Anti-Capitalist Chronicles: GM Plant Closing

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[S1 E26]

Prof. Harvey talks about the work of photographer Latoya Ruby Frazier who documents the news of the Lordstown, Ohio plant closing and the impact it had on the workers, families and community at large. 

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Transcript has been edited for clarity.


This is David Harvey and you're listening to the Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, a podcast that looks at capitalism through a Marxist lens. This podcast is made possible by Democracy at Work.

A couple of weeks back I had a very interesting weekend in Chicago with an artist, Latoya Ruby Frazier, and she has been a photographic artist for some time and I think is well known in certain cultural fields. One of the things she had decided to do was to make a photographic essay on the impact of the closure of the Lordstown General Motors plant. It was closed down, or the announcement about its closing down, came between Thanksgiving and Christmas last year. It was a bit of a surprise, a bit of a shock because it seemed to many of the workers that General Motors was doing very well. They had a very high rate of profit and huge resources and yet here they were closing down a plant that made the General Motors compact car the Cruze. This was a bit of a shock to the workforce. 

Latoya decided to go to Lordstown to try to get some sense of what the impact of this closure was going to be on the workers and their families. When she got there, of course, she found she was not welcomed by General Motors. They tried to keep her out of the plant. They were even rather threatening in some of the things they said. So, she had to do her work off-site, as it were. This gave it a special coloration because it meant that not only she was working with the individual workers but she was actually very much involved with the families. The families in this case were going to be very seriously affected because when the closure was announced the company said to everybody that they would, if they wanted, find work elsewhere within the General Motors system. The impact of this was that nobody knew exactly where they might be reassigned or where they might have to go. But, what followed was a period of silence and then people would get a letter in which they were given four days to decide whether they wanted to transfer to this new location or whether they wanted to just get out of General Motors employment altogether. So, they have four days to decide and they had three weeks to get to the new location. Now, imagine what that meant for a family where say either the mother or the father was employed in the plant. This had a huge impact on: Do you take the whole family? Does the husband or the wife move? And how far away would they move to? Would they be 600 miles away, a thousand miles away? This was a pretty draconian effect. 

Latoya was there, in a sense, watching this decision-making process and the anguish it produced in families. The impact on children, young children maybe 10, 12, 14 years old, suddenly being confronted with the fact that either a parent was going to be gone to another plant and wouldn't be seen except once every three weeks or something of that kind. Or, the whole family would move, in which case of all of the social relations would be disrupted. It was a pretty traumatic impact upon the upon the population. The photographic essay stresses this, the trauma of a lot this. But it does something else as well in that what Latoya wanted to do was not only giving you a photograph but also through a series of interviews tell you something about how people were responding to this rather brutal treatment by the company and what the feelings were about the company. 

Now I think that it’s very important to have a little bit of background because the Lordstown plant of General Motors was set up in the late 1960s. In some ways, it was a very special experiment in industrial labor relations. During the 1960s there was a great deal of emphasis upon trying to create a labor process that was worker friendly, and try to give workers more participatory investment in the labor process. Lordstown was set up at a moment where there was quite a lot of emphasis in the literature, as I recall, on something called “X efficiency,” the idea that an unalienated labor force I was going to be much more productive than one that was alienated and didn't care about its involvement in production. So, there was a real genuine attempt set up by some of the automobile companies at that time to create a new structure of labor relations in which the compliance and collaboration and cooperation of the workers was emphasized as opposed to their repression and their domination as has been customarily thought about in the capitalist labor process. This was possible because of the particular and peculiar situation of the automobile industry during the 1960s. The automobile industry was really consolidated into three large auto companies: General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. The literature at that time depicted this as, in a sense, monopoly power. The three Detroit auto companies were not technically a monopoly they were an oligopoly, just a few firms, but they engaged in price leadership and they were generally seen as being dominant in the US economy. At that time there were no foreign firms around. There was no Toyota, Volkswagen, BMW or anything like that to challenge them. 

So, in the literature at the time, if you read Baran and Sweezey on monopoly capital, the Detroit auto companies were seen as a good example of how monopoly capital really worked, which was by price collaboration, price leadership. But, this gave the auto companies a certain amount of leeway to negotiate with the unions. The autoworkers union became very strong during the 1950s, 1960s and there was a process of what's called pattern bargaining. The autoworkers would, in effect, pick one of the auto companies and say: “Okay let's renegotiate our contract,” insert certain things. One of the things that was very important was the cost of living clause, which said that the contract would move as the cost of living changed, things of that sort. If autoworkers successfully organized a contract with Ford, then it would go to the other auto companies and say: “Here this is what Ford says, we expect you to do something roughly the same.” And so, the other auto companies would follow suit. Not exactly, and in that way they could avoid conflict between the antitrust legislation and all the rest of it and say they were actually competing with each other. But really, they were not competing very much with each other and therefore there were reasonably favorable contracts set out for the workers. I say reasonably favorable in a very qualified sense because there was always a lot of struggle, always a lot of fighting both on shop floor conditions, on wage rates, on the employment of minorities. There were some very strong movements within the autoworkers on, for example, the revolutionary Detroit workers group was actually pushing the auto companies even further than was possible at that time. 

So, in the 1960s then, you had this sort of setup and there was an interest in trying to collaborate with the workers and bring the workers on board to govern not by coercion but to govern by consent. The consent involved worker control over certain aspects of the labor process, assignments of tasks, and things of that kind. And so Lordstown came on board as a revolutionary kind of labor process from the standpoint of capital in which this notion of consent was emphasized and that therefore the labor force in Lordstown had a very special kind of relationship to the company. I think that this in itself marked Lordstown out as a very special branch of General Motors. Interestingly, the experiment that was set up in Lordstown seems to have failed for a very interesting reason. All of the evidence suggests that the auto companies were right to say that once workers became involved in design and assignments in the labor process the workers were likely to become much more involved and therefore much more efficient and very proud of their situation and very proud of the product and all the rest of it. So, there was, if you like, far less alienated labor around. There was much more collaboration. But at the same time, what this also meant was that workers were involved in determining the conditions of their own production and they wanted to determine more. So one of the things that happened was that Lordstown became the center of worker militancy precisely because of the consciousness of the workers. Because they are conscious of who is in charge and to the degree that they feel they're slightly empowered, they start to think even more about what that empowerment might mean. And so suddenly Lordstown, which was supposed to be a collaborative kind of work, became a site of a fairly militant to struggle. But, what Latoya found was that that tradition of pride in the production process and pride in their membership of this plant and so on was something, which never went away and continues to this day. So that the closure of the plant came as a double shock. It wasn't simply that the plant closed down. It was that a way of life was suddenly being challenged and a way of being was then suddenly challenged. That closure was therefore extremely traumatic at all kinds of levels. It disrupted family life, it disrupted social relations. It was the loss of engagement in a production process in which people had a certain pride and investment. 

Interestingly however, the closure can in part be ascribed to the incoherence of Trump's economic policies because Trump had gone on about how he was going to help the workers and he was going to help employment and all this kind of thing. Well, one of the reasons that the Lordstown plant have been kept open all that time was because there was a regulation, which tried to curb the way in which the major auto companies were moving to produce SUVs, which were economically very successful and not bothering with the production of compact cars. So, there was an agreement with the auto companies, which said that for every SUV you produce you have to produce a certain number of compact cars. Well, Trump abolished that regulation. The Lordstown plant was producing the Cruze, which was the General Motors compact car. But, General Motors didn't have to produce compact cars anymore because of the abandonment of that regulation. So, in a funny kind of way here's Trump saying he wants to preserve employment for everybody but he's chucked out a regulation, which was actually preserving employment in Lordstown. The loss of jobs in Lordstown has part to do with Trump's rather stupid kinds of economic policies. 

The other thing that then happened, however, is that the quasi-monopoly of the big three auto companies in the 1960s depended upon there not being a capacity for capital to be internationally mobile in a very free way. In effect, the big three of Detroit were protected against foreign competition because the Bretton Woods system was founded on the idea of capital controls. Capital controls meant that capital couldn't move freely into the United States and couldn't move freely out of the United States. Of course, this doesn't say there was no capital movement going on but that the different nation states were really protected territories within which quasi-monopolies could form. In a way, the protected territory of the United States made it possible for the big three auto makers to dominate. But, capital controls were abandoned in 1971. They were abandoned for a number of reasons, which we won't go into here, but the effect was to open up the US market to foreign capital to come in and start to become involved in production. Of course, that's exactly what the foreign auto companies did. In the late 1970s, early 1980s there's a wave of investment in which the Japanese auto companies are coming in, the German auto companies are coming in. So, the monopoly power of Detroit is broken by the fact that particularly in areas like compact cars the Japanese have the advantage, they have a better product, they have better organization, they have a cheaper product and so suddenly Detroit finds itself in economic difficulty vis- à-vis foreign competition. That meant Detroit had to abandon its collaborative strategies with the auto workers and had to go into a coercive strategy, which it began to do in the 1970s and 1980s. But, in becoming a coercive strategy, of course, the switch in Lordstown where there was a very class conscious and rather militant labor force meant that there was a great deal of struggle going on in Lordstown. 

So, labor relations then, we don't find this literature about worker circles and production circles in the automobile industry and so on, which existed in the late 1960s early 1970s, which also had some support from Department of Labor and so on, we don't find that kind of literature carrying on into the 1970s, 1980s. The literature abandons all of that and kind of says, well basically we have to put the working-class back into its box and we have to create labor systems, which are far more coercive. In the end we start to view the labor force as a disposable labor force, which can easily be thrown to one side. So, there's a real transformation in labor relations in the plants. 

But, then this comes up against the crisis of 2007-2008. And in the crisis of 2007-2008 the auto companies got into great difficulty. They got into great difficulty for one obvious reason, which was that the consumer power in the United States was much reduced by the housing crisis. If you have seven million households who've lost their houses, they're not going to go out and buy cars. So, the auto market was really down and General Motors nearly went bankrupt. In fact, technically it did go bankrupt. It had to be bailed out and in effect General Motors got nationalized for a brief period, taken over by the state and bailed out by the state. So, General Motors was rescued by that. But, it was also rescued by the fact that the auto workers agreed to renegotiate their contracts. This was, I think, a very important moment because the auto workers were in the process of actually saving their own jobs by saving the firm that employed them. They could only save the firm that employed them by reducing their wage demands. But in particular, reducing their access to benefits: healthcare and pensions. An agreement was reached with the union and the agreement was a very interesting structure because it introduced a two-tier labor force in General Motors. The two-tiered labor force was the older workers who had been there under standard contracts would keep their privileges in terms of both the wage rate but even more important to healthcare and to pension rights. Other people within the General Motors went on to the second tier and the second tier didn't have the same wage rate and didn't have the same access to pension rights and healthcare. So, you had two people working side-by-side in the same plant but different contractual conditions. In effect old labor, which had seniority, was kept on the old system. Young people coming on had to accept the conditions of the new contract, which were much reduced. 

The dual effect of state intervention and of, in effect, [the] labor union making major effort[s] to save the company rescued General Motors. And so General Motors came out of the difficulties of 2007-2008, step-by-step, to the point where right now it's one of the most profitable companies in the country. The workers themselves frequently said in their conversations with Latoya that they couldn't understand why it was that when they had given so generously up many of their privileges and their advantages to rescue the company and the company had now been rescued, was now incredibly profitable, that in this moment a very high profit the company would suddenly turn around and treat them as disposable nothings and tell them they had four days to decide and then maybe they could transfer to Missouri or Minnesota or something like that. Or, and here's the kicker in the whole argument, if they didn't accept transfer they lost all their benefits. Now, imagine what stress that creates. If you've got benefits, pension benefits and healthcare benefits for a family and suddenly you're faced with the fact that if you don't accept transfer to some plant that is six hundred or a thousand miles away, if you don't accept that transfer you're going to lose all of that: What do you do? And how do you do it? And how do you discuss it? And you only have four days to discuss it. This is unconscionable to me. Absolutely unconscionable. But, it shows you something about the state of labor relations in one of the more privileged sectors of union bargaining and what that might mean for the population, which is there. 

Some people decided, and they talked about this, some people decided that they would not accept, they could not accept and they would just have to take the consequences. This is a real reduction in their living standards and in their security. But, somehow or other, if it meant that they would have to break up the family, break up everything … they would rather preserve those valued social relations. This emphasizes something about the way in which the labor process is viewed. From the standpoint of capital, the labor process is viewed simply as labor as a factor of production, which is disposable and which can be had under certain kinds of circumstances and according to certain kinds of legal possibilities. That's all it is. Whereas for the worker of course, it's all about family life, it's all about social relations, it's all about what's on the shop floor as well as what's in the community and how everything works together. The role of the union, employees and the like. So, I think this is a very important thing to look at because right throughout capital right now, what we see is an emphasis in corporations that the only thing that matters is efficiency. The only thing that matters is the profit rate. Nothing else really matters. There is therefore no corporate responsibility for conditions of life in the community. 

And of course, actually General Motors and the union and the plant in the union were actually also enmeshed in the community in certain ways. For instance, one of the people was talking about the fact that the United Way, which is the sort of big charitable institution, has a very big presence in terms of funding a lot of community services and cultural things and social welfare structures and so on. And actually, the United Way contribution that came from the General Motors employees was huge. The company, at a certain point agreed, that it would actually match dollar-for-dollar. So, if employees gave a hundred thousand dollars then the company will put in another hundred thousand dollars. Suddenly, this is all going to disappear. So actually, one of the things which knitted the community together was charitable giving and obviously if people have no longer got any employment in General Motors, they're not going to be able to give. The General Motors agreement that they would match it dollar for dollar disappears and so the community starts to be facing a serious erosion of its social fabric and of its social relations and its social provision. 

So, what is interesting about this is in the history of capital firms grow and then some collapse. We know that happens and it's not as if we would say that under no circumstances should you ever close a plant or anything of that kind. The big question is how you do it and why you do it. In the General Motors case, the rhetoric of the CEO Mary Barra has been to re-emphasize in some ways the way in which the General Motors community is all one big family, but then it destroys families at the same time! There is a new direction emerging for General Motors, which is electric vehicles and electric powered vehicles. Now, General Motors is saying in the future it doesn't want to be an auto company, it really wants to be a high-tech company. It's interesting how General Motors is trying to take a page out of Tesla’s [book] and say actually well we're going to start to try to go into the production of electric cars. Now, from where I'm at, I look at the automobile industry and I say to myself I think there's a real problem with the automobile industry. It contributes mightily to pollution. It contributes mightily to climate change. Therefore, some point we have to transition out of the production of automobiles and particularly gasoline-powered automobiles and fossil fuel in general. We have to look to some transition out of that, that's for sure. So, at some point or other, it would seem to me you have to think about, well okay Lordstown maybe there should be a closure. Maybe there should be a closure of some of the automobile industries. And there's good deal of evidence worldwide right now that there is surplus productive capacity in automobile production, particularly in traditional forms of automobile production. Some of that automobile production does not make sense. If you go to a city like São Paulo, you find here's a city where actually the economic base of the city is in the automobile industry. Then what you find is remarkably you go out on the streets of São Paulo and you can't move because everybody's stuck in a traffic jam. And you kind of go: this does not make sense. 

So, there has to be some sort of planning, some sort of reorganization of the social order so that we transition away from automobile production. I am not going to say there should never be a closure of an auto plant anywhere. I think that we have to recognize that at a certain point we would want to live in a society where we were not so dependent upon automobiles. That would mean that the economic base of the society would have to change. But there's one thing to say that and come up with a plan to do it over a 15, 20 years transition of some kind where we move away from [it] and we take the social structures, which are there in Lordstown, the skills which are available there and we transition into something different. Again here it seems to me that there's only one way to start to think about that and that's by some sort of coherent plan of reassignment and reconstruction of the automobile industry into something. So, I really don't worried too much when somebody says: “Well we should think about transitioning from automobile production to high-tech production of electric artificial intelligence kinds of vehicular systems.” I'm okay with that and I think we should all be okay with that. But not in this way, which suddenly turns and says that factor of production is disposable therefore we just throw it all away. We throw away all of the resources, which have been built up in terms of social relations. We throw away all of the structures of social provision, which comes through the taxation arrangements in a particular community, the philanthropic organization. In other words, there has to be some way in which we can do this. 

That way is, of course, one which is not something that the capitalist will want to embrace. The capitalist want it to continue to operate in the same way so the General Motors can be as hugely profitable, can pay out huge dividends to all of its stockholders, can pay enormous salaries to the CEOs and at the same time destroy a workforce, destroy a community, destroy whole structures of social relations and with, actually, terrifying possibilities. As we know, Ohio is a place where the opioid epidemic [has affected many people], based very much upon unemployment and the loss of identity all of those kinds of questions. We have to come up with something, which doesn't have the social costs, which come from the sudden closure without any consultation with the union, without any consultation with the people, without any kind of discussion. General Motors was willing to have conversations with its union when they were in trouble. Now, they're flush, they don't need those conversations anymore and so they're basically treating people, like I say, as disposable dirt, which doesn't belong in their vision of what the future shall be. So, I think that here is an example and I think Latoya’s wonderful photographic essay highlights a lot of this background. If you get a chance to see it, it's in the very nice Renaissance [Society] at the University of Chicago, I believe it's going to come somewhere else probably in two or three months’ time. So with that, let's hope that the capitalists will get the message and, I have to say, this story is the kind of story that turns me resolutely into the notion of anti-capitalism as the only possibility for a political posture right now. 

Thank you for joining me today. You've been listening to David Harvey's Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, a Democracy at Work production. A special thank you to the wonderful Patreon community for supporting this project. 

Transcript by Jake Keyel
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