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Published: Tuesday, 9/15/2009

Obama spotlights workers at Ohio GM plant

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

LORDSTOWN, Ohio — "The other CEO" of General Motors came to town Tuesday as President Barack Obama applauded the addition of a second shift at northeastern Ohio plant as an example of something going right in the embattled auto industry.

With unfinished Chevrolet Cobalt auto chassis on the stalled assembly line behind him, the President celebrated the production the night before of the 1 millionth Cobalt, a car that has experienced a recent sales surge thanks to the Cash for Clunkers program.

"Because of the steps we have taken, this plant is about to shift into higher gear," he told about 700 Lordstown workers and ticketed guests. "One hundred and fifty of your coworkers came back to work yesterday. More than 1,000 will be coming back to work in less than three weeks as production of the Cobalt ramps up.

"And next year, this plant will begin production of the Chevy Cruze, a new car that will get more than 40 miles per gallon," he said. "I just sat in the car. I asked for the keys. They wouldn't give me the keys."

General Motors, with the taxpayer now majority owner, selected the Lordstown plant to produce the Cruze, which will eventually replace the Cobalt by next spring. The afternoon shift will add to a labor force of 2,250. The plant produced 307,000 vehicles in 2008 — 275,000 of them Chevy Cobalts, the rest the now discontinued Pontiac G-5.

The new Cruze is partly designed to satisfy pressure from the federal government and that other CEO that the one-time king of the SUV could produce more fuel-efficient vehicles that Americans will buy.

Mr. Obama met privately and briefly with a group of Lordstown workers before his speech.

"I didn't run for President to manage auto companies," he said. "It wasn't something on my to-do list. It wasn't even something on my want-to-do list. I like driving cars. Sometimes I can change a spark plug or change a tire, but I didn't know so much about cars that I wanted to get deeply involving in the car industry.

"I wasn't going to put more tax dollars on the line if it meant perpetuating the bad business decisions that led to this point….," he said. "Our belief was that if GM retooled and reinvented itself for the 21st Century, it would be good for American workers. It would be good for American manufacturing. It would be good for America's economy. I'm pleased to report that's exactly what's begun to happen at plants like this and others across the country."

The visit marked the President's fourth to Ohio since becoming president eight months ago, his second stop in the state in little more than a week. On Labor Day, he talked up the economy, pushed his health care reform agenda, and promoted the union label at a Cincinnati AFL-CIO picnic, some of the same points he hit again Tuesday.

This time he saved his pitch for healthcare reform until the end of his speech. He presented it as a good business decision to bring down costs for companies like GM in a roomful of people who already have health coverage.

"We all have an interest in reforming the health care system," he said.

Raye Ohl, a 36-year-old mother from nearby Hubbard, said her fellow workers jokingly refer to Mr. Obama as "the other CEO." She has worked at the Lordstown plant for 15 years in the body shop and serves as a union trustee.

Many of her friends, laid off and in fear their unemployment benefits will soon run out, are anxiously watching what will happen with the Cruze.

"They're hoping that the Cruze will take hold so that they can get back in here," said Ms. Ohl. "We're adding the second shift next week. It's a good car. It means stability for jobs. We don't know how well it will sell. Time will tell."

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.


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