JACKSON - A record-setting era ends today with the swearing-in of a new United Auto Workers Local 1112 President Glenn Johnson, but outgoing president Jim Graham has no worries for the future.
"I leave the plant in very capable hands," Graham, 64, said last week before handing over the local's gavel, ending a 15-year run - the local's longest ever for a president - as the public leader of arguably the area's most influential labor organization.
In his three-year term that starts today, Johnson, 54, will be part of the union leadership team that will try to land a new product for the plant that builds the popular Chevrolet Cruze small car. The local also will lay the groundwork for a new contract in September 2015.
Tribune Chronicle / Larry Ringler
United Auto Workers Local 1112 President Jim Graham, left, who is retiring after a record 15 years in the position, welcomes new president Glenn Johnson, who will be sworn in today at the local hall in Jackson.
As president, Johnson doesn't sit on the contract negotiating committee headed by Shop Chairman Ben Strickland, who was overwhelmingly re-elected for a fourth term earlier this month.
Instead, the president is charged with overseeing members' benefits, enforcing the local's bylaws and running standing committees. But Johnson said he'll stay in close contact with bargainers and confer about items that might affect the local's constitution and operations.
The Austintown native and resident also will be the local's public face in community, political and other arenas.
"Everytime I leave the house, I have to remember I represent 9,000 active and retired workers," he said.
Johnson said adjusting to a higher public profile will take a while but said it's something he has to do "to win a new product and ensure the security for the members."
"Ben and I both believe the our members deserve a shot at any product out there. They work hard," he said of the local's 3,100 members, including about 100 temporary ones. "We're working, hourly and salaried, toward a common goal - job security and keeping the plant a viable part of the Mahoning Valley."
Union members, who have shown their community spirit by donating $1.5 million in the last 10 years, won't see any immediate changes, Johnson said.
"I might try to diversify some committees to get more of a cross section of members, give some younger ones a chance to learn what I learned," he said.
Johnson was the first in his family to be an autoworker when he was hired at Lordstown in 1977. But he grew up around cars and considers himself a "car guy" because his father worked on engines and chasses at Sharon Speedway and other race tracks.
He said building cars on an assembly line seemed natural but quickly found it it was much different from working on cars in a garage where he could take his time.
"I came in at 19 and thought I was in great shape. I found out if you start wrestling a spot welding gun, you can hurt yourself fast," he said. "I'm thankful for the older guys who helped me."
Johnson dipped a toe into union politics in the 1980s when he participated in the recreation division while playing on the softball team.
His role expanded during the 1998 Flint, Mich., strike that idled many GM plants, including Lordstown, as the supply of parts dried up.
Johnson responded when union leaders asked for volunteers to help feed member. Graham then invited him to seek an executive board at-large post, which was designed to give members a voice on the board.
In 2006, Johnson ran for vice president after Darwin Cooper retired. He credits Graham for helping to shape his outlook as a union leader.
"I can't express thanks enough to Jim for the lattitude he gave me. He allowed me to make contacts up north (at International UAW headquarters) that will really make this transition very smooth," he said.
"Jim always put people and job security first. Those are the qualities I'd like to bring with me," he added.
Graham's record 15 years as local president - and career at Lordstown since starting in 1968 - have seen the plant's work force slowly change from a militant adversarial position to one of working closely with management to win new products.
He said the return of one-time foreman Herman Maass to the plant, this time as plant manager, in 1996 helped turn the labor-company relationship around.
"We realized our enemy is foreign competition, not each other," said Graham, whose last day will be May 31. "To survive, we had to work collectively. We still have our conflicts, but we resolve them."
Graham said the only time he worried the plant might be closed was before it won production of the Chevrolet Cobalt starting the summer of 2004 after workers agreed to changes to make the plant more productive.
The fact that workers last fall ratified by 74 percent another in a series of concessionary contracts shows their focus, Graham said.
"People had confidence that we'd do the right thing for everyone. Lordstown will always shine," he said.
As for his future, Graham said he has "three or four things I'm looking at. If they come together, I'll be active in retirement as I was here."
If nothing else, "I have two grandkids, Jim and John, who are active in sports," he said.