Saturday, September 5, 2009
Labor Day Thoughts -- Auto Workers and the Cars We Love -- HBO's "The Last Truck."
When the first Model T rolled off Henry Ford's assembly line, the automobile forever changed the economic and cultural landscape of America.
But as Americans, we have taken for granted the folks who toiled to make automobility viable. Cars and trucks are not made by singing, cobbling gnomes.
The Last Truck: The Closing of a GM Plant reminds us about these everyday working people. They are the often under-appreciated, blue collar workers who for generations have struggled with fatigue, monotony and less-than-understanding supervisors to assemble the vehicles we drive and sometimes love.
Yet, at the same time, those working in the industry – both labor and management – took for granted the love that we had for our cars. Indeed, during the past 30 years, the American car consumer looked for love, but Detroit rarely supplied it. And like any neglected love, it can easily die.
The Last Truck contains a number of truths, it also contains some distortions not congruent with the historical record concerning workers and the assembly line.
The truths are reflected in the lines etched on the faces of a group of blue collar line workers. A few of the dozens of workers interviewed emerge as stars: Paul "Popeye" Doyle, Kate Geiger, Rick Stacy, Darlene Henson, Kim Clay and Louis Carter. In virtually every case, working for General Motors not only helped define their lives but made a far better life possible.
As much as one might criticize Henry Ford's assembly line, it did result in an unprecedented engine of economic growth that resulted in higher real wages across all class lines. And in the film we learn that relationships more than compensated for the long hours and bodily aches and pains anyone working on the line experiences. The tears shed in the end, on the last day, are not simply for the loss of a job, but for the loss of friendships that helped make it all worthwhile.
What happened in Moraine on Dec. 23, 2008, shouldn't surprise anyone. The economic factors leading to the automobile industry's decline have been well documented. But economic matters aside, something far more profound happened culturally to hasten the closing of the Moraine facility.
Starting in the early 1970s, America's love affair with the automobile began to wane. Almost imperceptible at first, it has now come to the point where most Americans view the automobile more as an appliance than as an object of desire. And while there are still enthusiasts, the average person thinks of his or her vehicle only in terms of convenience, rather than style, status and individuality. Camrys and Accords rule. Thus, when the economy began to turn sour, folks walked away from dealers' showrooms, and the industry brought this calamity on itself.
The film hints at GM's incompetent management, and there is more than a bit of truth to this assertion. Worker wage, health care and pension differentials cannot alone be responsible for the closing of the Moraine facility. Labor is not responsible for the decision to make large, gas-guzzling SUVs without considering future petroleum shortages, energy dependency and fluctuating consumer demand. There was a lack of vision among Detroit Three executives, and we are now reaping the consequences. Everything rises and falls on leadership, and GM has had a dearth of effective leadership for a long time.
But while the film has its obvious strengths, it also has flaws. Filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar inordinately romanticize the blue collar worker. Their portrayal is certainly at odds with the view of assembly line work at GM Ben Hamper characterized in his 1991 memoir Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line. Not every worker loved his brothers and sisters, nor did all take pride in the job. Worker alienation was a reality. Undoubtedly workers came to work stoned, drunk and disaffected, but we see none of this in The Last Truck. In fact, when one listens carefully to the interviews, the job was not seen by many as so important until it was about to go away.
Is it inevitable that these jobs are gone forever? Perhaps not, for history provides us with many lessons from the past where unlikely outcomes happen. In the meantime, Americans would do well the next time we buckle up in our car or trucks to remember the people like those we see in The Last Truck who make what we use and love possible.