Norwood, Ohio, Girds for a Grim Life Without GM

Times Staff Writer

On a recent steel-gray day in a corner of the Crystal Saloon, next to the General Motors factory here, two plant workers with guitars began strumming a tune. Soon most of the bar patrons were singing along.

"Take this job and shove it," they bellowed in unison. "I ain't working here no more." In fact, the nation's largest auto maker is not leaving the 4,300 workers here with much choice in the matter. The Norwood plant is one of 11 facilities that GM is closing in Ohio, Michigan, Missouri and Illinois, and the angst apparent in the blue-collar neighborhoods of Norwood--in the restaurants and hardware stores, churches and schools--is being felt all over the Midwest.

"People are wondering where they'll go," said Betty Pastori, village clerk for Willow Springs, Ill., where a body panel plant is scheduled to be phased out. Pastori said her son-in-law, who had just begun building a new home, works at the facility.

"There's no light at the end of the tunnel anymore," said Stan Marshall, regional director for the United Auto Workers in Flint, Mich. GM plans to close two assembly and body plants in the area, putting 4,500 out of work there.

GM announced the closures 10 days ago, saying they were a result of over-capacity. In all, the move would put 29,000 people out of work by 1989. It was this decision that saved, for at least a few years, Norwood's rival plant in Van Nuys, which also makes Chevrolet Camaros and Pontiac Firebirds.

The news has been devastating for Norwood, an industrial enclave of 26,000 in the middle of Cincinnati, located five miles north of its downtown.

GM is by far the largest employer in Norwood. About 1,000 of the factory's workers live in town. Through earnings and property taxes, the plant provides one-third of the city's operating budget, and a fifth of the money for its schools.

In Miss Smith's fourth-grade class at the Norwood Baptist Christian School, one student could barely restrain his sentiments during a discussion.

"It's gonna be a ghost town," shouted Greg Melton, 9, without raising his hand. Greg said his father has worked for GM for 23 years. Local retailers are also worried for Norwood and for their businesses. J. Robert Schmank, who owns Miller Bros. Wallpaper & Paint, a Norwood-based chain with seven outlets in Ohio, said stores that sell anything but essential items will be hurt.

"When a loaf of bread goes up against a gallon of paint, bread always wins," Schmank said.

Some here have quietly resigned themselves to the fate and are looking ahead to change, either by hoping for a new occupant for the building or simply adapting to life without GM. Others have been angry, often bad-mouthing GM for deserting them after years of service. They deny that the plant will close, even though GM said its decision is final.

"This whole thing's about concessions, nothing else," said Ken Geiger, 29, talking about the planned closure at Crystal's. "They're threatening to close us so we'll open up the local bargaining agreement and cut out the things we've earned," he said. Geiger, who has been with GM for 10 years, works in the chassis department.

"Damn GM for playing these games with us," said Eugene Couch, 42, who puts the handles on the hatches of the cars in the hard-trim department. "One minute we're good boys, then we're bad. Who knows what they're pulling?"

Such skepticism notwithstanding, most everyone was shocked by the news, which was kept relatively secret until workers were told by their plant manager at a solemn early-morning meeting in the plant, three hours before a news conference in Detroit.

"There's usually guys shouting and stuff at meetings but nobody said a word," said Robert Gentry, 38, who sands and fixes nicks and scratches in cars before they go to the paint shop. "It just came out of the blue."

Most had expected Van Nuys to get the ax, not Norwood. But GM President F. James McDonald said at the Detroit session that the 63-year-old Norwood plant will close by mid-1988 because the burnt-orange brick building, with its ornate moldings and friezes, is aging and because it is multi-storied, like others targeted for closing.

He said the plant, the second oldest in the GM system, would be difficult to renovate because it is situated in a relatively congested "landlocked" setting. Newer auto plants tend to be sprawling, single-story buildings with lots of room for expansion or modification of production systems.

The rowdy barroom scene at Crystal's followed a closed Sunday afternoon session at the Cincinnati Gardens, an ice-skating rink, where plant workers were called by company and union officials to discuss the situation.

What workers ended up hearing was an admonishment from the company and from union officials over high absenteeism, low productivity and low quality control. Workers were told that these factors also contributed to the decision to close Norwood. "This wasn't a pep rally," plant manager Herb Stone said afterward. "We still have nearly two years to keep this plant operating, and there's lots of things we can improve upon."

High Absenteeism Rate

For example, the Ohio facility on an average day has more than 14% of its workers missing, compared to 12% at most other GM plants, the company said.

The Norwood plant produces an average of 41 cars per hour, against 54 per hour in Van Nuys. And Norwood's cars are brought to GM dealers an average of eight times for warranty repair work. The company says that is much higher than the average, which it will not disclose. Local union officials say they think it's unfair that Van Nuys was saved over them. Norwood workers had felt secure in their plant's future because the factory has a distinct advantage over its California counterpart.

GM has said for years that Van Nuys operates with a shipping cost disadvantage. Its distance from Midwestern suppliers and the majority of its customers makes a car produced in Van Nuys cost GM an average of $400 more than one made in Norwood.

Ron Rankin, president of UAW Local 674, which represents the Norwood workers, talks frequently about the plant's central location in the Midwest. Ohio 562 is the plant's lifeline, connecting it with Interstates 71 and 75, and points beyond in the industrial heartland. Detroit and northern Tennessee are both within a 300-mile radius of the city.

With Van Nuys' problems in mind, UAW leaders in Norwood say they think their plant can be saved if it improves worker performance. So the local sponsored a resolution at the Cincinnati Gardens meeting to do just that. The rank-and-file passed it by a 4-1 margin.

"We think GM is making a big mistake keeping other plants open at our expense," Rankin said.

Nevertheless, layoffs in Norwood may come even before the scheduled plant closure. GM has said it may bring back to Van Nuys next year a second shift of 2,190 workers, who were laid off indefinitely in July because of poor sales of Camaros and Firebirds.

The Van Nuys plant has been operating on one shift with 2,850. But the return of the Van Nuys second shift could mean a layoff of an equal number of counterparts in Norwood, GM officials said.

With such bleak prospects in mind, many workers reflect a new, less confrontational style. "Our destiny is in our own hands," said Jerry Rice, 32, of Norwood, who works in the paint shop. "Maybe we can still impress Detroit."

Poor Labor Relations

But the plant has a long history of poor labor relations. In a particularly bitter dispute in 1970, the local's bargaining unit was one of the last to ratify the national contract, and in 1972, the workers staged a 174-day wildcat strike.

In recent years, workers would walk off the job without national authorization over issues ranging from the quality of food in the cafeteria to the thickness of mats some stand on while working on the line. Other hostilities have been directed against the owners of foreign cars in Norwood. A sign in front of the main parking garage at the plant suggests that import cars be left elsewhere. Stories of tires slashed and finishes scratched are common.

Anna Fillis, 31, owner of Anna's Family Restaurant, a bacon-and-eggs and burger spot popular with the workers, was publicly boycotted by the union several years ago. The reason was Fillis' Volvo. She replaced the car soon afterward with a Chevrolet. Fillis estimates that 40% of the customers in her restaurant, located across from the plant on Montgomery Road, the town's main street, are GM workers. But she plans to survive any closing, just as she has the strikes and the boycott of her restaurant. "There are still hard feelings on both sides from the thing with my car, so I can't think of myself as being too dependent on those guys," she said.

Neither can city officials. Norwood Mayor Joseph E. Sanker says he is refusing to count on GM changing its mind. Nevertheless, he concedes that there is little he can do. At a City Council meeting last Tuesday night Sanker could only ask for a task force to look into the matter.

City Budget Cuts

Meanwhile, council members are calling for dramatic cuts in the budget, including police and fire services, in anticipation of the plant shutting down.

The state of Ohio has also initiated its own special task force. Of the 11 plants scheduled for closure, two are in the state. The other is a 2,500-worker stamping plant in Fairfield, northeast of Cincinnati, which makes parts for Camaros, Firebirds and other mid-size cars.

The two Ohio plants together have about 1,400 suppliers within 50 miles of Cincinnati. Last year, those suppliers billed GM for $104.1 million. Estimates on how many jobs might be lost through a ripple effect have run as high as 8,500.

Clearly, Norwood is not alone in its troubles in the Cincinnati area. But in a move Sanker likened to a "vulture swooping down on you before you're dead," Cincinnati Councilman Steven Chabot called for his city to look into annexing Norwood to help it with its problems. The suggestion also drew the ire of Cincinnati Mayor Charles Luken, who said he had no intention of "taking advantage of Norwood's misfortune." But Sanker said he didn't think Norwood would be of interest to Cincinnati without the plant anyway.

Richard Dettmer, Norwood's community development director, said the city would try to interest another U.S. car maker, such as Chrysler, or perhaps a foreign company, such as Suzuki, in the plant. Both firms have been shopping for existing auto production plants. But Dettmer conceded that chances are slim for either happening, because the building is so old.

"Of course, with its location and size, we've been thinking it could make a good warehouse," Dettmer said with a shrug.

But many local business leaders, such as Richard Lepley, Norwood branch manager for Fidelity Savings & Loan Assn., don't think that's a very good idea.

"You never see thousands of people working in a warehouse, now do you?" Lepley said.

Few businesses have been knocking down the doors at the Norwood Chamber of Commerce lately. So executive director Charles Geraci, a retired business professor from the University of Cincinnati, runs the agency mostly from his colonial home on Floral Avenue.

Geraci is frustrated by trying to attract companies to Norwood. But he sees GM leaving as something of a mixed blessing. "Maybe it's better if this isn't a one industry town, anyway," he said.

No other business in Norwood employs more than 800, Geraci said. Aside from GM, the major companies in town include United States Playing Card Co., American Laundry Machine Corp. and the Palm Brothers Decal Co. U.S. Playing Card's president and chief executive, Ronald C. Rule, said he is concerned that GM leaving will cause his property taxes to skyrocket, as the city attempts to compensate for its loss. He said he anticipates an increase in the 2% earnings tax his workers pay.

Rule said he didn't expect to add much to his 600-person work force as a result of the plant closing, however. He said his company, which makes Bicycle and Bee cards, comprising about 95% of the U.S. playing card market, would not have much use for auto workers.

Norwood, which was incorporated in 1888, sprouted up as a mostly agricultural town. The plant itself was constructed on the site of a farm owned by Joseph Langdon, an early settler in the area. The first cars to roll out of the plant were longish, hard-top Chevrolet passenger cars called Superiors, Chevrolet's answer to Ford's unstoppable Model T. Since then, the plant has built about 8 million cars and trucks, most of them Chevrolets.

By 1938, 2,100 workers were employed at Norwood making 300 cars a day. The annual payroll then was $3.4 million. Now more than twice as many cars are being built there, and the annual payroll has soared to $117 million.

In 1942, the plant began producing landing gear, bomb heads and military trucks for World War II.

Passenger car production resumed in 1946. Thirteen years later, Chevrolet built its 40-millionth car in Norwood, a Bel Air sedan. In 1965, the plant discontinued commercial truck production.

Employment Soared

Camaros first came out of Norwood in 1966, and Firebirds came three years later. In 1971, the plant started a full-scale third shift, and employment soared to around 7,000. With sales lagging, the shift was dropped in less than a year, however. The energy crisis in 1973 put a bigger dent in sales for the gas-thirsty sports cars.

The plant has been retooled, each time causing a shutdown, for updated models of the so-called F-cars in 1974 and 1982. The last retooling helped drive the city into a year-long fiscal emergency, and Norwood appealed to the state to get it out of trouble. There were overtures for annexation from Cincinnati then, too, but they were spurned.

"We have a fiercely independent tradition," said Mayor Sanker, a soft-spoken, bespectacled man who favors bow ties. "I know we'll pull through."

So does Jim Perry, 42, who cleans the paint booths at the plant on a skeleton third shift, which runs from 11:48 p.m. to 8:18 a.m. Perry was shivering on the City Hall steps as he watched the Norwood High School Band march by for the Veteran's Day parade.

But he's angry, too. He pulled his ski cap close over his eyebrows and wiped his nose with his hand.

"I guess the American worker's like the forgotten soldier in some ways," he said. "We've been short-changed. You go to work every day, do the best job you can, and what do you end up with? Nothing."

Back at Crystal's, a misty-eyed JoAnne Wallace, who inspects finishes in the plant's body shop, was reminiscing with old friends. "We're all going to miss each other so much," she said. "We gripe a lot, but it's been fun."

Retraining Program

They got to talking about what they might do after the plant closes. In addition to unemployment benefits, GM offers all of its workers opportunities to retrain. Wallace, who has been with GM for 28 years, said she could become a social worker or a waitress.

Rick Smith, an 18-year veteran who works in the body shop, said he would expand a small home-contracting business he tends to mostly on weekends.

Fred Bowles, who works as an inspector in the chassis department and has been with the company for 22 years, said he wouldn't mind studying to be an electrician, although he hoped he would be able to be transferred to another plant.

"Guess the chances of that aren't too good, though," Bowles added. "What with 29,000 people losing their jobs."

Serving them was Barbara Miller, 42, who has worked at Crystal's for half of her life, first as a barmaid, and now as the manager. She said she expects the bar to go out of business when the plant does. "I hate to say it," she said, "but this time I think it's closing for real, even if some of the guys don't think so. Today, I'm giving them peanuts in the shells, because they like that. Maybe next time it'll be bean soup or something."

Miller, a formidable woman with a thick mane of curly brown hair, said she thinks of the workers from the plant as family. She said she goes to their weddings and the baptisms of their children.

"I cry when they cry," she said. "And I've been crying a lot lately."

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