My Weekly Reader 29 April 2017.

In the “Roaring Twenties” the automobile was the “new thing.”  Henry Ford pioneered the mass production of cars and trucks.  He applied Frederick W. Taylor’s simplification of production into single successive tasks.  He created assembly lines to move the parts to workers in a carefully-sequenced order.  Production soared while the price of cars to consumers dropped off the edge of a cliff.  Others rushed to copy the “flivver king.”  So, in 1923, General Motors opened a car plant in Janesville, Wisconsin.  It was a good bet: thanks to the previous establishment of Parker Pens and a tractor factory, the town had a pool of suitably-skilled workers.  For almost fifty years, GM employed a lot of workers at decent wages.

The trouble was that the work itself would bore the balls off a pool table.  By the time of the New Deal disgruntled workers welcomed unionization with open arms.[1]  In 1936-1937 the United Auto Workers (UAW) staged a strike campaign that often turned violent.  For the first time, the government backed the right of the workers to unionize.

However, all the UAW could get its members were better pay, better benefits, and some pass-blocking between the workers and their foremen.  They couldn’t make the work itself any less soul-killing.  What workers wanted was out as soon as possible.  In 1970 the UAW launched a national strike that ran on for better than two months.  What the union won for its members was a “thirty [years] and out” rule that allowed workers to collect a full pension after thirty years on the job, and full health coverage between retirement and Medicare.

The cost of pensions and health care for people who retired when they were about 50 years old heavily freighted the books of companies that already had a hard time adapting to unexpected change.  Many of those companies—and other industries—began shifting the production to Southern “right to work” states or abroad.[2]  Furthermore, workers still had to gut out 30 years at a job they hated from Day One.  On the other hand, places like Janesville were tight communities that had real emotional attractions for the successive generations that grew up in them.[3]  Moreover, for decades American culture—and the Democratic Party in particular—celebrated the industrial working class.  Like combat troops, people could feel a sense of pride in what they had to endure.  It would be hard to cut loose, move to Los Angeles, and become a Chippendale dancer.  (If, you know, that’s how you roll.)

By the dawn of the 21st Century, automobiles—at least union-made, American-company automobiles–no longer were the “new thing.”  The financial crisis of 2008 pushed the remaining “rust belt” car companies to the edge of bankruptcy.  They responded with a desperate effort to cut costs and streamline production.  In October 2008, General Motors announced that it would close its Janesville plant in December.[4]  Merry Christmas!

In America, the human costs of global trade agreements, foreign competition, management errors, and union stupidity have been enormous.  The Janesville unemployment rate hit 13 percent, before falling sharply as people pulled up stakes to search for better chances.  Displaced workers in Janesville didn’t have any better luck with the vaunted government tr-training schemes than have other people.  Women have adapted more easily than men, which can’t be good for the men’s sense of identity.  In a generation, no one will remember or care.

[1] It’s not a car plant, but see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UGXW-PpVL7I

[2] See: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2015/03/02/american-union-stay-away-from-me-uh/

[3] Elements of this appear in “Gran Torino” (dir. Clint Eastwood, 2008): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JmqV-LGbqkw

[4] Amy Goldstein, Janesville: An American Story (2017).

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