Genesee County, where I was born and raised, contains Flint, Michigan, which was the original “Motor City.” Now it has unemployment of 16.5%. It was the birth place of General Motors. And William C. “Billy” Durant was the driving force behind the behemouth that became known as General Motors. He was a high school drop out who transitioned from the most successful buggy manufacturer to the leader of the largest automobile manufacturer. He and others like him put Flint on the map. In its heyday, Flint was like a magnet, drawing people who were looking for jobs from all over the United States.
When I was growing up in the 60s, life was good there. Unskilled people right out of high school joined General Motors and Chevrolet and Buick and A.C. Sparkplugs and made better money than could be made elsewhere by college grads and those with advanced degrees. G.M. made cars that everybody loved. People made fun of the Japan tin cans and German V.W. Then, things began to change. It gradually changed into the infamous Flint seen in “Roger and Me.”
My grandfather began working at General Motors sometime during the Great Depression or just before the start of WWII and worked there until his retirement at 65 in 1973. I remember one time telling him that the union was ruining G.M. (Yes, even back as a 12 year old I was an opinionated know-it-all). He calmly replied that he did not know about that, but that he could remember when they first began to strike for higher wages, and he and other union members took over the plant in protest, and how some people lost their lives fighting for higher wages. Truly, the UAW at first made Flint the happy place it was in the 60s.
But the union was made up of workers, normal human beings. The older ones died out and retired, the ones who remembered from whence they had come. Those who remembered when the management could fire them at the drop of the hat were retiring. (until he retired my grandfather always arrived at work 45 minutes early, for in the old days you could be fired for having a flat tire on the way to work). Those who remembered the atrocious working conditions of the past, who remembered the atrocious pay, were dying off. My grandfather told me a million times how he worked for .10 an hour back in “the tile yard” making clay tiles behind his house during the depression. To this day his daughter, my aunt, now 77, won’t eat fish because during The Depression the only meat he could put on the table was fish from the nearby “Atlas mill pond.” He worked like a dog all his life at G.M. and was damn happy to have a job.
But my grandfathers’ generation, and the generation of those who fought in WWII and Korea, were slowly replaced by the “baby-boomers” and subsequent generations. The earlier generations had a great work ethic and a can do spirit. But they also wanted better for their children, and their children’s children. So they spoiled them. Sure, this is a great generalization, but I could see the effects, even as a young man. And my father, who returned from the Korean war and joined G.M. in management, told numerous horror stories about how the whiners and complainers in the shops would file “grievances,” with the Union’s full support, that would take up an entire day of his per week to settle. A friend of mine went directly into working at “the shop” and within 2 years had secured a job where all he had to do was lay down on a cot in a small room and sleep. At full pay and benefits. He spent his days on the golf courses. In short, the union members got fat and happy, and quality of the vehicles declined. All the union members joked that you did not want to buy a car that was manufactured on a Friday (everybody was set to go party or leave town for the weekend) or a Monday (hangover day). G.M. cars became famous for technical “built-in obsolescence.”
At the same time that G.M. quality was tanking, Japan began focusing on perfecting quality. Japanese automakers began to make the Civic and the Accord and the Corolla, at much lower costs, while the G.M. workers began to spew out crappy styled cars with defects and poor workmanship, at much higher costs. And the rest is history. Now the poor residents of Genesee County and surrounding areas wonder what the heck happened. Flint has recently been in the news for alleged plans to shrink the city by 40% by bulldozing old and abandoned buildings. Rush Limbaugh took some heat for saying “Let’s just bulldoze it.” Residents blame G.W. Bush, God, cheap foreign labor, the economy, anything but the real cause of the problem.
I place the blame squarely on the UAW becoming too powerful, the workers straying away from producing quality products, and the management becoming too weak to stop the union and too inept to design better cars. Ultimately, the people who work in G.M. are to blame for G.M.’s downfall. I’m glad I left back in 1980 and never looked back. But I remember what it was like. Flint will recover. The automobile has created a boom or bust economy in Michigan for decades. You guys hang in there…