A banner depicting the Chevrolet Cruze model vehicle displayed at the General Motors' Lordstown plant, November 27, 2018.
John Minchillo/Associated Press
retrieval / money

In the 70s, Workers at an Ohio GM Plant Tried to Reinvent the American Dream

Instead, they watched it fade away.
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The stereotype of the early 1970s is that union workers were hard-hat-wearing conservative "Archie Bunkers," looking to wail on anti-war hippies. And yes, those things did happen, but the reality could be much more complicated, especially at Lordstown where the late 1960s hiring surge created a workforce heavy with baby boomers, and an average age of just 24.

This new generation of factory workers soaked up the patchouli-scented, bell-bottomed culture that was in the air all around them. Some grew their hair down their shoulders and sprouted beards or mustaches. Some used their coffee breaks to go out and get high. Almost all chafed at authority, not just from the factory bosses who were constantly on their case to speed up the assembly line, but also their UAW union leaders who didn't "get" this new breed.

The young lords of Lordstown found the assembly line — 35 second bursts of a dull, repetitive task, and a 5-second break before the next Impala or Vega rolled up — to be soul-crushing work. Botched cars — some of them slashed, deliberately sabotaged by angry workers — piled up in the giant lot outside the factory. A good chunk of the labor force had little fear of conflict with their bosses because they'd recently returned from the front lines in Vietnam.

Russo recalled that during his later research he asked a Lordstown employee if he'd been afraid of losing his job during the 1970s labor strife. "You've got to be kidding me," the man responded. "I just had 500,000 Vietnamese trying to kill me. You think I'm scared of GM?"

Here's one worker's contemporaneous rant about worker alienation at Lordstown in early 1970s: "You do it automatically, like a monkey or dog would do something by conditioning. You feel stagnant; everything is over and over and over. It seems like you're just going to work and your whole purpose in life is to do this operation, and you come home and you're so tired from working the hours, trying to keep up with the line, you feel you're not making any advancement whatsoever. This makes the average individual feel sort of like a vegetable."

It all boiled over in March 1972.
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