Detroit’s workers can’t go backward or stand still. The intensifying polarization of wealth and poverty finds its expression in the exodus of capital investment from Detroit – and from the auto and manufacturing sectors in general. Within Detroit, 40 square miles of land stand vacant – enough to encompass the whole of Boston, Massachusetts!
Other expressions of this polarity could be seen in September 2009, when 10,000 people showed up at the Michigan state fair grounds to receive assistance with their utility bills, and in late 2009 when 50,000 people poured into the Cobo Hall convention center looking for housing assistance. It finds expression in the thousands of immigrant workers who march each May Day.
Gone are the days when the auto industry paid $28 an hour. The new concessionary contracts have cut auto wages to $14 an hour, as capital flows away from unprofitable industries, leaving the government as the lender of last resort.
The ties that bind the working class economically to its class enemy and the state are being broken. Many people are looking for answers. That’s why we should examine Detroit’s history, for it contains lessons for all revolutionaries.
Century of industry
Detroit was once a fur-trapping outpost, then a trading center, and only started its entry into manufacturing in the late 1800s. At the beginning of the 20th century, Detroit was the leading center for the production of iron stoves.
Within 20 years, the “horseless carriage” ushered in a revolution in production – with the Ford Motor Company and the moving assembly line leading the way. Ford’s highly publicized (and hard to actually get) $5-per-day wage started waves of workers from foreign lands, and from Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Deep South, pouring into Detroit. War production in the 1940s further increased the capacity of the auto industry. The population of Detroit expanded to 2 million people by 1953. In the 1950s, some 80 percent of the world’s auto production and assembly was centered in Detroit.
While the over-concentration of the auto industry in Michigan initially helped the state, in the last 50 years it has been one of the factors which led to local governments lurching from one crisis to another. Labor-replacing revolution in the instruments of production –and auto manufacturers playing different cities, states, and countries against one another for tax breaks – led to city, state, and national governments groveling before capital over jobs. With the introduction of computers, advanced electronics, and advanced robotics, the struggle over jobs became more intense. Auto production has been cyclical, traveling in a historic three- to four-year cycle of boom and bust, as American workers accumulated enough money for a new car. Credit extends the cycle, but does not end it. With each new crisis, workers sacrificed something.
The Chrysler bailout in the 1980s is a case in point. By the end of 1979, Chrysler could not meet its credit obligations to lenders, or what is the same, its bond obligations in the market. Money for Chrysler dried up – it could not borrow, and it could not pay its weekly payroll to suppliers. Chrysler was frozen, unable to pay its bills. In turn, suppliers could not pay their bills and the workers were gripped by a vision of not paying their bills. Chrysler faced collapse and the ruin of millions of workers tied to the auto industry, and the government stepped in. Chrysler received millions in loan guarantees from the federal government. At that time, Lee Iacocca, the head of Chrysler, told the workers that the company had no jobs paying $18 an hour, but did have a lot of jobs paying $15 an hour. This was in an economy where the minimum wage was below $5 an hour, and Ford and General Motors workers were receiving $18 an hour. As author B.J. Widick pointed out in his book Detroit, City of Race and Class Violence : “It was not the blue-collar employees, but stockholders, managers, lenders, consultants, lawyers, and lobbyists —all relatively wealthy — who benefited the most from the bailout.” The Chrysler work force was cut by one third. General Motors reaped the same benefits in the Poletown bailout of the 1980s.
The color factor
In American history, the color factor has been a block to unity of the working class. Until the civil rights movement began, Chrysler and General Motors restricted black workers to the hardest and dirtiest jobs in the foundries. Henry Ford was a notorious bigot, but he was willing to hire blacks to hold down labor costs. Ford hired more black workers than either GM or Chrysler and let them work throughout his plants. Given the environment of the 1930s, it was easy to pit black against white and halt the union drive at Ford. This problem would not be overcome long enough to organize Ford until shortly before World War II.
The wage scale of workers in Detroit, and especially the wage scale of black factory workers, was measured by the wages of the 17,000 black workers at Ford. At that time, 50 percent of all black factory workers in Detroit worked for Ford. This base of well-paid workers became the hub of the black middle class in Detroit.
Thus, the emergence of Detroit as a center of African-American politics had its roots in the development of the auto industry. This is one part of the legacy of the auto manufacturers’ moves to create a diverse and divided work force. The other side of that legacy is that the working class of Detroit now includes people of all ethnicities and workers drawn from many corners of the globe, all with common objective class interests.
Nationalization in interests of the people
The partial bailout of major banks and corporations has created new tasks for revolutionaries. This time the crisis is so deep that coming out of bankruptcy proceedings, with government holdings in both Chrysler and General Motors the two auto makers have become partially nationalized.
These circumstances offer an opportunity to call for the complete nationalization of both General Motors and Chrysler, and for the government to run these companies in the interests of the workers and not return those companies to the stockholders.
Unfit to Rule
The first assembly line in auto manufacturing began operating in the Detroit area in 1913. Detroit’s history of less than 100 years of modern industry shows the tremendous capacity of the capitalist class to revolutionize the instruments of production. It also starkly reveals where that revolution in production leads (as long as the capitalist class controls society).
For while Detroit’s story for most of the 20th century was one of exhausting but constant toil, today’s reality is profoundly different. At one time, the essence of capital’s brutal reign in Detroit could have been summed up in a single grim image: the crushed hand of an employed worker, fingers red with blood, moments after an industrial accident. Today, the Motor City’s new reality would have to be symbolized largely by a very different – if equally stark – sight: the frozen hand of an unemployed worker, fingers purple with frostbite, desperately trying to escape the harsh winter wind blowing off the Detroit River.
Today, the capitalist system has clearly, irrevocably failed those who were once Detroit’s proud manufacturing work force. Detroit had one short century of industrial might, but in the year 2010 it stands as irrefutable proof of the indictment leveled by Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto:
“[I]n order to oppress a class, certain conditions must be assured to it under which it can at least continue its slavish existence. … The modern laborer … instead of rising with the progress of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth. And here it becomes evident that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society. … It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery. … Society can no longer live under the bourgeoisie; in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society.”
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
P.O. Box 477113 Chicago, IL 60647 email@example.com
Free to reproduce unless otherwise marked.
Please include this message with any reproduction.