Labor Lost

There is something that’s been bothering me since I left Detroit. It’s a lingering question: What would America be like today if auto workers throughout the Twentieth Century had rioted and protested against the American government rather than corporations for benefits and a fair wage?

What if the corporation was the wrong target all along?

Today, many people look to Detroit as a failure of unions demanding too much of corporations: health care, pensions, company cars. I disagree with this opinion, but I do see the point: residents on that frontier town were struggling too locally. This made Detroit a formidable industrial town for corporations looking to do business. But their struggle didn’t benefit or protect the rest of their nation with federal policy.

I think one reason workers demanded help from their employers was their perceived permanence. From the nineteen teens to the 1950s the auto industry in Detroit seemed as permanent as the nation itself. I think that it was also a matter of proximity for disgruntled employees: Workers in Detroit could march down the road to Ford’s River Rouge plant more easily (even with the fire hoses and armed guards) than they could drive 10 hours or so to D.C. Unlike Paris and London, our nation’s Capitol wasn’t the heart of industry and labor reform.

Ford was close and he was rich. The businesses in the city also had the most to lose and so it was here that employees felt they had the most leverage. With sit ins and riots they demanded their humanity and their health. And won. As their employers rose to global prominence the quality of life for middle class residents of the city continued to increase.

And then Martelle writes that two things happened: globalization and vertical integration. New factories were increasingly being built abroad and auto parts were increasingly being manufactured on site rather than purchased from suppliers. Neither of these is the fault of Detroiters. And then there was the flight to the suburbs and the Sun Belt, encouraged by federal policy and grants to decentralize defense industry and connect the nation with highways.

In sixty years, the city flipped in every way imaginable.

Today, the Big Three have taken their factories elsewhere and acquired or driven out many of their parts suppliers. With their departure went their jobs and salaries as well as their accompanying healthcare and other benefits. The classic quick-one-two jab of American unemployment.

We’ll never know what America would be like if we had demanded more security from our national government as we industrialized. Perhaps we’d be falling like France or maybe we’d be rising like Great Britain.

While we benefit from the labor struggle in Detroit, we continue to blame the city for demanding more. When really I think they should have demanded differently.

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