Whose Fall?

Posted July 3, 2009

The June 28 issue of the Sunday New York Times magazine had a long article, “GM, Detroit and the Fall of the Black Middle Class.” The article recounted the story of an African-American man who is a production worker at the GM Pontiac Assembly Plant. While six years ago the plant ran three consecutive shifts, employed 3,000 and made 1,300 trucks a day, today it’s running one shift, requires only 600 workers, and produces 230 vehicles. On June 1st GM announced that the plant is shutting down within five months.

The NYT article sets the story of Marvin Powell and the decision he must now make within the framework of the decision his parents made to come north more than forty years ago. If the article traces the arc of the parents’ coming north to find good and secure jobs, it’s clear to the reporter that economic opportunity for the next generation is on the decline: Marvin Powell was born at the wrong historical moment.

The story is told as if there is no union or no community that can stop the corporation from making decisions that affect the lives of thousands, or in the reporter’s image, it’s a train heading straight toward Marvin and his family. Yet hidden in the story is another perspective, one that unlocks the key of how people won good jobs for at least a generation.

As for the union’s presence, it amounts to a couple of UAW vice presidents participating in a special church service urging parishioners to join “the union’s prayers for deliverance.” There’s no discussion, no expectation that autoworkers should organize a sit in to prevent the plant closing. No one suggests that if trucks aren’t selling the plant should be retooled for other products. The one-sided class war continues.