One of the more telling facts that author Paul Clemens unearths in the absorbing "Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant" is that a worker taking apart a shuttered automobile plant can now earn more than a newly hired worker on the Jeep Cherokee assembly line. That detail sets the stage for a greater truth about our wounded economy: The halcyon days of manufacturing are giving way to service workers and information merchants.
This dismal conclusion is hardly breaking news, but until "Punching Out" we have never read about the men who pick apart the industrial carcasses, package up the greasy leftovers and ship them off to emerging economies.
Detroit East Side native Clemens ("Made in Detroit") has the street cred and old-school journalism chops to deliver a first-rate piece of deep reportage. He spent the better part of a year observing the piece-by-piece disassembly of the 1919 Budd Co. stamping plant, also on Detroit's East Side. The plant shut its doors in 2006 and was one of 44 manufacturing plants that ceased production that same week nationwide.
The editor of Plant Closing News (yes, we have a publication that chronicles the death of U.S. manufacturing) said to Clemens, "People pick that stuff up and take it halfway around the world and reinstall it and put their people to work." The massive Budd press lines were cut apart and shipped to Aguascalientes, Mexico, where they were put to work in a plant that makes the Dodge Journey.
The men who do this work are profane, articulate and highly skilled. They come from out of state and they come from other belly-up auto plants in Michigan. Knuckle-busting labor is in their DNA, and they toil in the worst of conditions. Budd is sweltering in the summer and beyond frigid in the winter, an apocalyptic industrial husk more appropriate for paint gun battles.
The Arkansas Boys were a tight group of five who, between long shifts, crashed at the Extended Stay Motel. According to the colorful Eddie Stanford, a former Budd employee, the Razorbacks were from "so far back in the woods they have to pump sunlight in." Yet these men provide some of the more insightful conversations about our shifting economy.
U.S. plant closings currently number around 100 a month. At that pace we will run out of plants within decades. Not much can be done about this trend and some of the closings are due to efficiency and outmoded products. Cheap overseas labor is also a large factor. Whatever the reason, Budd's 2-million-square-foot plant -- and thousands like it -- now stands empty.
What a waste, says one worker. "You know something I feel about the U.S.? The U.S. is becoming a licensing country. You're not producing anything. You're just importing and licensing. That's why all the plants are shutting down, people are getting fired. It's like a service country. It's not a production society anymore."
I hope someone has a plan.
Stephen J. Lyons' new book is "The 1,000-Year Flood: Destruction, Loss, Rescue, and Redemption Along the Mississippi River."