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Trumbull County has Missed Out on the Economic Recovery

Your Voice Ohio

The collapse of traditional manufacturing has hit Trumbull County as hard as any place in Ohio. Drastic cuts at the GM plant in Lordstown have many trying to figure out if the economic pummeling will continue -- and if there are alternatives.

Manufacturing’s stunning decline is seared into the DNA of Trumbull and Mahoning counties: It began with Black Monday, the single day in 1977 that cost 5,000 steelworkers their jobs. And an analysis by Your Voice Ohio shows the losses have continued into the 21st Century. Since 2000, Trumbull has lost nearly 40 percent of its total payroll -- a whopping $1.7 billion. Two-thirds of manufacturing jobs are gone. 

So people here are watching warily as the GM plant in Lordstown has dwindled from three shifts to one.

One family's story
People like Tommy Wolikow and Rochelle Carlisle. For them, the sprawling complex GM built 50 years ago represented security -- worlds removed from the rusted shells of steel mills in Youngstown and Warren.

Carlisle remembers when she was hired in. Sure it meant temporary status for as much as five years. But the close to $20 an hour was nearly twice what she made as a pharmacy tech.

photo of Rochelle Carlisle
Rochelle Carlisle with her daughter, Bella.

“I thought this is going to be a job where I’m going to be able to put money aside for my daughter’s education, for her first car," Carlisle said. "I’ll be able to live a regular life. I won’t have to struggle to live paycheck to paycheck to paycheck.”

Wolikow and Carlisle met at the plant, got engaged and bought a split level just 2 miles away -- one with a treed yard, good schools, a safe neighborhood for their blended family of five, including now 9-month-old baby Bella.

It seemed like a good bet. Over the decades, Lordstown had its cutbacks, strikes and shutdowns. But it had come barreling out of the great recession with a new labor contract, a $350 million retooling and the launch of the Chevy Cruze. So even when 1,500 third-shifters -- including Wolikow and Carlisle -- were laid off in January 2017, they weren’t terribly worried.

"I remember us walking out that last night together," Wolikow said. "I figured I was going to get called back maybe six months to year at the latest.” 

It’s coming up on two years now.

In June, the second shift was cut, too.

Plummeting car sales and the economy of a region

photo of Lordstown GM assembly line
The assembly line at Lordstown's GM plant.

The problem is sales of the Cruze have plummeted. It’s a highly rated, fuel-efficient sedan in a day when consumers - buoyed by low gas prices -- want SUVs.

GM hasn’t provided specifics about plans for Lordstown. Spokesman Tom Mock notes that Chevy invested another $200 million to retool Lordstown for the second-generation Cruze, says it remains committed to compact cars and pledges that Lordstown will continue to operate.

But the cuts have cost the village of Lordstown more than a million dollars in taxes; and schools Superintendent Terry Armstrong says  Lordstown has lost a piece of its future, too..

I thought this is going to be a job where I'm going to be able to put money aside for my daughter’s education, for her first car.

“We’ve had families that had to move. You see students who are here their whole lives and they are excelling, but to be able to put food on the table they’re leaving," Armstrong said.

More than job losses
That continues another troubling trend for Trumbull. Its population is down to about 200,000 -- a loss of more than 40,000 since 1980 Tommy Wolikow and Rochelle Carlisle are not leaving. They love the community, and have an extended and engaged family, aging parents and …

photo of Tommy Wolikow with his daughter
Tommy Wolikow and Rochelle Carlisle have a daughter, Bella, together. They are a blended family with children from previous relationships whom they'd have to leave behind if the had to move.

“He would have to leave his daughter," Carlisle said. "I would have to take my daughter from her father, who she sees on a weekly basis. And I take care of my mother, whose sickly. I do all of her shopping, I pay all of her bills. I take her to all of her appointments where ever she needs to go.” 

Tim Francisco, head of Youngstown State University’s Center for Working-Class Studies, says family connected-ness is a core value of communities like trumbull.

“They’re rooted to a kind of place that isn’t just sentimentality," he said. "Working-class families rely on one another for social needs, for things like child care. It’s not that easy to just say, ‘Hey, we’re all going to just move away.”

So Carlisle, Wolikow and others in the community are fighting to keep jobs here.

The power of the union, the voices of one family
The union held a rally last month with Good Jobs Nation to try pressure GM to move models to Lordstown from overseas and to challenge national trade and tax policy to stop off-shoring.

Local union President David Green says the concern extends beyond Lordstown.

"35 percent of the parts that go into our car comes from the state of Ohio," he said. "We’ve got lots of small mom-and-pop shops. They make one small plastic piece.”

Wolikow and Carlisle also have taken their case to President Trump. They travelled to rallies in West Virginia and Minnesota to deliver letters to the president’s campaign manager.

But mortgages and credit-card bills won’t wait for big policy changes. So Wolikow used his roughly $15,000 in federal retraining money for diesel mechanics and truck driving. And Carlisle is waiting tables for $4.15 an hour -- plus tips.

M.L. Schultze is a freelance journalist. She spent 25 years at The Repository in Canton where she was managing editor for nearly a decade, then served as WKSU's news director and digital editor until her retirement.