25 January 2006

On The Line

“If you don’t keep up with your studies, you’re going to end up working on the assembly line,” was one of my dad’s favourite threats to me as a Detroit schoolboy. It was a popular local version of the boogieman stories parents use to elicit good behaviour from stroppy children.

I didn’t keep up with my studies, I did end up on the assembly line, and it took me about five minutes of back-breaking, mind-numbing labour to admit that for once in his life, Dad might have had a point. He had done time on the line himself back in the 1930s, but when he came back from the war, opted for a lower-paying but more secure job at the post office, and remained there for the rest of his working life.

He wasn’t too keen on the post office, either, though he was moved to defend it at one point when, at the height of my adolescent New Left moral arrogance, I accused him of being complicit in the Vietnam War because, “You work for the federal government.”

“But…” he sputtered, for once in his life at a momentary loss for words, “I work for the Post Office. I bring people their welfare cheques.” Including some of your no-good hippie friends, he didn’t have to add.

But most of the time Dad urged me to get a good education so that I wouldn’t have to work at the Post Office. Or Ford or Chrysler or GM, or at Great Lakes or McLouth Steel, one of which was where kids in our neighbourhood who didn’t go to college seemed destined to spend their lives. Well, there or prison, I suppose.

Being a stubborn proponent of learning things the hard way, I had worked at every one of those establishments except the Post Office by the time I was 22, and narrowly escaped serious prison time. I never stayed long at any of them; in those days auto and steel manufacturing jobs were so plentiful that you could quit any time you wanted, goof off until your money was gone, and then just show up at another factory or mill and start over.

They paid well, too. If, like me, you didn’t waste money on paying rent, buying cars, getting married and having kids, the sorts of things my co-workers persisted in doing, you could live well by working half the year or less. “You a lucky young man,” I was told by my camshaft-drilling partner at Chrysler’s Trenton Engine Plant. “You got yourself a good job and here you are only 20 years old. You stick with it and work hard and the company’s gonna take good care of you. When you get to be my age, you gonna retire a rich man.”

He was an older black guy, maybe in his late 50s or early 60s, who’d grown up as a sharecropper in the Deep South. From his point of view, landing the Chrysler job when he’d come north in his 40s was the next best thing to winning the lottery. He owned his own house, drove a brand new car, and kept his family well fed and dressed, all of which added up to unimaginable wealth compared to what he’d been used to.

I’d been reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and told him he had a slave mentality. “The company doesn’t care about you or me” I said. “They don’t care about any of us. If I was a Negro, I’d be out in the streets with Martin Luther King, or rioting like they did in Harlem and Watts.”

He looked at me in quiet wonder. “Easy enough for you to say.”

A couple months later, I walked out of that job to join the hippies, and inside a year, was dead broke, living in a series of squats and crash pads, and hiding out from the cops and the FBI, who seemed to think I belonged in prison. A hard life, true, but, as I often remarked, “At least I’m not stuck on the assembly line.”

A few years later came the first energy crisis and the collapse of the American auto industry. Suddenly manufacturing jobs weren’t so easy to come by, and if you had one, you hung on to it for all you were worth. Anyone who didn’t have 5 or 10 years seniority was laid off, sometimes permanently. If I’d stuck with my job, as the old black guy had advised me, I probably would have made the cut, though barely. Conceivably I could still be working there today, just about ready to retire on a generous pension.

But most of the jobs I spurned as a young man are gone now, and are unlikely ever to come back. Ford and General Motors have announced massive cuts in their work forces, and Chrysler will soon match them. Ford and General Motors are in real danger of going bankrupt; to someone growing up in Detroit in the 1950s, that would have seemed as ridiculously implausible as the government itself going out of business.

But even in the mid-60s, long before better-built and more economical Japanese cars laid waste to Detroit’s auto building monopoly, you could see trouble coming. Detroit cars might have been flashy and powerful and loud, but they were also clunky and unreliable, and nobody, not the workers, not the engineers or management, seemed bothered. It was like Lily Tomlin used to say about the phone company: “We don’t care. We don’t have to.”

Silly conspiracy theorists like Michael Moore made their own industry out of blaming the big auto companies for deliberately pulling the plug on Detroit, Flint, and similar cities, but it was a confederacy of dunces that destroyed the Rust Belt, and workers, particularly in the form of their unions, were just as guilty as management. The American auto industry was doomed in the same way, and for some of the same reasons, as the planned economy of the Soviet Union.

All these years later, and from thousands of miles away, life on the assembly line looks very different than it did to a young man who thought it was his purpose in life to avoid hard work of any kind. Considering the vast environmental and social damage wreaked by the American auto industry, it’s hard to feel fully sympathetic, but it’s equally hard to deny what that industry meant to hundreds of thousands of men and women: the opportunity to earn decent wages and benefits, often for the first time in their lives, enabling them to move out of the hardscrabble working class and into a solid, comfortable middle class existence. Most of the kids I went to high school with were the sons and daughters of factory workers; nearly all of them went on to college or careers that would have been unimaginable to their parents’ generation.

And Detroit, though a bit rough and ready, dirty and smelly during its industrial heyday, was a thriving city, full of opportunity for just about anyone who cared to take it. Now it’s a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and people like me, who in the 50s and 60s complained that the whole place should be burned or bulldozed to the ground, are reminded once again to be careful what you wish for.

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