Dick Puz would have walked off his job in 1971 if the people who run General Motors Corp. had asked him to take a pay cut.
Puz was 23 then, one of nearly 10,000 Lordstown workers rolling out Chevrolet Vegas and Pontiac Astres at the rate of 100 per hour.
The pace was brutal, and Puz and his co-workers often expressed their discontent by striking the huge GM assembly complex here.
The frequent walkouts made the name "Lordstown" synonymous with domestic labor unrest in the 1970s. Academicians wrote about the "Lordstown syndrome," and "assembly line blues" stories appeared in newspapers and magazines as often as the Vegas and Astres moved through GM's storage lots.
Puz is 34 today. He has a wife and three children, and a total of 16 years' work invested in GM. He says he would take a pay cut now if that means saving his job as an assembly line maintenance man.
"I've changed," Puz says. "Sixteen years ago when I started out, and back 11 years ago when things started happening around here, I would have taken a strong stand against anybody asking for concessions. I would have said, 'No. Definitely not.'
"I was young then, and I could have taken off and found another job. But I'm older now," Puz continues. "It's rough. I have a wife and kids; and my wife says that if it comes down to my job or concessions, take concessions. I have to think about that."
Puz symbolizes the mellowing process that has affected much of Lordstown's once rambunctious work force. The workers, mostly men and mostly white, are older now. Many have married and are trying to pay car notes and mortgages.
In a real sense, these auto workers are survivors. They have seen their numbers at GM's Lordstown complex fall from nearly 9,500 last summer to about 5,000 today in the wake of depressed domestic auto sales. They have held onto their jobs through several economically induced temporary shutdowns since last November. Few of those still working have less than 12 years' seniority. Most have about 17 years' service, stemming from the early days when the passenger car plant here produced fuel-hungry Chevrolet Caprices, Impalas and Bel Airs at the rate of 60 units per hour.
The job-holders show up shortly before 6:30 a.m. on weekdays. Many drive earlier-model American cars because, as GM repairman Fred Stocker explains, "We can't afford to buy the new ones." Some tell jokes about their wives or bosses on the way to the passenger car plant--where about 3,700 people were working one shift daily this month, turning out Chevrolet 'J'-Cavaliers and Pontiac 'J'-2000s at the rate of 75 units per hour.
The passenger plant normally runs two shifts daily with nearly 7,000 workers.
Other workers report to the van plant, which also was running at reduced force this month. A total of about 2,300 people normally work two shifts a day at the van facility. But the plant this month was running one daily shift with about 1,200 workers producing Chevrolet and GMC 'G' vans at the rate of 23 units per hour.
There are more "workers"--26 advanced Unimate robots that, as a group, accurately and tirelessly apply an average 450 welds per car rolling off the line. They have what is known in the business as "super seniority." The Unimates stay in the plant during layoffs and shutdowns, ready to be recalled at a moment's notice.
The company says it will recall 1,000 of its Lordstown van workers in April, because its sales of commercial vans have improved. But Puz and his union leaders at Local 1112 of the United Auto Workers are less than excited by that prospect.
"We figure we'll get about 850 members back on the vans," says Marlin D. (Whitey) Ford, Local 1112's president. "But they can hire you back today and turn around and lay you off tomorrow."
He says the threat and reality of layoffs have had their effect. "There is an underlying frustration and fear" among Lordstown workers now, says Ford, who also sits on the UAW's 11-member national GM bargaining committee. He says those feelings are intensified by the 17.8 percent unemployment rate in Trumbull County, a mixed rural and industrial area, where GM's 965-acre Lordstown complex is located.
"We know that there are a ton of unemployed steelworkers around here who would be glad to work at General Motors. We're still a militant local. We still have the old fire. But it's been dampened a bit by reality," Ford says.
Some Lordstown workers say their foremen are trying to take advantage of the current climate in which a financially troubled GM is seeking major wage and benefits concessions from its 320,000 unionized U.S. employes.
"They know that things are going their way and they're pushing us hard," complains Don Bates, 42, another 16-year man. He says some foremen are being especially tough on the "T and A time and attendance checks."
"You can barely take a drink of water without somebody timing how long you've been at the fountain. Management tells the public that they're treating us different, but they're still playing the same old games," Bates contends.
David V. Perrone, spokesman for GM's Lordstown assembly division, denies the company is being unusually tough on employes in the present environment. Instead, he says, Lordstown's management team has mellowed as much as its workforce.
"We've all gotten older. We've matured," says Perrone, who came to Lordstown as a salaried worker when he was 21. He is 38 now.
"We talk to one another a lot more than we did back then. We have quality of worklife circles and other programs to create a smoother working relationship. We still have our problems. But the craziness is gone. We haven't had a serious work stoppage here in seven years," Perrone says.
Perrone, a mustachioed, bespectacled administrator, is the son of a union man. "I've seen both sides," he remarks. What he saw in the crazy days, the early 1970s, was that both labor and management made mistakes at Lordstown, he says.
It was kind of a game of industrial macho, Perrone says. A new management was trying to demonstrate its ability to run a tough, efficient shop. A young workforce, with an average age of 29 years, was determined to demonstrate its independence. As usual in such cases, there was "a communications problem" that exacerbated ill feelings on both sides, Perrone says.
"Some people used to get angry and take out their feelings on the product, a little sabotage here and there. That didn't happen much, certainly not as much as it was played up in the media at that time.
"But we don't take our feelings out on the product anymore," Perrone adds. "The people here want to produce a good product, and they do that. We've grown up."
Still, there is tangible evidence that the battles have not ended. GM, for example, is challenging more workmens' compensation claims filed by Local 1112 members who contend they were injured on the job. The number of challenges rose from 40 in January to 50 in February, to 60 in March, according to union officials. In the past, that kind of trend would have been enough to start strike talk.
But Local 1112 president Ford says his union's caution in such matters does not mean his members have been cowed. For example, he believes they still would resist any concession agreement that does not adequately address job security worries, plant closings and the use of outside contractors--foreign and domestic--to produce GM parts.
In fact, strong opposition from Ford and his local helped torpedo the second round of GM/UAW emergency contract talks that sank in failure Jan. 28.
"As far as I was concerned, at that time, GM wasn't offering anything on job security that I thought I could bring to my people," Ford says. But since then, GM has made good on its threats to close some plants in the absence of an emergency agreement to replace a current three-year contract originally scheduled to expire Sept. 14.
The union and GM returned to the bargaining table March 12 in what, Ford concedes, amounted to a tactical retreat by the UAW.
Retreat was made all the more necessary when UAW members at Ford Motor Co. ratified a contract in February that is expected to save the company up to $1 billion over the next 31 months. The union's Chrysler Corp. members have made $1.068 billion in concessions to that struggling company since 1979, and are expected to stay on that road in scheduled 1982 bargaining. The UAW's American Motors Corp. unit is involved in similar talks.
"We could have been caught out there alone, and that's a dangerous position in any battle," Ford says. "You could fight under those circumstances. But that sort of brings up the question that someone asked the soldiers who died with General Custer at his last stand: 'Would you do it again?' "
The Lordstown workers are not martyrs, Ford says. "They understand the way things work at GM. When GM has the power, they kick ass. When we have the power, we kick ass. For good or bad, it's filtered down that way through the years. It's tradition."