Thursday, February 08, 2007

Remembering the Flint Buick Plant

There's a big blank spot in the north side of Flint.

It used to be a factory. Once the largest Automobile factory in the world.

Between North Street and the Flint River (actually Industrial Street, but Industrial Street had long been taken over and obliterated by some 1980's updating) stood a three-story blond brick building that had housed the production lines of various Buick automobiles since 1904, before the formation of General Motors. Indeed, Buick was the engine that built General Motors.

My father worked there for thirty-two years. When he started working there, a GM employee was one the best things you could have been. People loved our cars (or at least bought them), and the union was strong. Now, of course, nobody wants to buy our cars and the only thing the UAW union can do now is insure its workers get good retirement packages (and how long that can happen is now up in the air).

I first remembered the building when my mother would drive up to pick up my father there. At the time it was dark, so there was this dark hulk brooding over the street with the windows shining bright in the night. Dad would come out of a square hole in the building (it was long and tall, that's all I knew then). The city was closed, not even the donut shop was open then.

Later on, mom would pick dad up during the day. By day the building actually looked a bit friendly, with its blond brick and greenish windows. The hole in the building had become a garage-like door through which people came in and out.

I actually took a tour in time for the 19th million Buick to be built. It was interesting to see the assembly line go as the car went from frame to automobile. I even saw where my dad worked (his area was fenders at the time). The cars themselves were not memorable for good reason, as this was the nadir of quality control at GM. Japanese cars were just then beginning to overtake Volkswagon (then under pressures from a massive exchange rate change that made their budget cars extremely expensive), not yet in a position to hit at GM. GM was also using aluminum (aluminium for our European readers) in the cars, making for complaints from my dad.

Then came the 1980's. Never mind Reagan, america was discovering Japanese cars at the time. Sick and tired with what the concept of "panned obsolescence" had become (by the late seventies, cars were being built with a six-year, 90,000 mile lifespan in mind) and gagging at Union opulence (since when did birthdays become a paid holiday?) and worker reaction against imports (that the cars were crap wasn't their fault, that they had a hand in forcing the reaction was reasonable, if not obvious) didn't help. GM tried out their "Buick City" concept (just-in-time production and heavy robot investment), but the immediate automobile quality doomed the plant UNTIL Michael Moore reported that GM was about to close Buick City. GM responded as they felt they had to (Michael Moore had become a famous leftist gadfly by then, and he would have had the ultimate scoop for Flint - something to be avoided at all costs at the time), and by 1987 Buick City was building the first american car to make it onto the JD Powers lists (the Le Sabre).

So things went until the late 1990s. GM was still wanting to keep Buick City open and had gone through with contract negotions when a wildcat strike hit part of the plant. Things had changed by then, and while the threat of such a strike in the seventies would have caused the company to give in (My dad had his birthday off as a paid holiday in the mid seventies. Any wonder there was no sympathy for Unions then, or now?) now GM had another alternative: Closure.

So Buick City was closed. So was the Chevy Engine plant that was instrumental in the Sit-Down strikes of 1937.

The building was closed in 1999, and torn down in 2002.

Understand the sea change that happened during this time:
  • In 1976 (when I did the tour of the Buick plant) it was expected that for Flintoids you get a job, you worked it for thirty-plus years, and you retired. You got married, raised children, and hoped they did better than you during that time; but there was always the factory (and others) to come in if your son didn't do what you expected. Now, good luck if you're working class and can find steady work.
  • In 1976, the biggest employers were General Motors and Ford. Now the biggest employers are Manpower and Wal-Mart. From honored jobs with the wages and benefits to match (if a bit much, alas) to institutionalized part-time or temporary status.
  • In 1976, education was easily afforded by those who qualified, and (outside of Liberal Arts) there were jobs ready for when you graduated. Now college students are expected to mortgage their future for the education, and the jobs aren't necessarily there if (not the difference now) you're able to finish.
  • In 1976 we were willing to try to save gas, save money and stop inflation. Now we want to drive boats, spend like tomorrow has specifically been canceled (by Jesus, let me add) and would cheer an expansion in prices if it meant the poor could no longer eat.
  • In 1976 we were aware of our "infrastructure" and tried to keep it up, even if we didn't have a word for it. Now, we just bemoan the fact that we're falling further and further behind and have embraced the concept of "benign neglect" (after all, you'd have to be taxed to keep it up properly; AND WHO WANTS TO PAY? SURELY NOT YOU.).
Yes, things have changed, and for the worse. And all the "copied" music on all the iPods in America do nothing but allow the iPod users to exule in and embrace the decay.

Anyone remember the Roman Empire? or at least read about it?

1 comment:

geewhy said...

I just ran across this post and it's fantastic. A moving recollection of the old Flint, and an insightful analysis of the problems facing the U.S. Thanks for writing this.