When General Motors Co. brought back the Chevrolet Blazer last year, the revival conjured up images of the rugged 4x4 SUV from decades past. But GM workers were nostalgic for a different reason: The old full-size model was last built in a now-shuttered plant in Janesville, Wis.
Much to the chagrin of the United Auto Workers union, GM decided to build the revitalized Blazer at a plant in Ramos Arizpe, Mexico, a move announced five months before the company put four U.S. factories on notice that they’re at risk of being closed. Ever since then, the union has treated the vehicle as a pariah and symbol of long-festering grudges against the automaker’s off-shoring strategy.
To the union, “the Blazer is emblematic of everything that is wrong with the world,” said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labor and economics at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Although the Blazer has so far avoided the wrath of President Trump and his Democratic challengers for the White House, the same can’t be said of GM’s layoffs of American workers. The dismissals have become a lightning rod for politicians of all stripes and earned the company an unfortunate call-out during the first night of debates in the company’s hometown.
When asked about GM’s job cuts during the debate Tuesday, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg said that government needs to take a role in retraining workers who lose their jobs. “It’s why we actually need to put the interests of workers first,” he said. “Of course we need to do retraining. But this is so much bigger than a trade fight. This is about a moment when the economy is changing before our eyes.”
GM’s labor relations may remain a focal point on Wednesday when the remaining major candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination face off for the second night of debate in Detroit, across town from GM’s headquarters. Michigan and neighboring Wisconsin are both key swing states that traditionally vote for Democrats in presidential elections, but opted for Trump in 2016.
The decision to build the Blazer in Mexico and the preparation work to assemble it started several years ago, when GM’s Lordstown, Ohio, factory was cranking out Chevy Cruze compact cars during three shifts, said Jim Cain, a spokesman for the automaker. Sales then slumped, and the company ceased production earlier this year.
GM had manufacturing space for the Blazer in Ramos Arizpe because the company moved a Cadillac SUV from that plant to another in Tennessee, said Cain, who notes the Chevy SUV uses $500 million a year in U.S. parts.
The Blazer and the fate of unionized workers also are contentious issues in negotiations this summer between GM and the UAW for a new four-year labor agreement. The talks were preceded by a kerfuffle over the Blazer this spring.
In March, GM hoisted a Blazer atop General Motors Fountain beyond the center-field wall at Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers baseball team. When union workers found out, they attacked it as a snub to the city, raging about what they considered to be a brazen indignity on Detroit talk-radio stations and social media.
The automaker took down the Blazer before opening day and replaced it with a Chevy Traverse, which is built in Lansing, Mich. “Did GM not know this would be a stick in the eye to workers who go to the games?” Dziczek asked rhetorically.
The union hasn’t let GM forget that apparent slight. Dan Morgan, chairman of UAW Local 1112 in Lordstown, Ohio, which faces closure, tweeted Tuesday that the Blazer is “over-priced Mexican junk! That’s why it’s not above the Tigers stadium.”
The new SUV has become a focus of anger for workers who risk losing their job if they refuse relocation to another GM plant. Regina Duley is one of about 100 workers remaining at a GM transmission plant in Warren, Mich., who face their last week at work before their factory is idled.
“I would not buy that product,” Duley, a 21-year plant veteran, said of the Blazer during a press conference at the Local 909 union hall across the street from the Warren plant. “How could I buy that when they build it in Mexico and we have people without jobs here?”