General Motors announced plans to close three assembly plants, one each in Michigan, Ohio and Ontario before the end of 2019.
I can not stop thinking about the launch of the Chevrolet Volt.
That car was my life for months. I covered post-bankruptcy General Motors for the Detroit Free Press – chronicling one company all day, every day. Sometimes all night. That's how important GM was to our city.
In December 2010, I traveled to Snowy New Jersey to watch a real estate agent buy the first Volt. The people I met along the way were effusive in their expectations for the car. "Futuristic." "Comeback kid." "A signal." "The premier car for General Motors."
The Volt, an electric car with a backup engine for long trips, was supposed to revitalize GM. Show the world Detroit could create revolutionary technology, compete with Asian automakers, produces something besides gas-guzzling SUVs. Prove the government-backed bailout had been worth it.
In many ways, the Volt was also supposed to save Detroit. The company's last plant within the Motor City's limits would build the vehicle.
America's most storied manufacturer would use American workers to build a new type of American vehicle.
That dream is over now, likely for good.
'Bring back jobs'
On Monday, GM kicked off plans to close five plants, including the Detroit factory that built the Chevy Volt and the Ohio factory that built the Chevy Cruze compact car. It will kill those cars, and few others, after the assembly lines shut down. Thousands of American workers are likely to lose their jobs, from the factories that are closing, and from the suppliers of parts, transport workers and the like whose jobs support the assembly plants.
We know what that's like in this country. We've seen it before.
Just ask the American workers who voted for President Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Or take my word for it: I asked them myself, over and over, as a political reporter covering Ohio during that campaign.
Trump promised to bring back jobs, when no one else was willing to. He acted like the economy was struggling, when other politicians (and fact-checking journalists, including this one) touted the low unemployment rate. More than that, he understood the despair workers felt when their new job did not pay like their old one. The fear they felt when they thought of starting over in their 60s.
Trump won Michigan thanks in part to those workers. He won Ohio by a landslide for much the same reason. Trumbull County has voted Democratic in almost every election since 1928. In 2016, the county backed Trump.
And now Trumbull County is losing its auto plant.
That's a problem for Trump. For now, he's channeling anger, the kind of anger workers connected with in 2016.
"They better damn well open a new plant there very quickly," Trump told the Wall Street Journal on Monday, referencing the Lordstown, Ohio, factory closure. "I told them, 'You're playing around with the wrong person.' "
What will happen when the workers are out of a job?
More General Motors:
General Motors to close Detroit, Ohio, Canada plants
GM's Hamtramck plant closes reopens old controversy in Detroit
Missed targets, and a new electric car
In the end, Americans did not want small cars. Or, gas prices fell, electric cars.
When I covered GM, then-CEO Dan Akerson said he wanted the company to build more than 100,000 Chevy Volts a year. The company missed that target from the start; In private, GM employees admitted it was never realistic. Last year, U.S. salas barely cleared 20,000.
"There is no scenario under which the Volt, estimable as it may be, will make any material contribution to GM's fortunes for many years," Steven Rattner, former head of the Obama administration's auto task force, wrote in his 2010 book, "Overhaul . " Even that dour prediction was too generous.
GM now has a new electric car: the Chevy Bolt, built in Detroit's northern suburbs. In some ways, it keeps alive the dream the Volt started.
The Bolt lacks the backup engine the Volt had. GM engineers thought that the engine would help traditional car consumers accept an electric vehicle.
As it turned out, traditional car buyers were never going to buy at Volt, period. Plus, in the Bolt, you can drive up to 238 miles on electric power, so you're less likely to need the engine. Still, GM sold only 23,000 Bolts last year.
Innovation in the U.S. auto industry has taken a different direction, so the Lake Orion plant is scheduled to produce a self-driving car next year. Once again, GM is betting American workers can make a new type of American car.
Wall Street analysts say GM is on the right track – and that's important for keeping the company profitable and keeping its stock at a healthy price. That's the ultimate job of CEO Mary Barra. On Monday, she embraced a tough, painful cost-cutting instead of keeping historic plants and avoiding layoffs.
Pre-bankruptcy GM did not change strategies fast enough or let go of beloved-but-stale ideas quickly enough. Barra wants her GM to be different. She wants it to stay around.
Longevity – preserving an American icon – has always been part of the GM turnaround. But it's more than that.
"The job is spiritual for me," GM's Mark Reuss said in early 2010, when I worked for Automotive News.
Reuss, who ran the company's North American operations, had endured more than his share of heartache at GM. His father, former GM President Lloyd Reuss, was fired in a 1992 boardroom coup. Mark Reuss stayed with the company, only to see it continue to flounder and, finally, to require a government bailout to keep from closing in 2009.
After the automaker emerged from bankruptcy that year, Mark Reuss drove to the ruins of the Buick City factory complex in Flint with his son. Lloyd Reuss had run Buick from the complex, and Mark Reuss started his career there.
The youngest Reuss asked: "Why did this happen, Dad?"
"I finally turned to my son and said, 'This happened because we could not compete,'" Reuss told his audience, choking up. "I never thought those words could come from my mouth."
For Reuss, at least GM's turnaround offered the chance to redeem history. To provide a livelihood for American workers, building vehicles they could be proud of. To use a company's prosperity to invest in an American city.
Maybe we should have expected the layoffs of thousands of American workers. But that was not part of the plan.
Chrissie Thompson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who serves as USA TODAY's education editor. Previously, she covered the auto industry for the Detroit Free Press and politics for the Cincinnati Enquirer.
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