Automobile manufacturing jobs are a familiar ingredient in any politician’s grand rhetoric of inspiration.
The age when middle-class families had greatest upward economic mobility is closely linked to the car industry in Americans’ minds. Detroit’s modern decay has been a damning omen for millions of people far from the Great Lakes for years, signifying as it does the decline and fall of the most iconic symbol of the United States as an economic powerhouse.
It makes perfect political sense, then, for President Donald Trump to give the auto industry an extended shout-out in his State of the Union address.
But the lengthy passage of Trump’s Tuesday night speech dedicated to car companies and their employees was a con job. The experience of working in vehicle manufacturing in the deep south, where wage-boosting labor unions are all but outlawed and workplace safety laws are met with eye-rolling, has as much in common with the nostalgic image of a post-World War II Detroit assembly line as a knockoff Louis Vuitton bag selling for $100 on the street does with the real thing.
“Many car companies are now building and expanding plants in the United States, something we haven’t seen for decades,” Trump said Tuesday. “Chrysler is moving a major plant from Mexico to Michigan. Toyota and Mazda are opening up a plant in Alabama.”
In reality, car companies have been flocking to the United States for years, as fact-checkers pointed out in real time after Trump demanded credit for a revival in car-making that began when he was still firing celebrities from his TV show. Firms are actually slowing down their activity down south since the confessed serial sexual predator took the most powerful job on Earth.
The deceit goes far deeper than just timeline realities. The truth of life in a southern U.S. auto plant in the 21st century is a vulgar bastardization of the old industrial bootstrapping that Detroit once fostered. This isn’t new information. Ten months ago, Bloomberg Businessweek published a lengthy, deeply reported expose on the modern American car business’s savage, thrifty treatment of the men and women who work in these plants.
The foreign-owned parts factories and assembly lines dotting Alabama, Tennessee, and Indiana these days have been a beacon to desperate people like Regina Elsea. Eager to afford to move in with her Walmart stocker boyfriend in 2016, Elsea started working 12-hour shifts every single day in the Cusseta, Alabama, parts factory of Ajin USA. She started at $8.75 an hour as a temp, Bloomberg reported, and was giving literally half her life to the job just in hopes of getting a bump to $10.50 hourly if the firm took her on full time.
Elsea was crushed to death by a robotic assembly line machine in June of that year, four months after she started. She had tried to troubleshoot the malfunctioning robot because it was holding up the production line, a delay Bloomberg’s reporting shows the company would inevitably take out on its workforce. “Her mom still hasn’t heard a word from Ajin’s owners or senior executives. They sent a single artificial flower to her funeral,” reporter Peter Waldman wrote.
Elsea’s story is far from unique, as the investigation shows. But neither is it truly accidental. States like Alabama use so-called “right-to-work” laws to make unionization impossible. Without the ability to bargain as a team for a fair share of the profits companies like Ajin earn supplying the Hyundais and Kias of the world, workers like Regina Elsea are left to fight for scraps.
Even at the $10.50 hourly wage she’d been trying to convince the company to give her when their robot killed her, she would have been earning roughly half of the wage historically associated with blue-collar middle-class prosperity. Another subject of the Bloomberg piece, Cordney Crutcher, said his pay jumped from $12 to $18.21 an hour when he moved to a unionized General Motors plant in Tennessee. Union contracts ensure more than just a fair apportioning of money between bosses and workers. “They teach you the right way” at the GM plant, Crutcher, who lost a pinkie on the line at his old non-union factory job in Huntsville, Alabama, said of the new United Auto Workers-protected gig. “They don’t throw you to the wolves.”
Another worker, Reco Allen, got a temp gig as a janitor in one of the factories Trump so often praises. But when the bosses freaked out over production delays one day, a floor manager grabbed the temp janitor and put him on the line. The sum total of his training, Allen told Bloomberg, was a line worker telling him “get these blanks out of the bin[,] load them in the machine, and you make sure you get back.” A little while later, the machine slammed closed on his arms. There he stayed for a full hour, his arms trapped in the sizzling metal of the die press, before paramedics freed him.
This is more or less how the old lions of Detroit used to operate themselves, before the unions. Eighty years ago, workers went on mass strikes over poor safety conditions and wages. Management hired goons to assault union leaders and the city of Flint, Michigan saw outright riots.
Separating executives from their money is never easy. But by 1948, after decades of outright violence and strife, General Motors agreed to peg line workers’ wages to inflation. By 1964, the UAW won commitments from automakers to give health insurance to retired workers.
The glistening heyday of American auto manufacturing was defined by the high wages and good training for factory workers during their careers and guaranteed pensions and benefits through their retirements. The economic security those hard-won agreements conferred made it possible for a family to go from high school dropouts to highly credentialed white-collar professionals in as little as a single generation.
From the middle of World War II through the mid-1970s, hourly wages and worker productivity climbed hand-in-hand across the entire economy — a partnership that’s broken down in the decades since, as workers have kept getting more productive but bosses have stopped paying them any more for their efficiency. The old Detroit way was part of the epoch when hard work paid off. The new Alabama style of automaking isn’t a revival at all — it symbolized the severing of that old tie between how good a job somebody did and how well they were able to live as a result.
The era so identified with the same white working-class nostalgia Trump harnessed in his rise to power was built by unions and workers. Non-union plants where bosses throw cheap human meat at the insatiable machinery of their trade and then drop a plastic flower on their caskets when something goes wrong are not the same thing.