|Image from Democracy Now!, https://www.democracynow.org/2019/11/27/1999_wto_protests_20_years_later|
The layoffs were never a surprise. The rumors would circulate for weeks ahead of time, and even when they were formally announced you'd have already heard that somebody's dad got a pink slip or someone's neighbor didn't go in that day.
When they happened you'd be sure to watch the local news. It was always the same interview: a middle-aged man, always with the ballcap, standing outside an auto plant, whatever personal combination of nervous, angry, demoralized, upset, worried showing clearly in his posture and visage. "What are you going to do now?" the attractive, young female reporter would ask him.
"I don't know."
You'd get the details from the newspaper. Ours, the straightforwardly-titled Saginaw News, would usually come around six. 200 at Grey Iron. 160 at Steering Gear. 278 at Central Foundry. Another whole division at Fisher Body in Flint. This was always front-page, obviously. Usually they'd have a map of the different plants or an infographic showing the types of jobs being cut: machinists, tool & dye makers, always lots of unskilled assembly line positions.
This was a strange way to learn about how cars were made, a reverse-engineered understanding based on which production lines were being shut down or what kinds of workers were out of a job. But it did get the point across: manufacturing was dying in this country. There was no future in it. Certainly not in the auto plants where your father or your uncle or your grandfather--or maybe even your mother--once earned a living and hopefully still did.
And it was a good living. But it was hard. Assembly-line work was brutal: dirty, dangerous, loud, and monotonous--oh, so monotonous. The lubrication was everywhere--it would subtly soak into your sweatshirt, your jeans, the pores of your skin. The foam earplugs would throb, would chafe. That might distract you from your aching feet, or the soreness in your shoulder--only the right one, or only the left. On the worst days the metal would rise against you--the little parts slowly nibbling away at your glove, hitting the same tiny spot over and over and over again until they made a hole. Then that metal would gnaw your fingertip, wearing the skin thin. You'd watch the slow creep of the time-clock, silently praying for the shift to end before the metal would break through. Usually it would end on time, but just usually. And just on time. You'd try to hold the pieces in a slightly different way, try to adjust the glove to somehow stop it, but on those days the effort was always in vain. You could only look forward to the next day, and the next pair of gloves. But that, at least, gave you something to think about: where you'd buy them, what material you'd get, when could you make it to the store.
The clock crept more quickly this way, but usually there was nothing to think about at all. Just the next piece of metal and the slow creep of the clock. You couldn't wait for that clock to run out--to line up with your cardstock timeslip in hand and slide that baby just so until you feel that perfect "cah-CHUNK" of another hard day done. Run that baby out! Just so long as there's another eight hours on the clock tomorrow.
That was a bigger clock, one with hands that measured years and decades rather than hours and minutes. But that clock was running out too.
Some people didn't get it, of course. There were still plenty of people around town who never finished high school but lived in nice houses and drove nice (American) cars and lived comfortable lives thanks to General Motors. Or Chrysler. Or a tier-one supplier. Or maybe a tier-two. Or maybe some other business that thrived selling products or services to those autoworkers. It was an economy and it was real and it was all still there. Sure there were layoffs. Sure, the UAW was on the defensive every time--fighting to preserve wages and positions against successive rounds of cuts rather than the old days, when they agitated for better wages, health care, pensions, and even civil rights. But people would always need cars. And even if robots could build cars, somebody would need to build the robots, right? It couldn't all go away.
And man, did our people hate the robots. Every mechanical arm or automatic palletizer was somebody's $30K per year job, with benefits. (And that was a decent check: $30K a year in 1985 would well be over $70K now). Every mechanized welder or painter meant one less (highly-paid) skilled position, actually maybe three or five. Good technology came with names like Atari or Walkman; industrial automation was the devil incarnate. Nobody in Saginaw ever heard of Ned Ludd. He would have been their hero. Him and whoever invented euchre.
Better to hate machines than hate other people. But there was plenty of that, too. For decades the domestic auto industry had dominated our highways, with the "big three" of GM, Ford, and Chrysler controlling over 80% of the U.S. market share well into the 1980s. But Japanese automakers entered the market in the late '60s and steadily gained ground. This competition was bad news for the Michigan-based U.S. auto giants and was largely resented throughout the Midwest.
And the threat wasn't just from foreign competition--it was from Asian competition. European carmakers like Volkswagen, Mercedes Benz, and Renault had long had a presence in the U.S. market. But nobody ranted about German or competition or sold tickets to smash an old Fiat or Alliance with a sledgehammer. Never mind that companies like Toyota and Nissan bought parts from U.S. suppliers and built their own assembly plants in North America and employed U.S. workers--or that American companies like GM and Ford off-shored plenty of their own production and purchased cheap parts from foreign suppliers as well. The economic insecurity combined with racism and the mixture proved downright ugly. RIP Vincent Chin.
One byproduct of the racism and bitterness was that it obscured the fact that the autoworkers actually had a point: much of the competition that was costing them their jobs was objectively not fair. Even if the executives at Ford or GM were determined to continue making cars in Michigan and buying parts from domestic suppliers, doing so would be suicidal when producers in Indonesia or Mexico or Vietnam or the Philippines could make equal or better products at a fraction of the cost. And this was possible because factories in those and other developing countries tended to built in free enterprise zones, where worker safety and environmental protection laws did not apply (or were not enforced if they did) and wages were notoriously terrible.
Fair or not fair, the writing was on the wall--and those of us who read it got the hell out. Many of us got out physically--fleeing the Rust Belt for beacons of opportunity in coastal cities, college towns, or wherever else buildings were going up instead of coming down. Others may have remained in the Midwest physically, but pursued careers in health care, law, music, engineering, finance, culinary arts, education, tech, glassblowing, the god dam military, whatever--anything but manufacturing. In fact, you didn't really even need to read anything: Bill freaking Clinton told us there just weren't going to be any more factory jobs, so we had better go off to college. And then he went and signed us up for NAFTA and, later, the WTO.
So that was how it was supposed to work for us Generation Xers. Manufacturing was a lost cause. We'd give up on that, but trade it for better opportunities in tech and highly-skilled service fields. It would take education, sure--but we'd make sure that was available. I know it's different than what you're used to. But times have changed. This is the right plan for a 21st century world. Trust me.
It didn't take thirty years to realize the plan was crap. The promised educational opportunities and high-tech retraining did not materialize. Students were force to borrow, and borrow big. Wages stagnated even for those who transitioned into the newer jobs. Some lady at Harvard explained that it now took two incomes for a household to afford what a one-income household once could. It turned out foreign workers could do lots of tech and service jobs too--and that freely opening the U.S. market to products produced in free enterprise zones was a grave threat to the environment. By 1999, we Xers weren't having it.
They didn't listen then, sprayed us with tear gas instead. And they still won't listen to us now--20 years later, when it's clear as day that they were wrong and we were right. They lost us.
Some of us turned to the fringes. If Al Gore or John Kerry wouldn't listen, at least Ralph Nader would. If Barack Obama isn't interested, maybe it's worth checking out Jill Stein or whoever the socialist party is running. Or just stay home--electoral politics are for schmucks anyway. But we mostly sucked it up and voted for the mainstream candidates--not because they were ever right, but because the other choice was always even more fearsome.
Us, they'd lost. But there were others, people they never had in the first place. Those who hadn't read the writing on the wall. Those who hadn't listened to Bill Clinton's warning. Those who thought that if the robots could build the cars, they could at least build the robots. Those who didn't consider it work unless your sweat mixed with oil and your ears rang and your feet killed and the metal dug into your flesh. Those who wanted to watch a clock and punch a card and hate every second and think about gloves and nothing. Those who paid $5 for three swings at a Toyota and brutalized Vincent Chin. They were still there. And they made sure those of us who'd gotten out knew that we were not welcome back. Now the sledgehammers are AR-15s.
Many of them had gone to the fringes too. The Bushes weren't their people, but Pat Buchanan was listening. The militias were recruiting. The Tea Party was open. And then came Donald Trump, who said he would renegotiate the trade agreements. Bring the jobs back. Real jobs, with sweat and pain and gloves and timeclocks and meth. And he said he'd make sure "real Americans" get those jobs too, not undeserving newcomers.
He was probably lying, of course--as Trump's indifference to working class issues is immediately obvious to anyone who's paid the slightest attention to Trump. And yeah, whether he was actually lying or simply unable despite an honest desire, he has not succeeded in restoring U.S. manufacturing jobs. But at least he talked about it. at least he said he would. That's more than could be said for his 2016 general election opponent--another corporate Democrat who would have kept the Washington Consensus humming along.
I grew up in Michigan. I have long since "gotten out." But it's still my home state; I still cheer for the Tigers and Red Wings. I still tell people how Lake Michigan has the best beaches. I know how to pronounce Mackinac and I still play euchre. And so I felt personally crushed when the news media called Michigan for Trump in 2016. I said I could not believe it.
"Why not?" asked a Korean-American friend. She'd grown up in the same town as me, had been around the same people, read the same newspaper, seen the same stories on the local news. I was not welcome back, but she'd never felt welcome there in the first place--amid the Asian-bashing, the anti-intellectualism, and the specter of economic birthrights withheld behind chainlink fences and dying in extinguished industrial furnaces. You've heard of white privilege? It's a concept easily rejected under six figures of student loan debt, but never have I understood its meaning more clearly than in that moment. Why the fuck not, Eric? Indeed.
The 2020 presidential race comes down to the Rust Belt once again. There are those who've physically remained, but you sprayed them with tear gas twenty years ago, ignored them ever after, and finally they couldn't hold the barbarians from breaking through the gate in 2016. If you want to take it back, you have to fulfill your broken promises: educate our kids, put U.S. workers on a level playing field, give us the damn raise Bill Clinton said we had coming thirty years ago and for crying out loud get serious about the environment. That starts with sending somebody who will at least offer to do so.
We have a saying in euchre: "never send a boy." It means don't play a weak trump card when there's a chance it could get over-trumped by an opponent. Yeah, don't do that.