Friday, April 1, 2011
Preface to 2nd Edition Autoplant
On December 19, 2008, the last production shift at Newark, Delaware’s Chrysler Assembly Plant, scene of my 1992 Autoplant: a Poetic Monologue, filed out, leaving behind their last Christmas cards, half-full coffee cups, production charts, cotton gloves, and dreams of sharing the American Dream.
The world where the imaginary Big Man, Gravy, Billy Goat, Warthog, and a fictional version of myself had worked, sweated, and turned from mutual torment to solidarity was gone.
Folks who have read or seen Autoplant may take it in different ways. Some may find it to be a cautionary tale about how some workers and students, deluded by 60’s revolutionary fantasies, disrupted industry and academia. Others may see it as some sort of a romance, a quest, complete with mythic characters, a dark night of the soul, and ultimate redemption. Still others may see an inspirational lesson in how ordinary folks, with all their fears and limitations, can apply the lessons of solidarity to improve their lives. However you see it, the issues that led to their actions (or delusions) are repeating themselves today in new forms. Thus, and since the old edition is sold-out, it seems appropriate to produce this second edition. Fair warning to the squeamish: you’ll find adult situations and crude shop-talk here, but as I say in the monologue, “if the shoe fits, it’s your own damn fault.”
Back when I wrote Autoplant, my concern was with how exploited labor produces spiritual alienation. Alienation—as in “inalienable rights”—means to make foreign or separate. Long story short: assembly lines separate us into little parts of production and only use little parts of our abilities, so we are alienated from our whole selves, spiritually carved up. And then the bosses separate us from the value of the product by taking out some to buy supplies and machines, which they control, keeping a chunk in profits*, and returning a portion to us in wages and benefits, about 8% of the price of the vehicle for autoworkers. Alienation is what gave me the nightmares of dismemberment that I recount in Autoplant.
Now, with deindustrialization, NAFTA, the Great Recession, and the firing of millions of us, we are even separated from the machines that were built with our labor. As the UAW anthem, “Solidarity Forever,” written in 1915 by Ralph Chaplin, describes it:
It is we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade;
Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid;
Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made;
These days, instead of dreaming fretfully of infants chewed up in the jaws of a machine, I dream about Newark Assembly as a place of belonging, of harvest sharing, of that “solidarity forever” expressed in the last line of that verse above:
But the union makes us strong!
Ironically, my present employer, the University of Delaware, which played so prominently in Autoplant as the dream “gymnasium” from which I wandered to the nightmare of assembly line dismemberment, has purchased the Chrysler site. UD intends to use it as a new hub for high-tech research, business, and academics. New jobs are unlikely to be blue collar or even local, however, as tenants of such industrial parks tend to import their employees in-house and in any case will only be hiring those with technical and advanced degrees. Alternative purchasers, industrialists who might have re-hired Chrysler workers, were discouraged from bidding on the site.
You see, UD is a bit of a hermaphrodite enterprise: both public and private, depending on which gender suits it on any given occasion. For example, according to the News Journal (24 Oct 2009), “[i]n a footnote in the bankruptcy court filing, attorneys for Chrysler noted that other potential purchasers may have been reluctant to ‘take the risk’ of buying the property because UD had the possibility of gaining the land, under state law, through eminent domain and has publicly indicated a willingness to use such rights [of a public enterprise] to secure the property.’” Not only that, but UD is giving most demolition and re-construction contracts to out-of-state and non-union firms. UD argues that their Board requires that they take the low bid, typical of any private enterprise. Prevailing wage laws that would induce them to hire local union firms are only for public institutions.
The greater significance of UD’s shrewdness in nailing this deal is how replacing blue-collar with lab coat jobs is seen as part of the inevitable evolution of the global economy. Those jobs are gone forever, it’s time to get over it, start your own business, or retrain after some twenty or twenty-five years out of high school. You can do it all on your own lonesome. After all, ain’t individual responsibility the American Way? Now, many Chrysler workers are making it, but some just barely, and some have become economic evolution’s collateral damage. Personally, I’m doing OK. I retired in 2001 after thirty-one years, and now I’m “teaching more than a minutes worth of Shakespeare” at UD.
Time was when folks would admire us in our UAW-emblazoned jackets as men and women who worked hard, had fought the boss shoulder to shoulder, and had won a fair share of the wealth we created. We might not be genteel and sophisticated, but our solidarity was an inspiration to any regular working Jane or Joe who believed she or he could fight for a better deal.
Somewhere along the way, about the same time industrialists were shipping jobs overseas and investors began gambling on credit default swaps, solidarity became the big enemy. According to current fashion, if you combine your strength in unions to make the boss pay you a fair wage, then you are a thief and a socialist. We’re led to believe that any guy big biz pays more is merely taking from the guy big biz pays less. We’re led to believe workers should let the infallible market set their pay in the same mysterious way that hedge managers and oil barons do. And don’t blame the banksters for the economic melt down. Instead, blame Arabs, blacks, gays, feminazis, immigrants, ACORN, taxes, and unions, such as those representing government workers.
The month that I write this, March of 2011, the nation and the world is seeing what solidarity can do. In Egypt, men, women, middle class, poor, young, old, Muslim, Coptic Christian, socialist, and traditionalists combined to topple a dictator. In Wisconsin, teachers, sewer workers, pencil pushers, students, firemen, and cops are confronting an oil baron’s flunky, the Governor of the state, who has attempted to strip them of fundamental human rights.
Now, Autoplant is not a Bible for revolution; it has more to do with redemption. And while I wanted to let Americans know what hard work means, Autoplant was largely motivated by a desire to make sense of what I experienced at Chrysler, to laugh about it a little, to apply some of what I know about poetry, and to reclaim parts of myself I felt I was losing by working there. With this second edition, I am hoping that I, along with my UAW Chrysler sisters and brothers, can reclaim some of what we have lost since Newark Assembly was shut down.
Sparking a new revolutionary spirit wouldn’t be so bad, though.
*See “The Crisis at Chrysler 1979 at the beginning of chapter 3