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The Road Not Taken

The shuttering of the GM works in Lordstown will also bury a lost chapter in the fight for workers’ control.

Mike Aurilio, recently retired after 48 years at Lordstown, is still the recording secretary at Local 1112. He started at the plant in 1970, and fondly recalled his troublemaking days, when the plant was known for the workers’ radicalism. “We were average age around 20,” he said. Many of the workers were just back from Vietnam; others, he said, had been recruited to come to Lordstown to work from coal country in West Virginia and Kentucky. They brought Appalachia’s raucous, militant union culture with them. “It was an education like you wouldn’t believe,” Aurilio recalled.

Jobs were plentiful in those days. And the union was strong, despite its daily battles with GM’s new management division. “We used to call [management] the little SS or the Gestapo because they all wore white shirts and ties,” Aurilio said. “My third week there, a guy passed out on the line, and the supervisor reached in and just pulled him out of the way, and another body went over there. And the line never stopped.” In response, the union stuck together. In 1972, when the company began to speed up the line—to a production rate of 100 cars an hour—the workers rebelled and went on strike. “The international [UAW] hated us. GM hated us. We were a very radical group,” Aurilio said.

Tim O’Hara’s brother, Dan, began working at Lordstown shortly after it opened in 1966, but still lived at home with the family. O’Hara remembers sitting at home, watching his brother leave for work, and then return an hour or so later. “My dad said, ‘What are you doing home?’ ‘Oh, they fired Jimmy, so we all walked out.’ ... There were strikes constantly. It was kind of like the perfect storm of labor unrest.”

The 1972 strike at Lordstown became a national news story. Playboy reporters turned up to interview the workers about their frustration with the plant. Labor historian Erik Loomis, author of A History of America in Ten Strikes, explained that the 1972 Lordstown action symbolized the unrest among a new generation of workers who weren’t satisfied with what the assembly line offered. By 1972, Loomis explained, the UAW had been in place for around 35 years. Most of its earliest members had retired. Legendary UAW leader Walter Reuther—who was still president of the union when Aurilio began working at Lordstown—was gone, but only just, and UAW leadership wasn’t much younger than Reuther had been. “For them, given what they had lived through, working a mind-numbing job—it is as mind-numbing in 1972 as it was in 1942—the benefits, they were good enough,” Loomis said. “Obviously, for that generation that was coming back from Vietnam, it wasn’t.”