Friday, December 19, 2008

Death of an Industry and perhaps a Nation

It's a miserable day outside here where I am working this morning. Dark skies and rain make it difficult to feel positive about the day. The weather should not determine how I feel but I am human and weather impacts the mood of humans.

Classic '66 Pontiac Le Mans Dash 072845 Classic '66 Pontiac Le Mans 072844

The largest employers around here are in real trouble. Many businesses are closing and empty store fronts are common on Main St. The restaurants are empty at dinner hour. The idle clerks of the stores that remain open look desperately out their windows. This region is in a time of crisis, like so many other places in the world today.

Unlike most of my neighbors I still receive and read a daily newspaper. The few remaining newspaper writers tell me the auto industry is about to fail in the big continent north of where my new home is. I remember going to college near an auto factory. Those assembly-line workers made incredible hourly wages when the only jobs I could find paid $3.50 an hour. The cars they built devoured gas at the rate of 10 miles per gallon way back then.

These modern chariots required large amounts of steel so there was a smelly steel mill down in the valley near my school. Those steel workers were paid excellent wages too. I remember a man who shoveled coal dust all night telling me he made $15.00 an hour.

That was in the 1960s and 70s.

Way back then we knew that cars could get better gas mileage. Buick had begun importing something called an Opel Izuzu and there were new Volkswagens and Renaults for sale. Most people I knew did not drive them but their children often bought such cars used. The auto executives in Detroit were only planning to build larger vehicles after the failure of such models as the Ford Pinto and Chevy Vega. People did not feel safe in small cars and gasoline was cheap.

In the late 1970s the Arabs pulled a fast one and stopped selling oil to America. Suddenly people could not fill those big cars at the neighborhood service centers. The oil embargo was quickly ended but some people remembered how vulnerable the shortage of gas made them feel. About this time young Americans started to buy more Toyotas, Datsuns, and Hondas. People did not realize that this was the beginning of the end for the old U.S. auto firms of General Motors, Ford, American Motors, and Chrysler.

Cousin Mike and I

As a little boy I was raised on income my father received from a job at General Motors. Many people in my little town earned a living selling GM, Ford, or Chrysler cars and trucks. Neighbors worked at steel mills that sold to the car companies. Bankers lived off interest from car loans and home mortgages. Many of these homes were bought by auto workers like my father.

Other people in town lived by selling groceries, hardware, and services to people like my father. Even the doctors in town made a significant amount of income from the auto worker's health insurance payments. The largest source of income for local newspapers was auto advertising.

It may sound odd to people today but this small town was located in eastern Pennsylvania, not Michigan or Ohio. The auto industry once supported many areas of the United States, not just the upper midwest.

Much of this story is about to end next year. The remaining Detroit-based auto manufacturers are going to close their U.S. operations in 2009. My college degree is worth nothing in a failing nation. All the people in the North that still depend on their business will be thrown out of work at once. Some will move south to the increasingly crowded cities in Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. The people that remain in the North will encounter more crime and poverty as this nation slides into a 2nd Great Depression. It is inevitable and almost a natural thing but that does not make it any more pleasant to crawl through on your hands and knees.

1 comment:

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