How the Midwest was won

The US car industry went into a tailspin in 2008 just as Barack Obama was preparing to take office. His prompt action to save it — and Mitt Romney’s callous counter-proposals — may just win him this year’s election.

Weeds grow outside the gate of an abandoned General Motors plant
Weeds grow outside the gate of an abandoned General Motors automotive assembly plant in Moraine, Ohio. Photograph: Getty Images

For 11 years, Stacie Steward commuted a hundred miles by car from Saginaw, Michigan, to the Sterling Heights Assembly plant outside Detroit. She is an electrician, in charge of maintaining 40 of the 700 robots at the plant, robots that make the 3,000 welds needed to construct the Dodge Avenger saloons that roll out of the three-million-square-foot plant and wait, gleaming in the hazy autumn sunshine, for trucks to take them away.

Right now, Sterling Heights is operational 22 or 23 hours every day, with only a couple of hours’ downtime for maintenance. When it’s running, a new car emerges every 60 seconds, like clockwork. I stand at the entrance with Steward and watch them come out. Tick, tock. A new blue car. Tick, tock. A new red car. But for several weeks in 2008 to 2009, just as Barack Obama was taking over from George W Bush on a tidal wave of hope and change, the whole industry, Sterling Heights included, shut down completely. “It was a dark time everywhere,” she told me. “There was no traffic on the roads.” She remembers a picket where staff from local grocery stores and bars joined the auto workers. “They were all getting laid off, too.”

In 2007, the US car industry had directly employed more than a million people; but in 2008 alone it shed a tenth of those and was on the brink of catastrophe. Opinion is split on the main reason for this. Some say powerful unions led to unsustainable workforce practices: at the beginning of 2008, workers for American car manufacturers earned considerably more than their counterparts at foreign-owned car firms – up to 20 per cent more – and enjoyed better benefits. Others say that the Big Three US car firms (Chrysler, Ford and General Motors) suffered from outdated strategy, concentrating on big SUVs and pick-up trucks when consumers were turning towards more fuel-efficient models. Whatever the reason, when the credit crisis rolled around, the auto industry in Michigan and Ohio was already struggling.

“When the economy started taking the tank in 2007 our hours got cut; the number of cars getting built got cut,” says Steward, whose plant is owned by Chrysler. “I got laid off. My unemployment from the state ran out twice. I went through two times when I was like: ‘Oh my God, I’m not going to get any money at all.’ When I saw Obama on TV say that he was going to give the loans [to GM and Chrysler], it was like – it was like heaven. Heaven.”

In the closing days of the Bush administration, December 2008, just days before Obama took office, it became clear that General Motors and Chrysler were unable to cope, and they were given $17.4bn between them in emergency loans to stave off bankruptcy, using money from the federal $700bn bank bailout fund.

This alone wasn’t enough. When Obama moved in to the White House, he assembled a presidential task force, led by the financier and “car tsar”, Steven Rattner, and the treasury secretary, Tim Geithner. On 18 February, GM and Chrysler requested bridging loans: $16.6bn for General Motors and $5bn for Chrysler. They received them, but by April both were entering bankruptcy procedures. The task force stepped in and forced a restructuring of both companies – some loans, a rearrangement of assets, a deal for Chrysler that sold a 20 per cent stake in the firm to the Italian car manufacturer Fiat as well as 68 per cent to the union retirement medical fund, and a government stake of 61 per cent in GM.

Today, both are back from the brink and the future is bright. The US treasury still holds 26 per cent of GM, but the company is negotiating for ways to buy back its independence from the taxpayer – and on 24 May 2011, Chrysler repaid the last of its loans, several years ahead of schedule. The company held a party to celebrate, at the Sterling Heights Assembly plant.

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North-west Ohio is flat. Dead flat. The kind of flat where you can see for miles, but where the horizon is always close. Between the towns, the roads are arrow-straight. Out here, where it could be 30 miles to the nearest shop or the nearest school, a car is more than just a tool; it’s a necessity. A religion.

This is the middle of the Rust Belt. The name came about as the industrial era was waning in the latter half of the 20th century, when the steel and manufacturing industries were beginning to lose out for the first time to cheaper competitors overseas that were faster to adapt to circumstances and less enthralled with unionisation and workers’ rights. The cities built on steel started to decay.

Today, because of the government rescue, the Rust Belt is still the home of the American auto industry. To the north in Michigan, Detroit - Motor City - is its beating heart, and Ohio is its muscle.

About 848,000 people here do jobs that are directly dependent on or tied to the auto industry. The Chevrolet plant in Lordstown produces the top-selling Cruze. A gigantic Chrysler plant in Toledo makes the Jeep Wrangler and Jeep Liberty; another factory there makes gearboxes for GM. The cities of Dayton, Kettering and Sandusky are home to GM parts-factories. Euclid, Ohio, makes seat covers. Vandalia, Ohio, has a door panel assembly factory. Chrysler makes steering columns and torque converters in Perrysburg, Ohio.

Defiance, Ohio, is a small town about an hour south of Toledo, three hours south of Detroit, with a population just shy of 17,000. On its outskirts is Defiance Casting Operations, a two-million-square-foot steel foundry that casts engine blocks and piston heads for GM. It directly employs 10 per cent of the town’s population. Downtown, in a branch of the private members’ club the Fraternal Order of Eagles, a poker tournament is in full swing.

One of the players at the tournament is Chris Mendez, an ex-marine who now works at the foundry. Does he feel like Obama saved his job? “There’s no doubt in my mind,” he says. “He saved all our jobs. [Before the bailout came,] over half the people at the plant were laid off. I was laid off. When they happened, when we had word that GM was going to be OK . . . it was great. I was overjoyed. I’ve got three kids; when I was laid off they were terrified. I’ll do everything I can to support him – and make sure he gets re-elected.”

Is the bailout his main reason for voting? “Yeah.” How does he feel about Mitt Romney? “I don’t like him. I think he’s for the rich. I think he’s anti-union and anti-labour.” Will the bail­out swing Ohio? “I really think it will.”

Outside the club, an old man with a walking stick, wearing a battered Stetson, is smoking a cigarette with hands that shake. Rick Kantout is a Vietnam veteran and retired GM employee, and when I bring up Romney his response is venomous. “I think he’s a son of a bitch.” He spits on the ground. “Romney and the Republicans aren’t for the middle class. They’re for their own self-interest.”

The White House may sit on Pennsylvania Avenue, but the state that makes most difference to winning it is Ohio. The ultimate bellwether, it may return only 18 votes in the electoral college, but only two presidents since 1896 have won the presidency without it. That’s why the candidates are making such a play for the hearts of its voters; both of the main campaigns have spent more money on advertising here than in any other state, and spent vast amounts of time on the stump here, too.

Romney supporters have been celebrating positive national polling in recent weeks. The first findings after the initial presidential debate on 3 October, by pollsters of the Pew Research Centre, showed Romney leading among likely voters for the first time by 4 points – an extraordinary 12-point swing from their previous poll in September. Gallup, too, found a (less dramatic) shift to Romney after the debate, showing him tied with the president on 47 per cent, and a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed the same. But in Ohio Obama has held his edge: a CNN poll released on 9 October put him still 4 points clear of Romney.

Why is this? The answer can be found in an op-ed article Romney wrote for the New York Times in November 2008, condemning the bailout. “If General Motors . . . and Chrysler get the bailout that their chief executives asked for yesterday, you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye,” he declared, with devastating hubris.

The statement has been used against him endlessly. At the vice-presidential debate on 11 October, Joe Biden repeated Romney’s words twice in full. Romney has counterattacked on the campaign trail by pointing the finger at Chinese currency-lowpegging taking American jobs, but that argument is failing to fly here – unemployment in the state, at 7 per cent, is lower than the national average of 7.8 per cent, and that also is falling. One in every eight jobs in Ohio depends on the auto industry. As the local reporter Jack Palmer tells me, “Certainly, the Osama Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive message” – one of Obama’s and Biden’s central campaign slogans – “could go a very long way.”

The Obama for America campaign has spent an astonishing $52.75m so far in Ohio, its highest spend on any state in the US. One omni­present advert runs footage of Romney defending his position on Detroit. “Yes, that’s exactly what I said,” he says, in footage taken from a television interview: “that headline you read... ‘Let Detroit go bankrupt’.” Over and over again, it repeats. The message is inescapable and, to people like Rick Kantout, irrevocably damning.

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The United Auto Workers union has more than 390,000 working members and twice that many retirees, most of them here in Ohio and in Michigan. As it is restricted by law from using union funds to run political activities, it has a separately funded political wing, known as the CAP – the Community Action Programme.

The CAP boss in north-west Ohio is Joe Eureste. A lifelong union man, he started working for General Motors four days after graduating from high school in 1972 and has been there ever since. He has a deep sense of mission. “When people get fat and happy, they say it doesn’t matter,” Eureste tells me. “But it does. We have to make sure we keep it to the forefront that [the collapse of the auto industry] could have happened, and could happen again. A lot of people are appreciative of having their jobs, getting rehired. Our job is to make sure they don’t forget it.

“We were going to lose eight jobs in the community to every GM job lost. That’s a lot of people.” He laughs, and then refers to Romney’s old firm. “You were going to have your Bain Capitalists come in and pluck the meat off the bones, and discard pensions; how could they restructure otherwise? So when the government stepped in they helped us all survive.

“I keep telling people: make sure you remember who was on your side and who helped you. Some people have short memories. Our job is to make sure we don’t.”

In the parking lots that surround the vast steel fortress of the Defiance foundry are acres of Chevrolets, Buicks, Lincolns and Oldsmobiles, Fords and Cadillacs. I can’t see a single imported car. A bumper sticker on a GM pick-up truck says: “Out of a job yet? Keep buying foreign.” Opposite the main exit to the plant, a billboard carries the local Obama campaign’s favoured slogan: “Osama Bin Laden is dead. General Motors is alive.”

Dwight Chatham is the just-retired president of UAW Local 211, the union’s chapter in Defiance, which has 5,000 members – more than a quarter of the town – of whom roughly 3,500 are retirees. When I meet him at a coffee shop halfway between downtown and the foundry, I ask what would have happened if GM and Chrysler had been allowed to go under. He chews thoughtfully on a toothpick. “A lot of people would be out of work. A lot of people. I truly believe that if Obama hadn’t stepped in, the Defiance plant would have closed.”

What would that have done to the community? “It would have been devastating. Devastating. This is the largest plant in the county; it funnels a lot of money back in, to schools, the town. If it had closed –” he pauses, and shakes his head – “devastating.”

The chair of the Defiance County Democratic Party, Charlie Gray, grew up in a union household. “My father was the first shop committee chairman at this plant,” he says. “My mother was a union organiser.” I ask Gray if he thinks the bailout will help the president win votes. “It’s helped the president a lot. [People] realise what the situation would have been like without it.”

David Jackson, associate professor of political science at Bowling Green State University, 20 minutes south of Toledo, tells me that the bailout is a powerful influence on votes in the industrial north of Ohio. “It will definitely energise the union base. The bailout could be a real factor for turnout.”

That is crucial, he says. “This is looking like a turnout election, like 2004. It’s all about who can get their base out. [The bailout] will certainly get out the base for the Democrats.”

That’s important when you consider the diverse political make-up of Ohio as a whole. “Take the state of Ohio and draw the letter C on it in reverse, starting in Toledo,” Jackson says. “Going east along the top through Cleveland . . . that’s the section of the state where union membership is the strongest, the north part. In the 2010 election – a landslide year for Republicans nationally – the governor [Ted Strickland, a Democrat] came closest to re-election in the north.

“Then, going down the eastern border with Pennsylvania and West Virginia [in the old coal-mining areas of the Appalachian Mountains], that is Democrat as well, though in 2008 Obama underperformed Bill Clinton in those areas – because those are the working-class white voters he’s had trouble with.” The middle is more rural: conservative heartland, agricultural areas and wealthier towns. It is this diversity that makes Ohio such an important political indicator.

“The question,” Jackson says, “is can the union turnout in industrial north Ohio compensate for the Appalachian white Democrats [in the south and east] not turning out? That’s the question. I certainly think Obama has to be looking at it. Maybe it’s time he got Bill Clinton out campaigning for him down there.”

Not every GM employee is enamoured with the bailout, nor is it the most important political issue for everyone in the north. Randy Peabody is a metalworker for GM of nearly 39 years’ standing, and a proud Republican for “moral reasons”. “I don’t support Obama,” he explains, “and I think the investors got a bad deal. The workers were given the farm; they did really, really well out of it. The auto industry . . . I think the government ought to stay out of it.”

There is no doubt that the United Auto Workers did extremely well from the bailout – or at least escaped most of the hardships that unionised labour usually suffers in a bankruptcy. Gold-plated pensions and benefits were protected for all those retiring, and workers at General Motors still enjoy wages 10 per cent higher on average than those at their foreign competitors.

President Obama has been accused of fav­ouritism, even cronyism, with the UAW. In the bankruptcy of Delphi, a parts manufacturer for GM, UAW members were paid certain benefits while non-union workers – 41,000 of them – were not. Local car dealerships, too, were cut with brute speed during the bailout. But none of them would have stayed open if GM and Chrysler had been allowed to go bankrupt, and union workers have taken some hits: there is still a no-strike clause in force at Chrysler and GM plants. “I think if we had more time, we might have asked all the stakeholders to sacrifice a little bit more,” Steven Rattner, one of the architects of the bailout under Obama, confessed at an event in 2011.

“We didn’t ask any active worker to cut his or her pay. We didn’t ask them to sacrifice any of their pension, and we maybe could have asked them to do a little bit more.” He said that, nonetheless, he considered the bailout to have been very successful overall: “A happy ending.”

I am reminded of this while on hold to Solidarity House, the UAW’s regional headquarters in Detroit. The hold-music is a pop song by Kelly Clarkson. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” she sings. 

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The Renaissance Centre, on the shoreline that separates Detroit from Canada, is a vast 1970s edifice of seven enormous towers topped with a five-storey-high General Motors logo. Around its base, Motor City skulks like a shadow. At the base of the central tower is a showroom filled with gleaming new Cadillacs and Corvettes.

Greg Martin is GM’s director of global communications. “I can’t wait until this election is over,” he tells me. “We’re in a position no other company’s ever been in before, where we’re a central part in a political debate.” He shrugs helplessly. “We just want to be a great car company. We don’t want to be a political football.”

The year 2011 was the most profitable in GM’s history – $7.6bn in net income, $150.3bn revenue, after ten consecutive quarters of profitability. A stock-market flotation in 2010 generated $13.6bn for the US treasury and reduced government ownership from 60.8 per cent to 32 per cent. The company has just invested $47m in making improvements to the Defiance foundry. Chrysler’s balance sheet, too, is looking better. This year, the company had its best September since before the 2007 financial crisis, with sales up 12 per cent on September 2011. The Dodge Avenger – made at the plant in Sterling Heights – is up 89 per cent to a record high. Chrysler is spending $850m to expand the site to include a million-square-foot body shop and a new paint shop.

The day I meet Stacie Steward there, it is “Obama Tuesday”, when the workers wear campaign badges and talk about politics, showing their support for the president. This isn’t union-organised: just ordinary workers showing grass-roots support.

“I’d say the feeling in my plant is probably 80 to 85 per cent in support of Obama,” she says, “but you always run into those people that are hardcore Republicans. That’s fine, it’s a democracy. But like I tell everybody: ‘You be what you wanna be, but you gotta think about your job when you go into that ballot box. Think about who saved your job.’”

I ask what she thinks of Mitt Romney. “How could he say he’d have let Detroit go bankrupt? How could his heart be there? I think he’s an elitist, and his heart doesn’t know what middle class is. He’s out of touch. He’s not evil; he has a good Christian heart. But he just don’t un­derstand what it’s like to be a regular working Joe Blow that gotta go to work every day. He just don’t get it.”

David Jackson at Bowling Green State University is a betting man. “I put money on sports, horse races, so why not politics?” He says his money is still on the president despite Romney’s recent poll boost. “I think it’s going to be a 2- or 3-point nationwide Obama victory and a slightly larger electoral college victory.”

He is unequivocal about his home state. “Obama will carry Ohio. It’ll be an election based on turnout, and they [the unions and the Obama campaign] have a better turnout operation. That’s something that’s really changed over eight years: [John] Kerry had a terrible turnout operation [in 2004]. But Obama doesn’t mess around with this stuff, and this – this is a turnout election.”

As I get off the phone, the ad spot is running again on the TV. The sound is off but I know the words by heart now. Most of the population of Ohio does. “Yes, that’s exactly what I said,” Romney is saying. On the screen he even seems to sag, but the punchline is as inevitable as ever. I read his lips: “Let Detroit . . . go bankrupt.”