Saturday, July 11, 2009

We Will Not Be Who We Were Part 1 (And yes, there will be a Part 2 this time)

First of all, in the overall scheme of things, I probably have no right to complain. There is still plenty to eat, the bills are getting paid, and there is some money for fun. My community has lost factories and jobs, but has a shiny new one and a still-standing older one. We still produce vehicles that sell here, and will have another model. However, when I start paying for my own vision and dental care, and perhaps mammograms or however the overall insurance aspect plays out, there will be less of that discretionary income, and that’s the point where others start going down with us, I guess.

The hard thing is this: people don’t understand Who We Are, and the media has tried to convey this, but not very well, because they choose mostly folks who fit their Central Casting stereotypes: Clueless High-Level Auto Executive and Salt-of-the Earth Union Family (3 generations), for example. Of course, those folks exist, but there are so many others. An auto plant is like a little city: there are line folks, people who sweep the floors, carpenters, millwrights, plumbers, electricians and various departments such as paint, trim, body, and so on. My husband had various positions throughout his career, starting on the line and ending as a planner and getting to work overseas.

What I learned over the years is all of these are complex operations. I also met a lot of people (or heard about a lot of people and personalities). There are, for instance, college graduates who worked on the line or in skilled trades because the money was good. I have met some very smart, funny, clever people in the industry over the years, and I did not see these people on TV. I have met folks who are passionate about cars (perhaps with an old beloved model in their garage that they love to tinker with) and loved being in the auto industry. I did not see those people, or if they were on TV, certainly not with the frequency and emphasis of the others I mentioned.

What I did like about the three-generation family is what they conveyed-- this is what we do here. Grandpa did it, Dad or Mom did it, and I was hoping to do it too. The majority of people I have known in my life work or are supported directly or indirectly by the auto industry. Even though I have never worked for it (but am fed by it), I consider it part of Who I Am. This is what we do here.

I will certainly admit there were some problems, but stereotypes and prejudices exacerbated some of those problems. When service awards were being won and models were winning awards and receiving high ratings, we weren’t hearing so much about that. Because my stepson was involved in the launch of one of those award-winning vehicles, I am somewhat aware of the blood, sweat and tears that go into making that happen.

I have been reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and found myself astounded to be sympathetic to a passage in which she remembers a college party (“one of those intensely conversational gatherings of the utterly enlightened”) at which people were discussing the “evils of tobacco.” She asked: “What about the tobacco farmers?” (This had been her family’s livelihood) Somebody asked: “Why should I care about tobacco farmers?” I would not have understood at all a year ago, but now I know what she means when she writes:

I’m still struggling to answer that. Yes, I do know people who have died
wishing they had never seen a cigarette. Yes, it’s a plant that causes cancer
after a long line of people (postfarmer) have specifically altered and abused
it. And yes, it takes chemicals to keep blue mold off the crop. And it sends
people to college. It makes house payments, buys shoes, and pays doctor bills.
it allows people to live with their families and shake hands with their neighbors
in one of the greenest, kindest places in all the world.

Now I am the last person on earth who will defend tobacco. However, what she captures in this and subsequent paragraphs is that when we gleefully celebrate the demise of something like tobacco (or logging, or the auto industry or whatever), there are more than evil Snidely Whiplash corporate executives finally getting their comeuppance and the deliverance of their clueless pawns. There is the loss of a way of life, not only financially, but of having a way to think of ourselves and What We Do. And it hurts.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Growing up in North Carolina, and now working at a university founded with tobacco money in a city that was built around tobacco processing, I know exactly what you mean, and it really is a good analogy. Also scary, because it's taken a really, really long time for this city to find another direction/identity.