Lessons From the Poletown Plant

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A revised version of this article was previously published in the February 9 edition of “The Detroit Socialist.”

Now that General Motors has announced its decision to close the Poletown plant, any challenge to that closure might want to consider how and why that plant was established. Central to corporate decision-making are the imperatives of capital, the role of the state, and the degree of worker/community resistance. For Marxist geographer, David Harvey, capital is addicted to a variety of fixes from spatial to administrative to technological. In turn, those fixes are either enabled or constrained by policies promoted by the state and the political willpower of worker/community resistance.

General Motors decided to build the Poletown plant (1978-1983) during a period of global movement toward neo-liberal policies that promoted privatization, deregulation and sweeping pressure on unions to grant concessions. These policies hit manufacturing and auto in Detroit especially hard, leading to further weakening of the UAW (United Auto Workers) in particular. The estimation of job losses in auto and related industries in the Detroit metro area during this period was close to 90,000, resulting in more plant closures. When Chrysler faced possible bankruptcy in 1979, federal intervention rescued the corporation, premised on wage and benefit concessions by Chrysler workers. However, the rescue proved to be a Trojan horse for Chrysler employees. Dodge Main closed in early 1980, laying off over 3,000 workers, and other Chrysler factories continued the shutdowns through 1983. Hence, not only did these concessions not stem further plant dislocation, but other auto manufacturers and major industrial employers demanded more wage cuts and control over their workforce, especially in the aftermath of Reagan’s firing of the PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) workers in 1981. Indeed, in the wake of the Chrysler concessions, GM used the threat of moving some of its facilities to Mexico to re-open negotiations in 1982.

Both the UAW and the city of Detroit desperately sought to boost employment in auto even as additional Detroit plants were closing in this period. One move by GM, in particular, proved controversial even as it cemented the relationship between corporations, public officials, and trade union leadership. Seeking to stem the tide of plant closures in Detroit, the city administration, under Mayor Coleman Young, acceded to GM’s request to take an extensive parcel of land on Detroit’s eastside near the shuttered Dodge Main plant. Through the use of eminent domain and tax abatements, the Young administration, in lockstep with GM and the UAW, moved to relocate the residents of the area known as Poletown. As one of the attorneys for the Poletown residents declared: “GM has arbitrarily insisted on enough acreage to accommodate a plant designed for a flat open area…To force this design on this neighborhood and this city establishes the ‘government/business partnership’ as a one-way deal.” Indeed, GM’s spatial and administrative fix in this instance also contained a technological fix with the utilization of robotics at the new Poletown plant, leading to a workforce that at its height was no more than two-thirds of what had been promised. In turn, that workforce became more an instrument of new company practices, such as quality and team circles, eroding in the process the power and even presence of the union. As one worker in the new Poletown facility noted: “The role of the union has become limited, or irrelevant, compared to the past in relations to everyday problems in the plant.”

Although employment at the Poletown plant recently hovered around 1,500, there was some promise that production of the electric Volt would attract consumer interest and keep the plant open. This expectation waned in the early months of the Trump Administration, as Republicans passed a corporate tax giveaway that resulted in more stock buybacks than investments in older plants. In addition, elimination of already weak fuel efficiency standards and subsidies for electric cars further doomed the Poletown plant. While moving to Mexico might afford cheaper labor and other technological/administrative fixes, as Beverly Silver points out in Forces of Labor, the contradictions of capital are merely relocated from one site to another.

In the meantime, any struggle over re-claiming the Poletown plant for re-purposed green production must contend with the power that corporations like GM exert, both locally and nationally, especially when enabled by their political and union handmaids. Understanding the larger trajectory of employment in the auto industry within a global economy is also essential in determining the strategies for fighting against plant closures. Indeed, Big Three employment shrank from 435,000 in 2000 to only 171,200, albeit with continuing transnational auto spatial fixes, especially with Toyota and Honda, in the rural Midwest and South, and transnational expansion in production and sales, especially in China. Even as the 2008 reorganization and government bailout of Chrysler and GM once again raised the promise of new jobs, the institutionalization of the two-tiered wage system and increased automation suggest a divided workforce and a weakened union within a much more limited role for auto manufacturing in Detroit’s future.

For some proponents of post-industrial radical alternatives to auto and industrial civilization itself, Detroit is ironically on the leading edge of a new and necessary transformation in the way we live our lives as fully unalienated and ecologically-minded human beings. In the opening scene of the documentary film, American Revolutionary, Detroit radical activist, Grace Lee Boggs is shown walking outside the ruined hulk of the former Packard auto plant in Detroit. Her startling comment that she “feels sorry for those who are not in Detroit” reveals her perspective on what fifty years of deindustrialization has wrought and where Detroiters might go in the future for real solutions to the economic and social crisis in the city. In her book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty First Century, Boggs contends:

[We need] to begin imagining work that frees us from being the appendages to machines that we have become because of our dependence on jobs. We need to encourage the creation of work that not only produces goods and services but also develops our skills, protects our environment, and lifts our spirits (2012: xx).

Perhaps Boggs’s penetrating perspective on Detroit’s plant closures and deindustrialization in general can provide a fitting dialectical post-industrial postscript:

Detroit’s deindustrialization, devastation, and depopulation turned the city into a wasteland, but it also created the space and place where there was not only the necessity but also the possibility of creating a city based not on expanding production but on new values of sustainability and community…we had been granted an opportunity to begin a new chapter in the evolution of the human race, a chapter that global warming and corporate globalization had made increasingly necessary. In its dying, Detroit could also be the birthplace of a new city (2012: 110).

Fran Shor is a Professor Emeritus of History at Wayne State University. Author of four books and hundreds of scholarly and online articles, he has also been a long-time peace, justice, and anti-racist activist. He is the founder and director of Public Education and Community Engagement (P.E.A.C.E.) Project.