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Inside The Trump Storm With An Ohio Union Boss

Dave Green has been trying to save GM’s plant near Youngstown. After Trump sniped at him on social media, he quickly scored a visit from Beto O’Rourke and a bunch of media.

Posted on March 21, 2019, at 3:08 p.m. ET

Michael Swensen for BuzzFeed News

Dave Green, president of the UAW Local 1112, which represents the Lordstown General Motors.

LORDSTOWN, Ohio — It was just past 2 p.m. Wednesday when Dave Green had to turn his tiny office at the United Auto Workers hall over to an impromptu news conference.

National media had been calling since Sunday, when Donald Trump, president of the United States, unleashed a surprise Twitter attack on Green, president of the Local 1112.

He’d heard from the Associated Press, CNN, and “Chris Something” from MSNBC. (“Who’s the guy … Chris Matthews?”) And now there was international media. Green — suddenly in high demand for a guy who represents workers laid off from General Motors’ Lordstown plant near Youngstown, Ohio — had double-booked reporters from a Dutch financial publication and BuzzFeed News. Oh, and a Fox camera soon would be squeezing in for a live TV hit.

“Would you mind if I talked to you both at the same time?” he asked.

Green, who will turn 49 on Friday, is having quite the week. The fracas ignited with an appearance on Fox News, where Green was asked about Trump’s Saturday tweet pushing GM to reopen or find another use for the Lordstown plant. Green twice had written to Trump asking for his help on the matter. Saturday’s tweet, he said, wasn’t enough help “and I don’t know that it will be.”

Trump was watching. Not long after the segment, the president fired off a tweet that blamed Green for Lordstown’s plight.

Democrat UAW Local 1112 President David Green ought to get his act together and produce. G.M. let our Country down, but other much better car companies are coming into the U.S. in droves. I want action on Lordstown fast. Stop complaining and get the job done! 3.8% Unemployment!

By that point, Green had left the Youngstown studio where he sat for the satellite interview and was on his way to let out a vacationing friend’s dog. “Then he lit me up. I was just driving … and my phone started blowing up. People were screenshotting me. ‘Trump called your name out!’”

The tweet puzzled UAW members and their allies in the community.

“My initial reaction was, ‘That’s odd,’” James Dignan, head of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber, told BuzzFeed News. “I wonder why he called out Dave Green of all people. … There’s no blame to be had there for lack of a product, or lack of an agreement, or lack of sales.”

Green said his members “were pissed” over Trump’s tweet. But he also received voicemails from people saying “that I need to get off my ass, and why don’t I bring GM back?”

In the moment, Green wasn’t sure how to process what had happened. “What does this mean?” he wondered.

“I found out over the last couple of days what it means. It’s very overwhelming.”

Michael Swensen for BuzzFeed News

A sign outside the Lordstown GM plant on March 20.

That’s because things were about to get weirder. The Trump attack landed as newly announced Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke was preparing to bring his much-hyped tour through Ohio. Democrats in the state urged O’Rourke to meet with people in Lordstown, even after it looked like he’d only make time for a crowded bar in Cleveland.

“I was here working late,” Green said, “and got a message on my phone: ‘Hey, this is Beto. Driving past Lordstown. Do you mind if I stop by and say hi?’ I was like, ‘I guess not. Are you gonna come stand on my table?’” (Green then clarified he did not actually ask that question, a reference to O’Rourke’s habit of leaping atop tables at his campaign events.)

Green appreciated the visit, which O’Rourke broadcast live on Facebook.

By Wednesday, Green was amused by all of the attention. “The camera guy kind of freaks me out,” Green joked as a photojournalist circled his desk snapping pictures.

“Is my hair OK?” he asked playfully a little later, as he was preparing for a Fox News encore. (This time, the camera came to him.)

It would be a busy time for Green even without the political theater. The last Chevrolet Cruze rolled off the Lordstown assembly line two weeks ago, and he is among about 200 GM employees who have been kept on to fulfill contracts for doors, fenders, and other service parts.

In Lordstown, UAW leaders are like local celebrities. The plant has been the economic engine of Youngstown and the surrounding Mahoning Valley region for years, a constant even after the implosion of the steel industry. Fears of a shuttered GM factory have been a constant, too, affording Green and his predecessors a respected and influential role in the community, working alongside chamber of commerce honchos like Dignan, and a regular presence on the evening news. Green followed his father to Lordstown, first as a summer worker in 1989, but so noble was the union calling that his father — a member of management — nudged him in that direction.

Green knows organized labor doesn’t enjoy that heroic reputation everywhere, and he knows that’s become especially true in the political climate of the last 10 years.

“Are there assholes in unions? Yeah,” he said. “There’s assholes in church, but I believe in God. I think it’s the same thing. The church isn’t made up of the priests; it’s made up of the congregation. Unions aren’t made up of their leaders; [they’re] made up of their people.”

The biggest challenge facing Lordstown has been a shrinking market for small cars. The compact Cruze did well during the recession and when gas prices were skyrocketing. But sales have been trending down. On Nov. 9, 2016 — the day after Trump was elected with help from voters in Lordstown’s Trumbull County, which went Republican for the first time since 1972 — GM announced it was eliminating a shift at the plant. Union officials viewed the move ominously, even after Trump campaigned in places like Youngstown on a promise to jump-start the manufacturing economy in the industrial Midwest.

The UAW had two unions representing Lordstown at the time. Local 1714, which Green had led during the auto bailout and recovery years, represented the metal fabricating and stamping division. Local 1112 represented the assembly line. In a move designed to demonstrate a commitment to compromise and saving costs for the company, the unions merged in 2017. “UAW leaders: Merger will secure future,” read the headline in the Youngstown Vindicator.

“Initially it created a lot of hard feelings,” Green said. “There was always a little bit of competition there, right? Same team, wore the same colors, but had different numbers. I think the members recognized: We’ve gotta do what we gotta do to keep our jobs here. So you make sacrifices.”

Green was elected president of the new 1112 in April 2018. “I found out April 10 that I won,” he said. “April 13, General Motors announced they were going to eliminate the second shift.”

More than 2,000 union jobs had disappeared since late 2016. Lordstown was down to one shift and about 1,500 UAW workers.

“As soon as I got in, I knew I needed to do something to try to help persuade General Motors to invest in a future product here,” Green said. “One shift is not a good place to be. When you’re working on one shift, you know the company can’t survive.”

Green, with the help of the chamber and other community leaders, created the Drive It Home campaign, a lobbying and public relations push to save the plant. Politicians from both parties joined them at their launch last November at the UAW hall.

Exactly one week later, GM announced it would idle Lordstown. Trump tweets ensued. Democrats, including Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, asserted that the president’s tax policies had made it easier for GM to produce cars in other countries and undermined the working-class populism and Make America Great Again messaging that had resonated with blue-collar workers, including many at GM. Green estimates that roughly 40% of his members — despite the UAW’s endorsement for Hillary Clinton — voted for Trump in the 2016 election.

Michael Swensen for BuzzFeed News

A makeshift shrine sits outside the Lordstown GM plant on March 20.

In his office, Green displays framed photos of himself with the last two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and with former vice president Joe Biden, who could soon announce he’s running to be the next. But aside from O’Rourke, 2020 contenders aren’t beating down Green’s door.

“I have heard from Kamala Harris’ campaign,” he said, mispronouncing the California senator’s first name as Kamalya. “They were interested in what was going on here.”

Brown, who recently decided against running for president, is a familiar face. (Green does a pretty solid impression of Brown’s raspy voice.) There’s also Tim Ryan, who represents Lordstown in Congress and has twice invited Green to the State of the Union as his guest. “Timmy’s my buddy,” Green said. “I’ve known Tim for 20 years. I think he might run, yeah.”

Ryan called GM’s announcement last November the “new Black Monday” — a depressing callback to the day in 1977 when Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced plans to close its largest area steel mill and signaled the collapse of the Valley’s most vibrant industry.

“Since it was announced that GM would close Lordstown, Dave has been working around the clock to help save these jobs, families, and community,” Ryan said Sunday, after Trump’s tweet.

Green said he didn’t take Trump’s tweet personally but believes it could cost the president support from Valley voters and from GM workers who supported him over Clinton.

“I think it’s going to depend on how all this plays out,” Green said. “There are some people that have already kind of given up. And I think there’s some people who are never gonna give up.”

Evidence of a community unwilling to give up on GM is everywhere.

On Wednesday, a “Save Me” banner was wrapped around one of the poles carrying the sign at one entrance to the Lordstown plant. Drive It Home placards dotted yards and the windows of local businesses in the village and in neighboring areas like Austintown, where Green lives and which owes its growth decades ago to GM families settling down for good schools and a modest suburban life.

Hope can be hard to hold onto. With retirement more than five years away and two daughters — one about to graduate from high school, another about to graduate from college — Green needs to work. (Green also is finishing a second master’s degree, in interdisciplinary communications.) He spoke hypothetically about how he eventually might have to transfer to another GM plant, but then he quickly caught himself, aware he was describing a scenario of defeat.

“I plan on having General Motors put a product here and staying here for the launch of that new product,” he said. “I’m in no big hurry. I can’t leave. People are looking to me for leadership right now. If I put in a transfer and leave, it’s like the captain took the last lifeboat.”

Green and others hope some good can come of Trump’s tweet. Maybe it calls attention to the challenges in Lordstown and helps accelerate a solution. “The issue that’s important to us is top of mind for the White House,” said Dignan, the chamber leader.

So Green will embrace his momentary fame. As he wrapped Wednesday’s interview, he had a few minutes to spare before his Fox News hit. Salena Zito, the Washington Examiner and New York Post writer based just down the turnpike in Pittsburgh, was waiting for him as he walked back out into the union hall. There was a rumor that Trump — who minutes earlier had landed 200 miles away in Lima, Ohio, where he would speak at a military tank plant — might stop by.

Green shrugged. Wouldn’t be a bad idea, he said. But he’d heard nothing from Secret Service.

Trump instead resumed his attack on Green from a distance.

“They're not honest, and they ought to lower your dues, by the way,” Trump said in Lima, referring broadly to union leaders. “As an example,” he added, “they could've kept General Motors. They could've kept it in that gorgeous plant at Lordstown. They could've kept it. Lower your dues.”

And though he never made it to Lordstown, the village was very much on his mind.

“Lordstown is a great area,” Trump said. “I guess I like it because I won so big there.”

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