Last night, Beloved and I caught the tail end of an HBO documentary called The Last Truck. It was a far cry from watching Bear eat raw catfish.
I toured a Chicago-area Ford assembly plant when I was at BlogHer, and the images from The Last Truck (about a GM plant in Moraine, Ohio shutting down two days before Christmas last year and putting 2,800 people out of work) were very similar.
What struck me the most was how emotionally destroyed the workers were -- not only about losing their jobs and not getting to see their friends, but about the plant itself. One woman said hearing the sounds and smells of the robots and air-cleaning systems shut down was like listening to a dragon die.
A dragon lives forever but not so little boys
Painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys.
One grey night it happened, jackie paper came no more
And puff that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar.
His head was bent in sorrow, green scales fell like rain,
Puff no longer went to play along the cherry lane.
Without his life-long friend, puff could not be brave,
So puff that mighty dragon sadly slipped into his cave. oh!
After touring the Ford plant, I can see how a plant becomes a living, breathing entity. My cube doesn't have robots or little golf carts to drive around. It doesn't have its own smells. It doesn't require me to wear eye or ear protection. There is no element of danger when I come to work. I don't go so many days without an accident. I don't create something quite so tangible as what auto workers create. When I leave a job, I feel a pang for unfinished work or people I've left behind, but I don't have a connection to the buildings, the desks. I suspect the closing of this plant -- in which people with a high-school education were able to make a good, living wage for almost 20 years -- would be more like losing a farm. This plant was so big, it was more a way of life than a job.
I'm exposed to off-shoring on a regular basis. I don't know what the answers are. It is cheaper to off-shore or automate repetitive tasks. The problem is that we're not creating new jobs that pay a living wage and require a similar skillset or mindset (as one worker noted in the documentary -- it takes a certain kind of person to do the same job over and over and over for years and years on end). I don't think the answer is to educate and educate and educate -- different strokes for different folks. Why do you have to pretty much work in a profession to afford a house these days? Where did we go so far off the tracks?
The hardest part about watching this documentary was hearing one guy say his grandson wouldn't have as good of a life as he did. This dude was totally not rich -- he worked in a GM plant on the line. But he had a nice truck and had the money to sit in the dive bar with his buddies after work and shoot pool. That's all he wanted for his grandson, but can you even aspire to that with a high-school education any more?
As I sat there watching every single person who was interviewed shed tears -- even the toughest looking older men -- I realized I have no idea what they feel. I've had seven jobs. I've been laid off or had to leave to avoid being laid off three times. I realize every day my job hangs in a balance over which I have very little control. I could do a really bang-up job and be caught in downsizing through no fault of my own. I've never expected to be able to stay somewhere for twenty years. I can't fathom putting that much faith in a company. As a result, I'll never feel the sense of security and family these auto workers did, but I'll never be as crushed as they clearly were when at some point I have to move on to a new job.
For me, it's moving on. For them, it's starting over.
And when they were asked what they'd do next, they said "I don't know" in a different way than I would say it in their circumstance. I'd be thinking, "Do I want to do the same thing again, or do I want to change it up?" I'm never happy to have to leave a job, but I know from past experience that I'm extremely employable with a master's degree in the English language -- something that will most likely never be off-shored.
They are probably thinking, "Will I ever make what I made before again? Will I have to sell my house? Is life as I know it over forever?"
I cried for you, Moraine, Ohio. I recognize the world is changing, but we can't forget about the people who build things.