General Motors—and its workers—iconize American manufacturing's fall from grace. (Reuters Photo)
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If you had to date the Great Recession, you might say it started in September 2008 when Lehman Brothers vaporized over a weekend and a massive mortgage-based Ponzi scheme began to go down. By 2008, however, the majority of American workers had already endured a 40-year decline in wages, security, and hope—a Long Recession of their own.
In the 1960s, I met a young man about to be discharged from the Army and then, by happenstance, caught up with him again in each of the next two decades. Though he died two months before the Lehman Brothers collapse, those brief encounters taught me how the Long Recession led directly to our Great Recession.
In the late 1960s, I was working at an antiwar coffee house near an army base from which soldiers shipped out to Vietnam. One gangly young man, recently back from “the Nam,” was particularly handy and would fix our record player or make our old mimeograph machine run more smoothly. He rarely spoke about the war, except to say that his company had stayed stoned the whole time. “Our motto,” he once told me, “was ‘let’s not and say we did.’” Duane had no intention of becoming a professional Vietnam vet like John Kerry when discharged. His plan was to return home to Cleveland and make up for time missed in the civilian counterculture of that era.
I often sat with him during my breaks, enjoying his warmth and his self-aware sense of humor. But thousands of GIs passed through the coffee house and, to be honest, I didn’t really notice when he left.
In the early 1970s, General Motors set up the fastest auto assembly line in the world in Lordstown, Ohio, and staffed it with workers whose average age was 24. GM’s management hoped that such healthy, inexperienced workers could handle 101 cars an hour without balking the way more established autoworkers might. What GM got instead of balkiness was a series of slowdowns and snafus that management labeled systematic “sabotage” until they realized that the word hurt car sales.
I visited Lordstown the week before a strike vote was to be taken, amid national speculation about whether a generation of “hippy autoworkers” could “humanize the assembly line” and so change forever the way America worked. On a guided tour of the plant, I was surprised to spot Duane shooting radios into cars with an air gun. He recognized me and slipped me a note with his phone number.
I called and, later that evening at his home, he offered me a quick summary of life since his discharge: “Remember, you guys gave me a giant banana split the day I ETSed [got out as scheduled]. Well, it’s been downhill since then. I came back to Cleveland, stayed with my dad who was unemployed. Man, was that ever a downer. But I figured things would pick up if I got wheels, so I got a car. But it turned out the car wasn’t human and that was a problem. So I figured, what I need is a girl. But it turned out the girl was human and that was a problem. So I wound up working at GM to pay off the car and the girl.”
And he introduced me to his pregnant wife, of whom he seemed much fonder than his story made it sound. The young couple had no complaints about the pay at GM. Still, Duane planned to move on after his wife had the baby. “I’m staying so we can use the hospital plan.”
And what did he think was next? “Maybe we’ll go live on the land,” he told me. If that didn’t pan out, he said that he’d look for a job someplace less regimented, someplace where he’d get to do something “worthwhile.” To Duane, worthwhile work didn’t necessarily mean launching a space shuttle or curing cancer. It meant getting to see what he’d actually accomplished—like those repairs on our mimeo machine back at the coffee house—instead of performing repetitive snaps, twists, and squirts on cars that moved past him every 36 seconds.