The sprawling General Motors plant in Lordstown, Ohio, has built 14 million cars since it opened nearly a half century ago. But many residents near this tiny village close to the Pennsylvania border would argue that the most important cars to ever roll off the plant's lines are the ones workers officially start building Monday.
The marketing materials for the 2011 Chevy Cruze describe a four-door compact sedan that will redefine the small car market. GM is promising that the Cruze's fuel-efficient Ecotec model will deliver 40 miles per gallon on the highway with a sticker price of just under $19,000.
And talk to anyone about the Cruze near the Lordstown plant and the language becomes even more effusive.
"They are spectacular vehicles," says Lordstown Mayor Michael Chaffee. "They will be competitive with any car on the market."
Chaffee freely admits that Lordstown has everything riding on the Cruze's success. About 70 percent of the town's tax revenue comes from workers at the GM plant. The jobs are hugely important here.
Amy Carano was just hired as a temporary worker. She'll be getting about $14 an hour until her contract ends in December. That is better than the minimum wages she was earning at gas stations and fast food restaurants. But the hope that she might get to stay on longer makes the job at the GM plant invaluable.
"This is like the best job around the area," Carano says. "And it's very hard to get in, so I'm very fortunate and lucky to get in here."
Quality Over Quantity
The Cruze is also vital to GM, which entered and exited bankruptcy last year. The president of GM's North American operations has called the Lordstown plant "ground zero" in the resurgence of the new GM.
In the past, GM put too much focus on productivity and not enough on quality, says Jim Graham, the head of Lordstown UAW Local 1112.
"At one time we were producing 115 cars an hour," Graham says. "That was a lot of cars."
Graham says that rate of production was too much. "We're not going to make those mistakes again because we can't afford to," he adds.
This time, Graham says, the focus is completely different. The plant will produce only about 300 Cruzes this month. And by September, the line will be producing only about 60 cars an hour.
'Everything Depends On The Cruze'
John Russo, a professor of labor relations at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio, hopes the plant has overcome a history of producing cars that just aren't all that great.
"If you read the Wall Street Journal, the papers -- everything depends on the Cruze," Russo says. "That's a lot of pressure on a plant and a product where in the past they have had problems in engineering -- they've had problems in labor relations."
The pressure is also on at neighboring businesses ramping up for the start of manufacturing this week.
Just down the street from the plant's entrance, Earl Ross stands at his almost-finished bar and shows where he will hang his flat-screen TV. He's invested $30,000 to fix up his restaurant for the influx of auto workers. Ross is betting that the Cruze will be a success.
"It has to [be]," Ross says. "If not, then I don't know what I'm going to do. Move to a better climate and sell tiki torches or something. It's just got to work, that's all."
Ross and everyone else in Lordstown should know soon how well the U.S.-made Chevy Cruze is selling. The first cars will be at GM dealerships in September.