'Orange Vest Society' Bids Lordstown Assembly Plant Farewell After GM Contract Approval

Oct 28, 2019

Workers at the General Motors Lordstown assembly plant have built cars and a community for more than 50 years. Earlier this year, GM shuttered the plant, but hope had remained that it would not close permanently. GM’s new contract with union workers, approved Friday, dashed those hopes. 

WKSU joined workers on the picket line at the assembly plant last week for a final farewell to Lordstown.

  

It’s 10 p.m. It’s silent except for the drone of trucks driving by on the distant Ohio Turnpike. This is the GM Lordstown Assembly Plant, former home of the Chevy Cruze and 1,600 workers. It wasn’t always this quiet. 

"This used to be non-stop traffic, non-stop. Look, nothing!" said Agnes Hernandez,  a 23-year GM employee.

"We’re at the truck gate, this is the truck gate!" added John Sandquist Jr, who has worked for GM for 25 years. 

"Yeah! Non-stop, non-stop. There would be lines, remember?" replied Hernandez. "We’d have lines of trucks coming out here."

Hernandez and Sandquist, along with Dan Santangelo and Jeff Kovach, fellow union members on the picket line, are part of a close knit group of coworkers who call themselves the Orange Vest Society (OVS). 

After a while, Hernandez realizes Sandquist doesn’t have his signature clothing item — his orange vest. 

“Go get your vest on! Come on OVS!” Hernandez jokingly shouted. 

This group of orange-clad friends, who spent nearly every day together for decades in the plant, is down from 20 to four. They’re standing around a burn barrel in front of the truck gate, on strike, uncertain of what happens next. 

John Sandquist Jr., is a veteran worker of GM Lordstown. He says the future is uncertain and has been since the plant was unallocated in March 2019.   

“We are still in limbo a whole year later, and we still don’t have no answers to where (or) how is our pathway back here, if there is a pathway back here — we still don’t know," said Sandquist.

"We’ve been hanging on 10 months.” 

The new contract, ratified Friday, finalized what most workers had expected. No new product for Lordstown. 

Most, like the four members of the OVS, have transferred to other GM plants so they can make it to their pensions and keep their benefits. Three of them have relocated to Kentucky, and one will work at a plant in Indiana. 

“Every one of these people right here around this burn barrel is going through that," Sandquist said. "He has a family that is here and he’s gonna be eight hours away. Same with Agnes, same with this man Dan over here. He’s got a wife, two kids. Agnes has got grandkids now for Christ’s sake; she ain't gonna see them grow up. She’s gotta leave for six years.”

“What do I do now? Facetime. You can’t see everything on Facetime," explained Hernandez. "My grandson, he’ll be two in January, and when he looks at me through the phone, it’s almost like he has to do a double take just so he knows it’s me, and I have to keep repeating who I am. It’s horrible. I’m like ‘He’s gonna forget me.'”

In addition to uprooting their entire lives and leaving family here in Ohio, this also means the end for the family of workers. 

“I went through a very bad time before I had to go to Bedford," said Dan Santangelo, a GM employee for 25 years who has transferred to GM's Bedford Casting Operations in Indiana. "I was almost as low as killing myself, that’s how low I was. Not only did my blood family reach out to me, but these guys did as well.  That’s the Orange Vest Society.” 

Later in the night, Agnes and Jeff reach into a styrofoam cooler next to the wood pile. They grab three plastic cups. Dan had declined the offer of one earlier and joins the toast empty-handed. Around a cracking fire, the four raise a glass. 

“Here’s to material," the group cheers.  "To OVS, to OVS!” 

It’s shortly after midnight. John is packing up his chairs and getting ready to head home. Before he heads out, he reflects on the future for former Lordstown workers. 

A banner reading "GM INVEST IN LORDSTOWN" hangs on the fence along the truck gate to the shuttered GM Lordstown Assembly Facility.
Credit CARTER ADAMS / WKSU

“There’s a couple of us everywhere but the original core group is split up," said Sandquist. "That’s the stuff that pisses you off even more, you know. It’s the friendships, your family, your secondary family, you know. Your adopted family we’ll say. You’re not gonna spend time with them no more or, you know, have them relationships. Talk on the phone, text, see what’s up with them but not like you used to. Kinda at the end, it’s over and it’s sad.” 

Lordstown is one of three GM plants to be permanently closed. GM has said that it might open a factory to produce vehicle batteries in the Mahoning Valley, but the future for the Lordstown plant remains unclear.