Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Last Truck: Advance Review of a Forthcoming (Sept. 7) HBO Documentary

Review of “The Last Truck: The Closing of a GM Plant”

John Heitmann

Professor of History

University of Dayton

“The Last Truck: The Closing of a GM Plant,” has really little to say about the end of a product line or a shuttered auto plant. Rather, the focus of this film is on the people who worked the line, the under-appreciated blue collar workers who for generations have struggled with fatigue, monotony, and less than understanding supervisors while putting together the vehicles we drive and sometimes love. Unlike Michael Moore’s “Roger & Me, a now celebrated film that centered on the community of Flint, Michigan and the effects of GM plant closings, “The Last Truck” is about everyday people, the dignity gained by doing work, comradeship, and ultimately hopes and dreams now gone, possibly forever.

Indeed, the powerful messages contained in this film are conveyed by a group of blue collar line workers whose lives are reflected in the lines etched on their faces. And while there are dozens of individuals interviewed, a few emerge as stars – Paul, “Popeye” Doyle, Kate Geiger, Rick Stacy, Darlene Henson, Kim Clay, and Louis Carter. In virtually ever case, working for GM not only helped define their lives, but made a far better life possible. And if we are to believe what is said, relationships that developed from working with each other more than compensated for the long hours, and bodily aches and pains that anyone working on the line experiences. In the end and on the last day, the tears that are shed 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 should have been expected, and a number of the workers talk about the “good run” that ended. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, conditions, markets, and products have often changed quickly. With these transitions, workers have become unemployed, communities have been left behind, and the inevitable suffering took place. Significantly, and on a broader level, “The Last Truck” raises the issue of not just the future of Blue Collar America, but the nation as a whole, as globalism and free trade has brought with it increased competition from Asia in particular. Certainly the prospects of high school educated Americans having the ability to make a living wage are now in question. Perhaps we are living at the end of an era that did not come suddenly in 2008, but rather is rooted in the1970s.

The film does more than hint at GM’s incompetent management, and there is more than a bit of truth to this assertion. Certainly one cannot blame a line worker for the decision to make large, fuel-guzzling SUVs with out considering future petroleum shortages, energy dependency, and consumer demand. It is interesting to note how so little has been written about GM’s managerial strategies over the past 40 years, not surprising perhaps since outsiders have little access to the company’s historical documents. Worker wage, health care, and pension differentials cannot alone be responsible for the closing of the Moraine facility. Everything rises and falls on leadership, and GM has had a dearth of effective leadership for a long time.

Finally, while the film has its obvious strengths, it also has flaws. Reichert and Bognar romanticize the blue collar worker, not a surprise given their previous efforts. However, their portrayal certainly is at odds with the totally different view of assembly line work at GM that is characterized in Ben Hamper’s Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line. Certainly not every worker loved his brothers and sisters, nor did some take pride in the job. Undoubtedly workers did come to work stoned, drunk, and disaffected, but we see none of this in the film. In fact, when one listens carefully to the interviews, the job was not one seen as so important by many 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, when you think of your car or truck, remember the people like those we see in “The Last Truck,” who made what you use and love possible.

1 comment:

  1. These are my photos used without credit given to me for them.
    Kim Clay