Jamie L. LaReau
Detroit Free Press
Published 8:59 AM EDT Aug 17, 2020
General Motors' autoworker Gerald Lang is in "disbelief, " quelling his nerves, containing his excitement and facing the weight of a sudden new celebrity status since last Monday.
That's when presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden's campaign announced that Lang will speak at the Democratic National Convention, which starts Monday. It has changed Lang's life and put an otherwise mild-mannered 47-year-old father of two in the spotlight.
"It’s like being a minor celebrity at times, " said Lang, of the worker reaction he's getting at GM's Orion Assembly plant where he works as a team leader in the quality department.
"A lot of people are excited, " said Lang, who is also vice president of UAW Local 5960 representing most hourly workers at the plant. "They know where I’m at on issues. So we bump elbows and people say, 'I know you’ll do us proud.' My social media is blowing up."
Lang spoke exclusively to the Detroit Free Press ahead of his speech, which he has not yet written. But jitters be damned, Lang knows what he wants the world to hear about the U.S. car industry and about Detroit Three autoworkers when he takes the stage.
More:Autoworker from Lake Orion to speak as part of Democratic convention
Even some UAW workers who plan to vote for President Donald Trump say they will be watching Lang.
Time with politicians
As of Friday, neither Lang nor a spokesman for Biden's campaign knew the scheduled day and time for Lang to speak or how many minutes he will be allotted. The convention is virtual because of the coronavirus pandemic, so he will do it from his home via laptop.
Lang jotted notes as he talked to the Free Press, crafting and testing material for his talk, which he said campaign speech writers likely will run through with him.
His opportunity came with short notice. It was about a week ago when Biden’s campaign reached out to the regional UAW office asking whether they had a member who could speak fluently about issues facing U.S. autoworkers and the car industry, Lang said. Biden says he has a plan to create a million new jobs across the U.S. auto industry by pushing the development of electric vehicles and low-emission technologies.
So Lang's regional service representative, Rhonda Maurer, called him and asked whether he would do it.
“It was almost unbelievable at first. Who me?” Lang said.
But Lang is no stranger to public speaking or politics. As a union leader, Lang conducts monthly meetings in front of several dozen members, he said.
And he considers politics to be his hobby. The son of a VFW Post commander, Lang learned young how to be active and involved in causes he cared about, as his father, Marvin, did with the VFW. Lang is a member of the Michigan Democratic Party, a precinct delegate for Michigan's 8th Congressional District and works on the UAW's community action program's political committee.
Lang didn't have to think long before saying yes to the campaign's offer.
"Any time you have the opportunity to talk to prominent politicians, take it. We have issues as autoworkers and I want to talk to these guys so they know what we’re dealing with, what we face, " Lang said. "That’s what excited me. Anytime I can get in a room with these people I will let them know what’s going on."
Message to America
Ben Halle, Biden’s communications director in Michigan, said the campaign tapped Lang because the convention is “all about lifting up the voices of hardworking Americans like Gerald.”
“Vice President Biden has always understood that the auto industry is the beating heart of Michigan manufacturing, ” Halle said. “Gerald's story demonstrates the resilience of autoworkers in Michigan.”
Lang lives in the small village of Lake Orion, about 40 miles north of Detroit, with his wife, Sarah, a 17-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter. The local UAW he helps run represents some 1, 100 members who work at Orion Assembly.
He grew up in Saginaw where his father shoveled coal at GM's now-defunct iron foundry. Lang's dad died in 1983 at age 53. His mother is also dead, but he has a healthy crew of siblings: five sisters and four brothers.
“I hope they watch, " Lang said about his speech. "I haven’t reached out to them too much because I’m waiting on the details still.”
Orion Assembly reflects Biden's campaign message. In an Aug. 5 campaign spot, Biden shows off his convertible Corvette, spills the beans that GM will make an all-electric version of the iconic sports car and says, "How can American-made vehicles no longer be out there? I believe we can own the 21st century market again by moving to electric vehicles."
As it happens, GM's 4.3-million-square-foot Orion facility is highly modern. It's a tangible example of the automaker's vision for a future of all-electric vehicles and self-driving cars. GM builds the only electric car it currently sells, the Chevrolet Bolt, at Orion. It also assembles the Chevrolet Sonic compact car and Cruise AV test vehicles there.
In March 2019, GM said it would invest $300 million to retool the plant to add a new electric vehicle and 400 jobs there. GM has not yet identified that new car.
More:GM plans to make new electric car, spend $300M, hire 400 workers in Lake Orion
It would be "great to put in a plug for my company; I want to sell vehicles, " said Lang, who has worked for GM at Orion Assembly for 14 years. But he is not sure how much of his speech will mention the plans for Orion. He expects he will be given just "a couple of minutes" to speak.
His driving message will be, “If we want to sell cars in America, we need to build them in America."
"The speech will be on auto manufacturing and (Biden's) plan on creating auto manufacturing jobs, " Lang said, referring to Biden's plan to create a million new auto sector jobs.
Lang will also address increasing exports.
"Since we’re building the Bolt, we’re shipping to other countries, " Lang said. "There is plenty of opportunity to add more cars to our plant or to my brothers' and sisters' plants at Fiat-Chrysler and Ford. We want these cars and we’ll ship them overseas.”
Trump supporters take issue
GM would not comment on Biden's invitation to its employee. In an email to the Free Press, GM spokeswoman Jeannine Ginivan said: "General Motors is proud to employ more than 86, 000 hardworking people across America. As we work toward a world with zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion our workforce is central to making that vision a reality."
But UAW President Rory Gamble calls Lang the voice of many UAW members who want a secure future in an industry that is in constant change.
"These next four years will be transformative, " Gamble told the Free Press. "UAW members like Gerald will be part of a team to secure a new generation of electric vehicle technologies and the payoff should be a continuation of the good-paying jobs that allow our members to live, play and raise their families for generations to come."
The UAW has endorsed the Biden-Harris ticket. Gamble said Biden's policy on manufacturing and new technology "will secure Gerald’s future and preserve jobs right here at home for generations to come.”
But not all union members agree, saying Lang won't be speaking for them.
"He's only speaking for some autoworkers because there are thousands who don't agree with or will support Biden, " said Omar Guevara, who has worked at GM's Detroit Hamtramck plant and now GM Flint Assembly. He said he is a conservative-leaning union member. "There are thousands who are behind President Trump."
"Even though I'm a UAW member, I've always been a Republican, " said Mike D., who asked that his last name not be used given the sensitivity of politics. He works at GM's Pontiac Stamping plant. "I am a Trump supporter. I am a Second Amendment supporter. I stand for the flag and kneel for the cross. The Democratic Party, across-the-board, is more interested in supporting outsourcing American jobs then protecting American jobs."
Lang's appearance is important because Michigan is a crucial swing state. In 2016, Trump beat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by only 10, 704 votes to win the state. It helped him lock down the Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency.
That fact is not lost on Democrats and this time around they want Michigan autoworkers to know Biden has their back, said U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn.
“Four years ago it was the autoworkers who let me know we had a problem. I remember the moment, at the UAW picnic, walking around and them telling me, ‘Hey, your gal, we can’t vote for her, ’ ” Dingell told the Free Press, referring to Clinton.
"Workers hadn’t had a pay raise in 10 years then, " Dingell said. "Joe Biden understood that fact. I’ve known Joe Biden for 30 years and he’s always understood that the American auto industry was the backbone of the economy.”
Biden served as then-President Barack Obama's vice president. That administration is credited with helping the U.S. auto industry survive the recession in 2009 as the government pumped some $80 billion into GM and Chrysler and moved them through a structured bankruptcy.
In 2015, when Trump was running for president, he suggested at an appearance in Michigan that while he wasn't necessarily opposed to the government aid that helped GM and Chrysler, letting them go bankrupt and rebuild would have been acceptable too.
But a year later, Trump changed course. He touted a policy to force the Detroit Three to bring jobs back to the United States. Then, in 2018, he famously chided GM CEO Mary Barra on Twitter for GM's plan to close four U.S. facilities.
Arkansas car dealer and political insider Mack McLarty said he is "not the least bit surprised" to see Biden's camp tap a Michigan autoworker to speak at the convention.
"It reflects who Joe Biden is as a person and a leader. He’s known as 'lunch bucket Joe' so to speak, " McLarty told the Free Press. "He’s always been known as someone who connects with the working men and women of this country."
McLarty, a childhood friend of former President Bill Clinton, served as his White House chief of staff. Today, McLarty is chairman of McLarty Cos., a fourth-generation family-owned dealership business in Little Rock. He also is chairman and co-founder of advisory firm McLarty Associates in D.C.
"Any time there is someone like Mr. Lang who can step up and talk about our industry in a sincere and honest fashion it pleases me greatly, " McLarty said.
As to Biden's plan to add a million jobs to the auto industry, McLarty said its doable.
"He understands the importance to rebuild our country in terms of our manufacturing capacity, " McLarty said. "He has some very serious plans that are well-thought out and he has talented people around him. He's uniquely capable of building a bipartisan consensus."
Dad's unknown politics
That's not an argument Lang needs to be sold on. He is open in saying he will vote for Biden.
"When I am asked that, it reminds me of my dad, " Lang said. "He would never tell me who he voted for even when I asked, he was a secretive person. I did not know where he stood on politics."
As Lang puts down his pencil and notes, the conversation with the Free Press comes to a close and he admits that he is nervous. In fact, the closer it gets to the convention, his jitters will ratchet up.
“You want to make sure you get everything out and don’t forget anything, ” Lang said.
But he understands the opportunity before him and said he is grateful.
“I’m excited to talk about what we do and bringing jobs back, Orion Assembly and what we do with EVs and that we’re going to bring the American car industry back, " Lang said. "It’s a great opportunity to speak on behalf of someone who shares the same beliefs that I do and supports what I do for a living, that’s what puts food on my table."
Contact Jamie L. LaReau: 313-222-2149 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @jlareauan. Read more on General Motors and sign up for our autos newsletter.