When Glenn Johnson got an early heads-up from management that General Motors Co. (GM:US) was recalling its Chevrolet Cobalt for an ignition-switch defect, his first reaction was unprintable.
Like many of his colleagues at the Lordstown Assembly Plant in Ohio, where the Cobalt was made, Johnson, 56, wondered how a flaw in a part had slipped through the cracks and led to the deaths of at least 13 people.
“How does this happen?” said Johnson, president of United Auto Workers Local 1112. “We ask the same questions and we’re put off like everyone else.”
The recall is a rare piece of bad news for a plant that in many ways has mirrored the revival of Detroit-based GM. Over the past four decades workers at the Lordstown factory have experienced layoffs, worries the factory would close and then renewal when they began building the Chevrolet Cruze, a hit replacement for the Cobalt. Now the recall of 2.59 million Cobalts and other small cars for the faulty ignition switch -- and revelations that GM took more than a decade to tell the world about it -- threatens to damage the Chevrolet brand and send drivers into the arms of rivals.
Lordstown workers are focusing on making the Cruze as best they can and trying to remain optimistic.
“We’re just hoping and praying it works out,” Elizabeth Fallat, 50, a 22-year plant worker from North Jackson, said in an interview.
U.S. senators last week accused the carmaker of “criminal deception” and a “culture of coverup” because for years it passed on proposed fixes from its engineers because, according to one memo, it could have cost an extra 57 cents per car. GM is being fined $7,000 a day for not responding to more than one third of requests from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about its handling of the flawed ignition switch. U.S. lawmakers said they’ll schedule more hearings and expect more disclosure from GM.
Back when the Cobalt was being assembled in Lordstown, there was “no inkling” of a problem with the ignition switch, Johnson said in an interview at his office, which features framed photos of the 2005 Cobalt coupe and sedan. He said he’s not privy to what happened. Workers on the assembly line are given parts to install, and they thought they were building a quality car that they still stand behind, he said.
“We don’t know how to speculate who-knew-what-when or if there should have been any changes made during that period of time,” Johnson said. “We had a supplier issue, and it got through the cracks.”
The first car to roll off the line in Lordstown was a white Chevrolet Impala in April 1966. Over the years, the complex has produced more than 15 million vehicles including the Firebird, Chevrolet and GMC vans, the Monza and the Skyhawk. At its peak, as many as 12,000 people worked there.
After the plant began assembling the Chevy Vega in 1970, it garnered a reputation as a source of defective cars. Strikes followed in 1972 and 1974.
Workers have long thought they were unfairly blamed, said John Russo, a visiting research fellow at the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and the former director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University.
While there were production problems at the complex, the Vega’s quality suffered from GM’s efforts to make the subcompact car lighter, Russo said.
“There’s always been this sort of suspicion by workers out there that, ‘We took the rap for poor engineering,’” Russo said by phone.
There’s “no comparison” between the Cobalt and the Cruze, and today’s Lordstown plant has changed remarkably from its troubled past, said David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The union has accepted significant wage and work-rule concessions and now operates more as a partner with management, Cole said in a telephone interview. President Barack Obama has hailed the Lordstown plant as one of GM’s best. Enthusiasm on the factory floor was high when the U.S. sold its stock late last year, ending the “Government Motors” era, and as Mary Barra took the reins as chief executive officer in January.
The Cruze was introduced in 2010 to solid reviews and has been a consistent seller for GM. Even with the unrelated recall of 172,000 Cruzes in March, sales were up 14 percent that month compared with the same period last year, according to GM.
After rebounding from bankruptcy and government ownership, GM should be able to move beyond the recall, said Casey Wilkes, 42, who lives in Berlin Center and is a 19-year worker at the plant.
“It’s a new corporation,” Wilkes said in an interview. “Everyone definitely has their eye on a better future.”
Many Lordstown workers interviewed by Bloomberg News complained that GM is facing more scrutiny than other automakers that have had recalls in recent years, especially Toyota Motor Corp. They generally approve of the job that Barra has done so far.
“She’s made it very clear that the good ol’ boy network is going to change, and that’s what has to change,” Robert Polansky, 70, a Lordstown resident who has worked at the plant for more than 40 years, said in an interview.
One change Barra brought: As as an executive director for global communications from 1999 to 2001, she assigned a spokesperson to each factory to keep plant workers up to speed on what was going on at the automaker. That’s how Johnson found out about the Cobalt recall from the company, rather than from the news media.
Concerns linger about longer-term effects of the recall. The Lordstown plant has been “a savior” for the Youngstown area since the collapse of the steel industry there and the loss of tens of thousands of jobs in the late 1970s and early 1980s, said Arno Hill, Lordstown’s mayor who was a tool-and-die maker for former GM subsidiary Delphi Packard Electric.
“Most people right now are waiting to see how it’s going to play out because it’s still kind of early,” Arno said in an interview in his office, which has a large tapestry on the wall featuring cars made at the Lordstown plant over the years.
“You keep having recall after recall after recall, it kind of makes you a little bit nervous,” he said.
Robert Morales, president of United Auto Workers Local 1714 at the Lordstown fabrication plant, said employees can only keep trying to build quality cars, wait for the next generation of the Cruze coming next year and hope the Cobalt problems are fixed quickly.
“If it’s addressed the proper way, we’ll keep our customers,” Morales, 42, a 19-year GM employee who worked on the Cobalt, said by phone. “We’re going to continue to do what we’ve got to do.”
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