the 1970s offers a textbook illustration of what happens when a significant portion of local workers lose their jobs. Businesses across the community suffer—not just suppliers or service providers who directly supported a closed plant, but also restaurants and bars and retailers of all kinds. Stores close, windows get broken, storefronts get boarded up, and downtowns empty out. Cities lose the tax dollars to pay for street repairs, police patrols, fire departments, and more; crime rises, the built environment deteriorates, and populations decline. Between 2001 and 2010, the population of Youngstown dropped from 82,026 to 66,982; the Mahoning Valley had the largest population decline of any of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas. Since then, the region has lost another 23,000 people, 4.1 percent of its population. In May, the Wall Street Journal listed the area as one of the fastest-shrinking cities in the United States.
The social costs of deindustrialization may be even worse. Population decline breaks apart families and shatters neighborhoods. You can see this on the streets of Youngstown, in the thousands of abandoned homes and empty lots. While the city has seen a decline in vacant properties over the last decade, much of that comes not from reclaimed homes but from the nearly 600 that have been demolished.
Deindustrialization also hurts individuals. Rates of addiction, suicide, domestic violence, and depression rise, as do rates of heart attacks and strokes. That human harm has social consequences. Residents may blame themselves for the decline of their community, and that undermines their ability to stand up for themselves and pursue new opportunities, and their faith in the institutions that people rely on for support.
Ironically, that factor may have contributed to this latest closing. As we wrote in Steeltown USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown, one response to mill closings here and to the inability of unions, government, or community groups to protect workers was political resentment. Over the years, voters in this community have heard dozens of politicians promise that they would defend the interests of workers and manufacturing. They have heard local and national leaders insist that the economic changes that led to a plant closing would also bring new jobs to the area. And over and over, those promises proved empty.
In 2016, about 40 percent of local UAW members, many of whom had long been reliable Democratic voters, supported Donald Trump. Some embraced Trump’s promise to bring back all the Ohio jobs that had been lost over the last few decades. “We’re going to fill up those factories or rip them down and build new ones,” the president declared at a rally in Youngstown in 2017. Others appreciated his blunt style and disdain for regulations and standard politics. For many, Trump’s protective trade policy seemed like exactly the kind of pro-worker, pro-manufacturing position they’d been waiting for.
But GM responded by announcing that it will build its new Chevrolet Blazer at its Ramos, Mexico facility, which, like Lordstown, currently builds the Cruze. When GM announced that move last summer, Dave Green, the Lordstown United Autoworkers President, appealed to Trump for help, but the president did not respond. And the president’s response to Monday’s announcement—a meeting with GM CEO Mary Barra in which he claims he was “very tough” on her—is not likely to help local workers.
In announcing the closing, GM claimed that the decision was part of a major restructuring that will “accelerate its transformation for the future.” Barra was more specific, telling NPR that she and her team are “very focused on increasing shareholder value.” And they have been doing just that. GM forecast growth at the end of last year, but it also used loopholes to avoid paying taxes on those revenues, and it recently paid a 4.01 percent dividend. Monday’s plant closing announcement prompted a jump in GM’s stock price. Automotive News seems to appreciate that emphasis: On the same day GM announced the closings, the publication named Barra “Industry Leader of the Year.”
Focusing on shareholder value, however, ignores the economic and social costs to the community. If the patterns that Youngstown and other cities experienced in the 1980s repeat themselves today, investors around the world may benefit. But the people of Youngstown, Detroit, Hamtramck, and elsewhere will keep paying the price.