With His Job Gone, an Autoworker Wonders, ‘What Am I as a Man?’

May 28, 2019
Editor’s Note: This article explores the human cost of NAFTA and the decisions made by General Motors to offshore production to Mexico. 

Rick Marsh worked in the car plant in Lordstown his entire life. Now that job is gone. What does that mean for his politics?

[Sabrina Tavernise | May 27, 2019 | NY Times]

LORDSTOWN, Ohio — In the weeks since he lost his job at the car plant, Rick Marsh has blasted Pink Floyd while cleaning the house. He has watched the cat watching the birds. He has smoked cigarettes out the sliding glass door. He has watched Motor Trend, a TV network about cars. He bought a grill and built a swing set.

He has done everything he could to avoid thinking about the fact that, after 25 years at the General Motors plant in Lordstown, he was losing the only real job he ever had.

For Mr. Marsh the plant is personal, but in the three months since G.M. stopped making cars there, it has become political. A parade of presidential hopefuls has come through, using the plant to make the point that American capitalism no longer works for ordinary people. President Trump has taken an interest too, berating both G.M. and the union on Twitter, and then suddenly announcing brightly in early May that the plant would be sold to a small company that few people in Lordstown had ever heard of.

The news caused a stir. TV trucks showed up at the union hall. But after a few days it became clear to Mr. Marsh that the buyer — which had no experience in mass vehicle production and quarterly revenues that were less than the price of one high-end sports car — was probably not a solution.

“To me, it’s another flagrant sign that these people, they really don’t have a clue,” Mr. Marsh said of the country’s political class. “They are so out of touch with reality and real people. All of them.”

He made no exception for Mr. Trump. Mr. Marsh voted for him, as did a majority of voters in Trumbull County, a small square on the map of northeast Ohio that hadn’t voted for a Republican for president since 1972.

The path to the White House next year runs through places like Lordstown, and Mr. Marsh and many of his neighbors, far from knowing how they will vote, say the G.M. plant shutdown has only left them more at sea politically. They tried voting for Barack Obama, then Mr. Trump. Now they don’t know where to turn.

Jeremy Ladd, a Lordstown plant worker now taking classes to get into nursing school, said that most workers were still coming to terms with what had happened, and that for many, the politics were an open question whose answer would unfold over time.

“People are trying to make sense of this politically,” he said. “It’s like a free radical bouncing around.”

Shawn Wodogaza, a Lordstown plant worker who voted for Mr. Trump reluctantly, said he felt politically lost now.

“I don’t know where to go,” he said. “It seems like no matter what he does or tries to do, it doesn’t work out,” he said of the president. “Well, now what? What the heck do we do? Do we go back to beating our heads against the wall? Or do we try something different?”

Mr. Marsh, too, is still making up his mind.

For three generations of Marsh men, the G.M. plant was a golden ticket to a middle-class life in a part of the country where those were not easy to come by. Then, when Rick Marsh got the biggest test of his life — the birth of his beloved daughter, Abigail, and her diagnosis of cerebral palsy at the age of one — his job became a central part of how he saw himself. He was her provider, her protector. That was his worth in the world.

So when the last car rolled off the Lordstown assembly line around 2:45 p.m. on Wednesday, March 6, it was like a heart stopping. He had lost the thing that made him who he was.

He knows he is looking for one thing from the country’s political system: a president who will save the plant that has meant everything to his family.

“I really don’t care if it’s a Democrat, Republican, male, female, black, white, I don’t care,” he said.

In Trumbull County, Ohio, manufacturing jobs declined by 13 percent in 2017.Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times
The job losses at the G.M. plant amounted to more than one-third of all manufacturing jobs in the county.Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

‘Made in Mexico’

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Mr. Marsh thought he would retire from the Lordstown plant, just like his father. Richard Marsh Sr. started in 1967, the year after the plant opened. He came straight out of the Army, inspecting headlights for $1.92 an hour. When he got his first paycheck, $100, “I thought I was rich,” the elder Marsh said.

The job lifted the Marsh family from apartment to trailer to house on a pretty street lined with cornfields and long, smooth driveways. Rick grew up there, in a back bedroom with heavy-metal posters on the walls. His grades weren’t good, but he wasn’t worried. When a history teacher told him he’d be stuck flipping burgers for the rest of his life, Rick told him he knew where he’d be working. When his father — at the time an elected union official — got him a job at the plant, it came with two pieces of advice.

“Get to work on time, and don’t embarrass me,” the younger Marsh recalled his father saying.

That was 1993, and the plant was its own little city. It employed around 9,000 people. Its giant parking lot was packed. Workers grilled sausages in the break room. He grew up with his colleagues, going to bars, attending weddings, coaching their children in softball, taking up collections when someone’s parent died.

The truth was, he never really liked the work. He found it boring and physically demanding. He worked in the paint shop, wearing two sets of gloves, big plastic boots and a full body apron, while he wielded a sanding tool that smoothed the primer on the surface of the cars. Every night he came home drenched and exhausted.

But he was grateful for it. With his G.M. paychecks, he built a big house in the woods just half a mile from his parents. He paid for his wedding in full and bought his new wife, Lindsay Marsh, a blue Chevy TrailBlazer. And when Abby came along — his beautiful girl, his floppy baby — his financial security powered the family through the six years of therapy it took to teach her how to walk.

Mr. Marsh with his wife, Lindsay, and their daughter, Abigail. The Marshes have spent years fighting to get Abigail services in Ohio. Moving would be wrenching.Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

Mr. Marsh with his wife, Lindsay, and their daughter, Abigail. The Marshes have spent years fighting to get Abigail services in Ohio. Moving would be wrenching.Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

In those early years, Mr. Marsh didn’t care about politics. He voted for Democrats without really thinking about it. It was what his family had always done, more out of union loyalty than ideology.

But he started to pay attention in the late 1990s, after the United States struck a trade deal with Mexico. When he asked his father about Nafta, the elder Marsh fumed that it would destroy manufacturing.

He remembers his father calling him shortly after he picked up his new 1999 two-door Chevy Tahoe, shouting at him to return it.

“I said, ‘What do you mean, take it back?’” Rick Marsh said. “He said, ‘It’s made in Mexico.’”

The younger Marsh could not believe a G.M. truck would be made in Mexico, and he told his father so.

“He said ‘I’m telling you, I’m in the union right now. Just take it back.’”

He eventually traded it in, miserably, for a Chevy Impala.

“That was the first I’d ever heard of our cars being made somewhere else and sold here,” he said.

‘Nobody Had Our Backs’

At some point, change sped up, like an invisible hand moving behind him, erasing things. Automation accelerated. In Mr. Marsh’s area of the paint shop, nicknamed Cripple Creek, someone had written on the wall how many workers there were each year. In 1970 it was 38. By the time he left in the early 2000s, it was four.

He was sent to Oklahoma to learn how a plant’s paint shop was set up. A few years later, the whole plant was shut down. He ticked off others that closed: Detroit, Delaware, Janesville, Shreveport.

“It’s literally in your face — the decline of manufacturing,” he said. “You can work where I work and watch it.”

Nafta had given him a new political awareness: Republicans may have started it, but it was Democrats who sealed the deal.

“That’s when I realized these parties were not so different,” he said. “They are all there to make money on our backs.”

Still, he kept voting for Democrats, including twice for Barack Obama. He gives him credit for the bailout of G.M. The company would have died without that help. But it made him angry that a financial crisis that started with banks ended with autoworkers giving up raises and the right to strike, which seemed to him the only real leverage they still had. (They got it back later.)

Mr. Marsh had never had a definitive moment with politics, a sudden clarity in which he clicked with a candidate. That changed in 2016. He remembers sitting at home watching a debate between Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton. He was expecting suit-and-tie civility. Instead, he got a circus. Mr. Trump was like a boxer who kept landing punches. It was electrifying.

“I said, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen anything like this,’” he said.

He knew what it looked like. Mr. Trump was kind of crazy. But he liked the fact that he didn’t back down. Then Mr. Trump brought up Nafta, and it was like he was speaking directly to Mr. Marsh. Nothing else mattered — not Russia, not porn stars, not divorces.

“Nobody had our backs in office, not Democrats or Republicans,” he said. “I’m tired of being sugarcoated and being robbed in the process.”

He voted for Mr. Trump, and so did his father, along with just under half the workers represented by the union.

He was in the plant on election night. He remembers being in the break room with the TV off, and a woman came in crying. Trump had pulled ahead. The reaction would intensify over the following months. He found it baffling. The only explanation he could think of was generational: millennials freaking out after not getting their way.

Losing his job after 25 years on the General Motors payroll, Mr. Marsh prepared to apply for unemployment.Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times
Abigail Marsh gets a lift from her father in their Ohio home.Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

‘It’s Humiliating’

The end began the day after Mr. Trump’s election. On Nov. 9, 2016, G.M. announced it was cutting its third shift — an evening crew of about 1,200 people, about one-quarter of the plant’s total work force.

Then some months later, a daytime shift was let go, including Mr. Marsh’s nephew, who got the layoff notice on the same day that he received a certificate congratulating him on 10 years at the plant. The final cut came last year, a few days after Thanksgiving.

Now Mr. Marsh faces a choice. He can stay in Lordstown for as long as there is a chance the plant might restart production; its fate will be decided in negotiations between the company and the union this summer. If it does close for good, he can hope his seniority will be enough to land a job at another G.M. plant.

Or he could transfer to another G.M. plant sooner, but he hates that idea. His biggest worry is for his daughter, Abby, now 14. He and his wife have spent years fighting to get her services in Ohio, aides in school and coverage under Medicaid. Moving would be wrenching.

Hundreds of workers have already transferred. His nephew packed up his family and moved to Flint. The alternative, working on natural gas wells in Pennsylvania, paid him $13 an hour, about half what he was making at G.M.

G.M. is a lifeline for Mr. Marsh, too. It will pay him a pension, a rare thing in today’s economy. He may have given up raises, but he gets a share of the company’s profits — last year, about $10,000. Under the union contract, he gets payments to supplement his unemployment check, and his family still has health insurance — unlike his brother-in-law, who worked at a company that made the seats for the cars.

Going against G.M., he said, “is like rooting for the pilot of my own plane to go down.”

At the same time, he feels angry that a company can just do this — blow out of town after highway exit ramps were built for it and the government bailed it out, and meanwhile announce that the new Chevy Blazer will be made in Mexico.

What has happened with the plant has made him see things differently. He never used to care that G.M.’s chief executive, Mary Barra, made millions of dollars every year. Now he thinks about it. Companies have more and more power. It makes him feel small. Like the time they were told they’d be laid off, and everybody just went right back to work.

“It felt like we were begging,” he said. “It’s humiliating, as a man, as a person, as a worker.”

He understands this to be a political problem. But what is the solution?

Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

He doesn’t blame Mr. Trump for the problems at the plant. They are older and bigger than him. Yes, he made promises during the campaign, telling people not to sell their houses because factory jobs were coming back. But politicians make promises. That’s what they do.

The real question is whether anything is changing, and so far the answer is no. And he finds that Mr. Trump is “getting harder and harder to defend.”

“He repealed Nafta and tried to replace it,” he said. “Am I happy with the result? No. Mexico is still killing us.”

Then there was an unfortunate tweet storm from the president about the plant this spring, criticizing Mr. Marsh’s union leaders.

“The leader of the free world has no idea how unions work,” he said. “He might understand business, but he doesn’t understand our business.”

When Mr. Trump tweeted about the prospective sale of the plant earlier this month, Mr. Marsh was at home preparing for his wife’s birthday.

Cheering the deal might check a political box for the president, but getting hired by the buyer would probably mean making $11 an hour, he said, a wage he last made in his early 20s.

“It would be back to square one after 25 years in the plant,” he said.

The presidential election is still many months away, and he hasn’t started paying attention to any of the candidates. But he plans to watch the debates carefully to see whether any political leader in America understands his family’s story.

The answer has never felt more important.

“People are going to get hungry, and when I mean hungry, I don’t mean just for food,” he said. “I think, once you get pushed to a point that you have nothing left,” he said, and paused. “Without the ability to feed my family and pay for my children and feed my children, what am I as a man?”

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