Blue Collar Blues
Bread lines and bad times in the auto industry.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
It’s easy to get pissed
off at the Big Three automakers.
For years they refused to see what was coming, insisting on making cars that were unsafe, environmentally unsound and unpopular with customers, getting their lunchbox stolen– literally– by the Japanese.
Oh yeah, they also killed the electric car.
And when their turn came to stand in line before Congress, begging for a bailout, they came in private jets, symbols of the longstanding arrogance of power.
So it can be easy to forget, amidst all the sound and fury, that real people are affected by the faraway decisions being made about the future.
Here in Seaside, 17 people lost their jobs last week when Love Motors announced it was shutting down after 25 years– yet another victim of the recession and the credit crunch.
It’s a devastating blow to lose your job– doubly devastating in this economy, in an industry that’s on the ropes– but some of the laid-off folks had their game face on.
“There are two types of people,” Jacob Smith, Love Chevrolet service advisor, told KSBW. “People that stand in line to get the bread and people that make bread. I make bread.”
There will be real-life consequences for the city of Seaside from the Love loss; the car industry’s sales tax revenues are an important lifeline to keep the blue-collar town’s essential services going.
No one but a wet baby likes change.
While it’s tempting to get angry about the intransigence of the United Auto Workers, whose wages far exceed non-union shops, now even Honda and Toyota are joining the call for help, worried about potential free-fall. It’s not just the dinosaurs who will become extinct if the industry is allowed to fail– but the suppliers, distributors and dealers who depend on it for a living.
It may be a crude comparison, but it’s worth noting that the automobile workers make an actual product, unlike the people at Bear Stearns or Goldman Sachs who keep the wheels of the financial system turning with no tangible results except the mysterious workings of the “free market.”
Coincidentally, a timely new movie by Carmel’s own Clint Eastwood deals with these themes.
In Gran Torino, Eastwood plays a retired Ford line worker in Detroit who gets involved with the lives of some Hmong immigrants when a teenager living next door steals his vintage car under pressure from local gangs.
Although he made his bones with Dirty Harry, Eastwood’s special talent, especially as a director (Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River) is to portray the lives of the working without condescension.
I’ve been thinking about another movie that’s been popping up on cable lately that deals with these issues even more directly.
Blue Collar, the 1978 directing debut of Paul Schrader, focuses on the friendship of three men– played in the film by Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto– trying to deal with their lousy jobs, greedy owners and corrupt union leadership.
They try to score by blackmailing the union about a pension fraud and end up paying the price for making their move. Lives are lost, friendships are shattered and everything remains the same, more or less, as when the movie begins. The system is just too hard to beat.
“Why do you go to the line every Friday,” Smokey James, played by Kotto, asks Keitel’s character, Jerry Bartowski. “Because the finance man’s gonna be at your house on Saturday, right? That’s exactly what the company wants– to keep you on their line. They’ll do anything to keep you on their line. They pit the lifers against the new boys, the old against the young, the black against the white– ANYTHING to keep us in our place.”
The movie ends with a freeze frame of Pryor, given a shop steward’s job in exchange for selling out his friend and Keitel, who decides to break with his own past by cooperating with the Feds, hurling racial insults at each other. Each has done what they feel they must to save their lives and protect their families.
Life is sometimes about bad choices.
The proposed auto bailout brings out the justifiable anger and frustration we feel at institutions that have consistently failed to act in their own best interests– or ours.
No one but a wet baby likes change.
If we examine the resistance in our own lives to making choices that seem obvious to others– from stopping smoking to other irresponsible behavior– maybe we can better understand why the automakers didn’t act sooner, or more rationally.
In the meantime, we might do well to look at the current proposal being put forth by Nancy Pelosi (with surprising support from the Bush Administration), which includes tough new regulations, with an open mind. It ain’t perfect– it may not work. But it’s better than bread lines.