When General Motors ended a half-century of building cars in Ohio’s blue collar corner, 1,600 workers had to decide whether to accept the automaker’s offer to move to another factory.
Those with enough seniority retired. A few started new careers. Everyone else from GM’s shuttered assembly plant in Lordstown went as far away as Texas, Tennessee, and Missouri, some leaving behind their families so they could hang onto their pensions and high-paying union jobs.
Now, two years later, many of those autoworkers are finding that their lives and futures are just as unsettled.
Worries about the fast-changing auto industry and the stability of their jobs have left hundreds still unsure whether to uproot entirely and sell their homes. Some are spending every weekend driving hundreds of miles back to Ohio to see their children. Others are holding out hope that the next contract will give them a chance for an early retirement.
No matter their situation, they all face the same question: is it worth chasing a job always seen as a sure path to the American dream?
‘IT’S LIKE HE WASN’T EVEN THERE’
By now, Tiffany Davis figured she and her two children would be settling into a new place with her husband, Tom. That was the plan — to join him when the past school year ended — after he transferred to GM’s Corvette factory in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
Instead, she’s been a single mom much of the past 18 months to their two children back in Ohio, where she also teaches fifth grade. Only on weekends are they all together when Tom makes the 16-hour round trip home.
Even then, they only get one full day together that’s usually filled with catching up on household chores.
When the weekend is over, “It’s like he wasn’t even there,” Tiffany Davis said.
“I knew this would be difficult, but I could not have anticipated how difficult it would be. I’m worn out and exhausted,” she said. ”We’re always under this umbrella of stress.”
Tom Davis, 39, has been home more than expected this year because of work shutdowns caused by the pandemic and supply issues. That’s added more worries, and comes at a time when GM is beginning a transition to making battery-powered vehicles that will need fewer workers.
“It brings up all of those scary feelings we had before,” she said.
Tom, who started working for GM soon after high school and has about 11 years before he can retire, said he and his wife don’t know what will come next now that their plans to move to Kentucky are on hold.
Do they continue living apart? Do they uproot their kids from school? Whose job is more stable? Should he transfer to a closer plant when he’s eligible in another year?
“I still have days where I’m like, ‘Did I do the right thing?’” he said.
‘IT’S TOUGH NOW’
That’s a question Jim Moyers asks just about every day he’s away from his family.
Moyers transferred almost two years ago to GM’s assembly plant in Lansing, Michigan, that makes Cadillacs and Chevy Camaros. He shares a sparsely furnished apartment with another former Lordstown worker.
It’s a four-hour drive every weekend — 263 miles to be exact — back to his wife and three children in the Youngstown area.
What he misses most are the routine things, like father-daughter dances and helping his son change the oil in his car.
“It’s tough now. That’s all my wife’s responsibility,” he said.
He also missed his son’s last high school track meet, and most of his youngest daughter’s volleyball games. His wife, Mindy, said that until the move, he never missed an event. Now he watches the volleyball games on FaceTime.
“She could hear him cheering,” said Mindy Moyers. “My husband’s very loud. She definitely knew he was there.”
Moyers, 54, said he didn’t have much choice in accepting a transfer, being too young to retire and too late to start a new career.
Now, he’s hoping the next round of United Auto Workers contract talks in 2023 will give him a ticket to early retirement if GM decides that fewer workers will be needed in the years to come.
“I’ll get out at the first opportunity I have,” he said.
GM is building a new electric vehicle battery plant near its former factory in Lordstown, which was sold to an upstart electric truck maker that plans to begin production later this year. Both projects will bring new jobs, but very few of the GM workers who moved out of state see those as a path back to Ohio because its doubtful they would get the same kind of pay and benefits.
Dave Green, former president of the UAW local in Lordstown, said quite a few of the plant’s former workers are within sight of retirement and looking for a chance to move on.
While just about all of the workers are quick to say they’re thankful they have jobs, they also feel “stuck” far from home.
Green estimated that 40% of those who transferred to factories around the country still have their families in Ohio or haven’t sold their homes and plan to move back once they can start collecting a pension.
‘NOT THE LIFE I WAS PLANNING’
Matt Moorhead tried to stick it out.
Like so many others, the 48-year-old Moorhead didn’t want to uproot his wife from her career or their daughter from high school. And he didn’t want to walk away from a job that he was counting on to put his two children through college.
So he went by himself in the summer of 2019 to Lansing where he paid for an apartment on top of his mortgage back in Ohio. His days were spent staring at the TV and eating frozen meals “just so you could go to work.”
The new job on the assembly line left him with a knee that was ailing him. “It was not the life I was planning on living,” he said.
After six months of traveling back and forth and “trying to be a dad through a cellphone,” his wife convinced him to quit.
They’re now getting by on savings and his wife’s job at a hospital. What happens next for Moorhead, after 24 years at GM, is still up in the air. He spent last summer managing a golf course.
“When GM was closing there was a fear of what happens next and everything was going to end, but it doesn’t,” he said. “Our futures aren’t guaranteed. But I guess our futures were never guaranteed.”
This story was updated to correct that Moyers’ drive home is 263 miles, not 463 miles.