Will Barra ‘Feel the Bern’?

There was a time when the rusted edifices of the Mahoning Valley’s steel-making heyday served as the backdrop for stump speeches by presidential candidates and TV reporters’ stand-up broadcasts.

The Valley was the center of the Rust Belt. Candidates shed tears over the coffin of our economic demise, while visiting journalists from as far away as Australia waxed eloquent about old industrial regions forgotten by Washington.

But then the reminders of the Valley’s glorious past were torn down, the boarded up storefronts in downtown Youngstown found new life, and the Mahoning River no longer glowed in the dark because of a concentration of PCBs in the water.

In other words, we ceased to be the preferred movie set for the national story of the death of major manufacturing in America.

Standing in front of the world renowned Youngs-town Business Incubator or America Makes, the nation’s first additive manufacturing institute, talking about the 50,000 Valley residents who lost their jobs four decades ago doesn’t have the same impact as being able to point to the skeletal remains of a steel mill.

But now, General Motors CEO Mary Barra has pulled the rug from under the Mahoning Valley, and we’re once again the object of politicians’ affection.

They’ll be coming in droves to share our despair over Barra’s closing last month of GM’s 53-year-old Lordstown assembly plant. More than 4,000 good-paying jobs have been lost.

To make matters worse, GM is playing a mind game with the Valley by insisting that the expansive complex is idled – not padlocked. By placing the facility on “unallocated” status, the giant automaker is keeping the region on tenterhooks.

Indeed, there are residents and even political and business leaders who are clinging to the belief there will ultimately be a product to replace the once top-selling Chevrolet Cruze compact car.

But the empty parking lots are a stark reminder of the dark days of 1977 when the first mills fell silent.

That said, the past isn’t prologue. We’ve learned some hard lessons, especially this: If a candidate comes to the Valley and uses the closed Lordstown plant as a backdrop, we expect more than political one-liners.

Don’t tell us our community is hurting or that we need to fight back. Don’t tell us the fallout from the closing of the Lordstown plant will be felt by the schools, businesses, grass-roots organizations and local governments.

And certainly don’t tell us you feel our pain. You don’t – unless you’re from the Valley and have lived the decades-long economic nightmare.

Here’s what the people of the region want to hear: That you have devised a plan to force GM CEO Barra to assign a new product to the Lordstown plant. And that if she gives you the brushoff, as she did President Donald Trump, you’ll drop-kick her through the goal post of ... humili ation.

But also be prepared to tell us what you’ll do if GM decides to dump the Lords-town plant – the way the out-of-town owners of the steel mills did on Black Monday many years ago.

We aren’t going to let history repeat itself.

If it seems there’s an ulterior motive behind this column, there is.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, is visiting Lordstown this afternoon. (Hence, the “Feel the Bern” reference in the headline.)

Sanders, consistently among the front-runners in polling of the crowded field that includes Valley Congressman Tim Ryan of Howland, D-13th, is scheduled to join Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, at a town hall session to discuss how the plant closing “is hurting the community – and how to fight back,” according to a news release.

The town hall is part of the AFT’s 2020 presidential endorsement process. The union has 1.7 million members, including teachers at the Lordstown schools.

There have been numerous news stories on the impact of the plant closing in Lordstown and other school districts in the region.

Area students wrote letters to Barra urging her to keep the plant operating. Some of the letters were reprinted in this space.

But GM was undaunted.

Its decision to close four plants in the U.S. and one in Canada while investing hundreds of millions of dollars in plants in Mexico demands a congressional inquiry.

We want to hear Sanders say that he will join forces with Valley Congressman Ryan and Ohio’s two U.S. senators, Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican Rob Portman, in ordering Barra and other GM decision makers to Capitol Hill to talk about the company’s plans.

Here’s the overarching question: Why did GM decide to build the re-designed, re-engineered iconic Chevrolet Blazer in Mexico when it knew that the Lordstown plant’s days were numbered?

There are many other issues members of Congress need to explore with Barra and her team, including this: Why won’t you tell the people of the Mahoning Valley the truth about the future of the Lordstown assembly complex?

Sen. Sanders chose to come to the Valley to talk about the idling of the plant. The last thing the region needs is another political bumper sticker.

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