“Lordstown Syndrome” and the American Workplace, pt.1

Lordstown workers assemble a Chevrolet Vega in 1971. Image from Wikipedia.

In 1971, General Motors began production of the Chevrolet Vega at their Lordstown Assembly plant in northeast Ohio. The brand new production line was the fastest in the world, cranking out 100 cars per hour. Lordstown workers protested the speed of the line, and the lack of control they held over their own work. As Jefferson Cowie describes, “The workers balked at the speed and discipline by working strictly to rules, letting production slip by unfinished, pushing absenteeism and turnover to new highs, taking drugs and alcohol on the job, and engaging in a wide array of sabotage on the job.”* The situation led to a long strike, beginning in March 1972, and the press coined the term “Lordstown Syndrome” to cover the dissatisfaction many American workers felt toward the quality of their jobs in the early 1970s.

In January 2010, six months after General Motors had filed for bankruptcy, The New York Times returned to the Lordstown Assembly, where GM now produce the Chevrolet Cruze. Interviewing local United Automobile Workers officials, the Times found no signs of the radicalism and discontent of 1971-72. Mike Ramsey, a forklift driver and 25 year veteran at GM, told the interviewer, “Your main focus is to keep a job and work toward a pension, [...] I don’t think that animosity is there anymore. We all realize we have to do our part to keep the company going.”

The change in attitudes among workers at Lordstown is not surprising, considering the near collapse of GM in 2009, but the stark contrast between how auto workers see their jobs  in 1971 and 2010 is hard to ignore. What I’m trying to do here is to get a handle on the events and forces which have convinced American workers that holding onto their jobs outweighs most other concerns about the actual quality of their working lives. Of course, in many cases, this isn’t true, but in coal mining and many other industries, workers have been forced to abandon issues on which they would have fought management and their own unions tooth and nail in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The 40 years since the Chevy Vega went into production have reshaped the workplace for every American worker, in terms of the work they do, their relationship with their colleagues and employers, and in the value they and others place on their labour. I’ll try to explain how some of this happened in future posts.

* Cowie, Jefferson. Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. New York: The New Press, 2010. p.46

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  1. [...] harkens back to the “Lordstown Syndrome” that ironically afflicted this very same plant back in 1971. GM modernized their line until it was [...]

  2. [...] harkens back to the “Lordstown Syndrome” that ironically afflicted this very same plant back in 1971. GM modernized their line until it was [...]

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