Writing Detroit

Writing Detroit

The factory work ethic still permeates a city haunted by the ghosts of assembly lines past. And that’s good news for the future.

By Lolita Hernandez

One day in the early years of my career at General Motors, my father said to me, “You could have picked up the pen, but you picked up the hammer.” Who knows what misconceptions informed his understanding of factory, how low he thought I had sunk after receiving a degree from the University of Michigan. I was stunned that he made a distinction between pen and hammer, as though I had lost brain power upon entering the factory. But I hadn’t, at least not for that moment on my parents’ east side Detroit front porch. So, cheeky as ever, I replied that I had picked up both.

Pen and hammer have defined my interaction with my city then and now. How I arrived at an auto factory with degree in hand is a mystery even to me. But I had happened upon some radical workers at just the time when not much else made sense during those chaotic years of the late ’60s and early ’70s. So I found myself working in a sure-nuff, big-time producer of the flagship symbol of American luxury, the Cadillac Motor Car Company. I was there to organize unionized workers to a higher level. Frankly, I mainly ended up organizing myself into writing poetry and fiction about life in the plant. I needed to figure out why, really, was I working in a factory? Why any of us were in there.

For sure auto work is hard. You could find yourself lifting heavy in foundries, as my good friend and Ford worker General Baker did, or working mighty fast, as I did on the assembly line. Lifting heavy or working fast was really no different than the early days of auto production and equally wreaked havoc on the body, especially given the repetitive nature of both. In 1913 at the Rouge, the absentee rate was 10.5 percent with a 307 percent turnover, creating the need for a large pool of replacements. Hence, the advent of the $5 work day. Ford lessened the cost of production by keeping a stable workforce, and provided the paycheck for workers to buy the product. 1 It was up to the workers to fight for health care, pension, and other benefits that are less and less available to workers now entering the field. Autoworkers of my day inherited a work ethic established by our predecessors. We became loyal to repetitive, heavy work and to lots of it. We became loyal to our nameplates, in spite of the physical pain of production and the diminution of emotional energy. The benefits helped to compensate for the rigors of factory labor and were, in part, the reason for our loyalty.

Auto work was hard for the pioneers of Ford’s assembly lines and it was no cakewalk for me at Cadillac decades later. Evidently, it’s still hard in spite of cleaner conditions and air conditioning. That must have thrown off the 26 new hires at Chrysler’s Jefferson Assembly several summers ago; they expected easier working conditions, but quit on their first day at lunchtime. The work was too difficult at $14/hour.2 With reduced benefits, new workers don’t have the same loyalty.

In his foreword to Working Words, a massive 2010 compilation of working-class literature edited by M. L. Liebler and published by Coffee House Press, Ben (Rivethead) Hamper writes, “The notion that work builds strong character strikes me as a defeatist’s consolation, as intrinsically daft as believing bombs build good peace. Like anything else, it is what you make of it. In this way, all workers are artists, sworn to an ingenuity that they must create for themselves.”

I was thinking the same thing when I wrote in the introduction to Autopsy of an Engine, my collection of short fiction inspired by the Cadillac plant, “We were all fabricating more than painted hunks of steel that could go honk honk honk in that rich melodic Cadillac way and then hog up the highways, humming away like we used to on the lines. We were creating a unique world that only we were privy to, a complete mystery to non-factory humanity.”
Well, the exigencies of production have changed and those old time bastions of auto assembly are pretty much gone from almost everywhere. So are those workers. Those who are left work side-by-side with robots that don’t write. We, who experienced the last days of the heyday of auto production, were witness to the development of community within the factory and to the community outside as the Arsenal of Democracy shifted back to auto after WWII. Even then auto production was crawling to its deathbed. But through the ’60s to ’80s, auto was still breathing heavy enough. Certainly that was the case during the 1967 rebellion and the Revolutionary Union Movements (RUM), two of the last major upsurges in the city. RUM references a series of factory strikes in 1968. These strikes shut production down at various facilities. So, for example, at Dodge Main the movement was called DRUM. At Eldon Gear and Axle it was called ELRUM. These strikes, primarily led by the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, of which General Baker was a founding member, primarily addressed the wage and job inequities between white and black workers. One lesson we can learn from the rise and fall of struggles in present-day Detroit is that the loss of factories represents a loss of power.

Those writing creatively in Detroit do so in the throes of the breakdown of industrial life more radical than the elegiac slower passing of factories. We are now witnessing the transformation of methods of production so powerful that human labor becomes obsolete. The rise of homelessness continues unabated since the appearance of robots in the factories of the ’70s. The newest generation of robots have thumbs dexterous enough to assemble cars alongside humans.4 What will this mean for the Detroit work ethic? Then again, the problem is not the robots but who owns them. What if through the use of robots we were still able to feed and clothe ourselves and have housing? How about universal health care? No more war? What if we were able to apply the work ethic to making art, writing poems, making music, expanding culture, improving our relations with the earth and each other? What if we were to have the space to repetitively explore our artistic range, get heavy into it, loving the nameplate of mother earth?

Detroiters are in an identity crisis, already consigned to the dust bins of history. Make no mistake: while not everyone in the city worked in the factories, the factory work ethic permeates the D still. But our memory of it is fast fading, and that is the new world that the new artists emerging from this city must create for themselves.3

But that’s for the future. In the meantime, we have a lot of struggle ahead of us, and we’ve got to do it without the aid of those mammoth containers of sweaty, tough labor, the auto factories. We are sprinkled throughout the city and suburbs, walking a tightrope. Sometimes I want to just fling some mixture of abcs, hoping it will hit a mark and make a difference. 

These days I’m wielding my pen through teaching writing courses in the U-M Residential College, which includes the Semester in Detroit Program (SID) and Saturdays in a mini-course with U-M students and Detroit public high school students writing fiction. The mini-course, in collaboration with the Ford Department of the UAW, finds us searching for our stories about the city, about ourselves. Imagine that. This is healing and bringing the health and ethos of the city to the forefront, even though many of the Detroit students don’t realize they wear the Detroit mantle like warriors. One asked, “Why can’t non-union cars park in the UAW-Ford Department lot?”Answer: because they are non-union.

Yes, I gave that answer. Many of us from the old factory days identify with extinct animals, most often dinosaurs, especially in reference to health care, defined pension benefits, and the community we once knew. We were like family with each other in there. General Baker passed away in May 2014, perhaps the victim of foundry work. In his later years he continued to struggle on behalf of working people. He delighted in coming to share his vast knowledge of labor history with the students of SID. He was with us from the beginning, which is why we have now established a scholarship in his name for students wishing to enroll in SID.

I often think of myself as the spirit of Martha, the last passenger pigeon. She died in the Cincinnati Zoo, September 1, 1914. They say that at one time passenger pigeons were the most plentiful birds in the world, until being hunted in droves for food. Maybe I feel like the spirit of Martha, passing through with air under my wings trying to deliver this message along to these young people in Detroit and on campus. I think General must have felt the same way.

Mostly, I’m hoping to survive the hunt.

Born and raised in Detroit, Lolita Hernandez is the author of Making Callaloo in Detroit, a 2015 Michigan Notable Book, and Autopsy of an Engine and Other Stories from the Cadillac Plant, winner of a 2005 PEN Beyond Margins Award. She teaches in the U-M Residential College and U-M’s Semester in Detroit.

Notes:

  1. Thomas Maloney, Warren C. Whatley, “Making the Effort: The Contours of Racial Discrimination in Detroit’s Labor Market 1920-1940,” The Journal of Economic History, 55, 3 (Sept 1995), 465-493.
  2. As told to General Baker by Cynthia Holland, President of UAW Local 7, which represents the Chrysler North Assembly.
  3. Ben Hamper, “Introduction,” Working Words: Punching the Clock and Kicking Out the Jams, ed. M. L. Liebler (Coffee House Press,  2010).
  4. http://robonaut.jsc.nasa.gov/default.asp