GM workers strike shines light on changing auto industry in Butler County

A strike by approximately 100 of General Motors employees at a parts distribution center in West Chester Twp. last week was the latest development in an industry that continues to be an economic force in Butler County and Ohio, but not with as much command as in years past.

The strike, which went into effect at midnight Monday for 49,200 United Auto Workers members nationwide, followed the spring closing of a GM processing plant on Meridian Way in West Chester Twp. Following that move, more than 130 West Chester GM workers elected to take GM jobs in Flint, Mich., while another 100-plus opted to move on in their careers, a company official told this news outlet at the time.

The workers’ strike and company layoffs sparked conversation about the auto industry’s changing nature in not only the area, but the state and the country.

Much of the luster the auto industry may have lost over the years as a long-term job prospect has to do with technology, according to W. Rocky Newman, professor of management at Miami University.

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“We can take the jobs that we want to do and automate them,” Newman said. “A lot of it is the skillsets of the jobs that are created by that technology-required screening.”

That technology contributes to auto industry companies “splitting off” of various links in the chain that constitutes the process of creating a vehicle. An example of that, he said, is what has happened in southwest Ohio.

“GM was the biggest employer in Dayton, now there’s nothing up there,” he said. “They made trucks there. They made engines there, Delco Marine made brakes. They had Harrison Radiator making air-conditioning units and radiators and HVAC systems, all that stuff, and that was as recently as the 1980s.

“It’s all been sold off because GM has figured they don’t need to do it themselves anymore, they can get it from another company, but because they can knit themselves closer to those other companies — supplier chains can be knitted together and coordinated much better with technology than they ever could before, so it makes it much easier to say, ‘I don’t need to do it myself to get it done right. I can let somebody else do it.’”

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Recent blows to the auto industry in Butler County pale in comparison to what happened in the late 1980s.

In 1986, GM announced that it would close the Fisher Body plant, the beating heart of Fairfield’s economy since it opened in 1946 on the corner of Dixie Highway and Symmes Road. At its largest, Fisher Body employed as many as 5,000 people, and 2,500 worked there when GM announced the shutdown.

The company phased out those 2,500 jobs over three years until shutting down the plant for good in 1989.

But Fairfield officials committed to ensuring they didn’t rely so heavily on one business in the future, using tax incentives, open land and salesmanship to lure a variety of businesses that helped it diversify its base and bring itself back from the brink of possible financial ruin.

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The auto industry continues to have an economic impact on Ohio and, more specifically, Ohio Congressional District 8, which includes all of Butler, Clark, Darke, Miami and Preble counties, and the southernmost portion of Mercer County.

There are 10,347 total auto jobs in the district, accounting for 2.5 percent of the district’s workforce and $557 million in labor income, according to data from Auto Alliance. The industry in 2017 generated $107.5 million in Total State Tax Revenue and $6 million in state income taxes.

While the auto industry may no longer hold as much sway when it comes to local employment, there are manufacturers who play a vital role when it comes to the community’s economy.

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Thyssenkrupp Bilstein of Hamilton, which manufactures shock absorbers for the auto industry, has grown steadily since opening in Hamilton more than two decades ago, expanding its facility and its workforce on several occasions.

With a workforce of 750, it ranks as the city’s top manufacturing employer.

Jody Gunderson, Hamilton’s director of economic development, said thyssenkrupp Bilstein is known throughout Ohio and the United States as an innovator of products and for its employee engagement.

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“Thyssenkrupp Bilstein continues to outperform their contractual job performance measurements with the city of Hamilton and the state of Ohio,” Gunderson said. “Additionally, they have been recognized for their efforts to expand economic opportunities to adults with disabilities.”

Gunderson said the company is important for its contributions to not only Hamilton’s economy, but to the area as a whole.

“Our economy and workforce are not bounded by the borders between communities, so economic development professionals recognize the importance that each business has from a regional perspective,” he said. “Our workforce in the region is very mobile and anything that impacts business, either positive or negative, has a ripple effect.”

Staff Reporter Michael D. Pitman contributed to this report.

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