Detroit: The New Motor City
Glenn Counts, Steve Ronson, and Kurt Spenser
Poverty & Prejudice: Breaking the Chains of Inner City Poverty

Detroit, Motown, the Motor City. Michigan and Detroit in particular became the center of the auto industry at the beginning of the twentieth century due to a number of factors. Steel, the Great Lakes shipping industries, and a large and growing workforce all contributed. Perhaps the most striking force though was the unique collection of inventors, dreamers, and designers that made the Detroit area their home. Ransom E. Olds, Henry Ford, the Dodge brothers, David Dunbar Buick, Walter P. Chrysler, and even the French explorer who founded Detroit, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, all are household names today, not because of any outstanding achievement, although there were many, but because the cars which they produced or which bear their names are a part of the fabric of everyday American life.

The Big 3 auto makers, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler were all formed and headquartered in Detroit by 1924. (Wright, Richard A.) After fledgling beginnings and the national struggle of the Great Depression, the American automotive industry entered its Golden Age with the end of World War II. America was experiencing nuclear, scientific, economic, and automotive hegemony. American Automobiles were luxurious, reliable, powerful, low priced, and beautiful. (Wright, Richard A.) The World and Nation took notice. The Detroit area economy boomed, attracting masses of labor to fill the assembly line positions in the factories which had been converted after the war to produce spark plugs, transmissions and trucks as opposed to tanks and B-24 bombers. In 1952, Charles Wilson, Secretary of Defense to Eisenhower and former president of GM, told a House Committee, quite honestly, that what was good for General Motors, was good for the Country. What was good for GM was then certainly good for Detroit. The economy of the communities surrounding Detroit were revolving around the boom of the assembly and parts plants of the Big 3, and GM in particular, which soon grew to become the world's largest corporation.

The first sign of any trouble came in 1956, when the Big 3 saw a minor slump in their sales, and the doubling of import sales. The change in the market was due to the growing popularity of European compact cars. Detroit did not panic. They began working on scaled down models of their successful lines, and some new compact models. The push toward the compact market was not very strong though as the era shunned anything foreign. Those that drove imports were dismissed as oddballs, flakes, college professors and leftists. In reality though, they were trendsetters, and the market shift was a sign of things to come. (Wright, Richard A.)

During the civil rights movement, the blue collar assembly line economy and inner city social problems proved to be a dangerous mixture. The 1960's showed the country that Detroit had its share of problems, and in the 1970's, the outside world crashed in on Detroit. The Middle East put the fear of gas shortages into America. Washington blamed Detroit for the problems of air pollution, safety, and fuel economy. It was a public relations nightmare. After the second oil crisis in 1979, the large rapid rise in the cost of gasoline caused America’s love affair with the automobile to go sour.

Buyers now wanted smaller more efficient cars, and the Japanese had the best. Detroit had been devoting most of its attention to political and judicial battles. The Big 3 were busy pleasing politicians by meeting air pollution and safety standards through downsizing its oversized designs. These cars were not attractive to the consumer. What had made American cars so great in the 1950's and 60's was now their greatest hindrance. Their cars simply were not attractive consumer products. The Japanese had done an incredible job in this area.

Detroit was dispirited and its economy was faltering. In the early 1980's Chrysler was sliding towards financial disaster. GM poured 50$ million into the development of a new rotary engine, but couldn't get it to work, while a small Japanese firm, Mazda did. Ford was losing money so fast that there was talk of not only pulling out of Detroit, but North America all together. The Japanese were selling about one of every four cars sold in the United States.

Detroit's communities sensing the impending danger of all of this scrambled for an answer, a scapegoat. Buy American bumper stickers soon became the hottest selling item in Detroit Posters which read "Pearl Harbor II" showed pictures of Japanese bombers dropping cars on the North American continent. Overpasses were graffitied with slogans like, "friends don't let friends drive imports" and "imports are for assholes". The distrust of the Japanese was back in Detroit.

As plants began to lay off workers, the animosity grew, and in 1982 drew national attention when two laid off auto assembly line workers chased down and beat to death a Chinese American, Vincent Chin outside a bar. Chin who was getting married later in the week happened to be an assembly line worker himself. His attackers, father and son. The tragedy personalized the out of control downward spiral which Detroit was caught in. The Auto industry which had seemingly brought so much to the Detroit area was now bringing poverty, racism and even death.

The people in Detroit however wanted to believe in the Big 3 and the American dream that they were raised on: If you worked hard and your company prospered, then you would also prosper. What was the answer? The people of Detroit thought that it was to work harder and buy more American cars so that the company wouldn't lay more workers off. This, however was not the solution. It wasn't the solution because the assembly line workers didn't actually understand fully the problem. The Big 3 seemed content to let everyone think that the Japanese were the root of all evil, when in reality, it wasn't the Japanese that were causing the layoffs in Detroit.

While the initial market shift caused the Big 3 to initially lose money, they actually recovered quite quickly and turned things around financially despite the horrible scene which persisted in Michigan. How could this be? The Big 3 had adapted to the growing global market by becoming more and more global themselves. The total internationalization of the auto industry, which is what the Buy American sentiment was actually trying to resist, had already happened. By the 1980's, what was an American car and what wasn't was unclear. Engines and transmissions were built in other countries, and assembled in the United States with American nameplates. Foreign nameplates were also rolling off assembly lines in the U.S. by this point. Was a Japanese car put together by American workers in America really a "foreign" car? These issues were understood by America's businessmen, but not the assembly line worker. What the blue collar majority knew was that they were working hard, their companies were once again prospering, but they were losing their jobs.

General Motors and the factories located just northwest of Detroit were the most tragic example of this. Flint was the birthplace of GM, the World's largest corporation. Until the late 70's the two had grown and prospered together. But, in the mid 1980's GM began laying off thousands and closing plants which had been the city's lifeline for over fifty years. It was finally announced that eleven GM plants were to be closed and moved to Mexico in order to cut costs. But, since 1983, GM's car sales had risen, and the company had posted record profits reaching 19$ billion, yet GM laid off over 50,000 people in Flint alone by 1989. (

It clearly wasn't the Japanese that the Detroit auto workers had to worry about, it was their "own" profit seeking corporations that were putting them out on the curb. The scenes in Flint and other areas were and still are dumbfounding. In Flint over 28,000 had lost their homes and left town by 1989. For those that remained, they saw entire neighborhoods boarded up, city blocks deserted, and rat population which outnumbered humans two to one due to the fact that the city could not afford to pick up trash more than once or twice a month. Scenes seemed to appear out of the 1930's. Upwards of 20,000 people standing in one line to collect government surplus butter and cheese, Record unemployment rates reaching 25%, record suicide and murder rates, increases in spousal abuse, alcoholism, a crime rate higher than Miami, and general social decay. ( Flint is no longer a picturesque Midwestern town, it is a battle zone.

This is the backdrop on which present day Detroit sits, and unfortunately or fortunately another drastic change is upon the auto industry. An impending energy crisis is on its way. Even the most generous estimates give less than fifteen years before oil prices skyrocket. Much like the oil crises of the 70's this new oil shortage will necessitate change. Detroit's communities do have an opportunity to take advantage of this.

The Unions through community urging must become increasingly international as the global corporations expand even further into smaller countries. And second, the Detroit automotive communities must invite the next generation of vehicles to be manufactured in Detroit. The Hybrid car is unarguably the wave of the future.

The UAW and the Detroit Auto Industry

Unions have been a part of the American working class since the Knights of Labor captured the country’s imagination in 1878 (Short History). They have been important in fighting for the freedoms and benefits that we often take for granted today. Holidays, overtime pay, medical benefits and vacations would probably not be around without the struggle of the American unions over the past century. With the introduction of the combustible engine and the mass production of cars, a new industry was born. Detroit was the proud capital of car production, and the workers who built them. When tough situations arose for these auto workers, they started to ban together to get what they needed.

The most prominent union in the auto industry is the United Auto Workers, or the UAW. The UAW started as a small local union in Flint, Michigan, just outside of Detroit. In the midst of the Great Depression, some GM workers, fed up with company treatment, believed that it was time to organize and establish better working conditions Unemployment rates were high, so a traditional strike was feared to fail. So on December 30th, 1936, the workers at the Fisher body plant in Flint stopped working and sat down in the factory, disabling work to be completed on the car bodies there.

Soon GM workers in surrounding factories in Flint and Detroit sat down on the job, and eventually workers across the country joined in the sit-down strike. GM turned off the heat in the factories and local police tried to storm the factories in order to remove the workers several times, but the strikers held there ground and repelled the attempts to oust them. Democratic pro-labor Michigan Governor Frank Murphy brought in the National Guard to protect the strikers from the police. He forced both sides to the bargaining table. Negotiations failed, due to GM not keeping up to their end of the deal, and the sit down strike continued.

GM finally had to give in to workers demands when the strikers took control of plant number 4, which employed over 4000 and produced all the engines for all Chevrolet models. On February 11th, 1937, GM recognized the United Auto Workers as the sole bargaining agent for twenty of its production factories. Two years later the entire company was unionized by the UAW. The success of the sit down strike led to Ford and Chrysler workers to demand their right to Unionize and they joined the UAW soon after. In fact the sit-down strike in Flint set a tidal wave of strikes across the country in all areas for better conditions and steady pay (Famous Flint…)

Today the UAW is an international Union that produces more than just cars. Its products include everything from tools to food and even beer. Although it continues to fight for high wages and reasonable hours, lately the fight has been just to keep their jobs. Striking methods such as the sit down strike in Flint have worked in the past in order to achieve the Union’s goals, but lately the factories have been moved away from under them, so striking is not as powerful as it used to be.

A Detroit article says, "the central issue (for Unions) continues to be the loss of jobs due to subcontracting and the relocation of production, which are implicitly struggles over investment" (Bacon "Striking" 1). In the late eighties, companies realized the advantages of foreign investment, as they replace expensive American labor with the highly available and very cheap Mexican labor. Thousands of jobs were lost in the Detroit area and many left homeless and hopeless due to the divestment of local capital and investment into foreign factories.

During a strike in the Summer of 1998 that demanded GM reinvest in the Flint Metal Center as previously promised, a leaked company document detailed plans to increase production in Mexico from 300,000 to 600,000 vehicles by 2006 (Bacon "Striking" 1). The strikers had support from other workers across the nation, and even from Canada and Mexico. "Even in Mexico, workers are told the company can find a cheaper place to build the next factory" (2). Divestment seems to be a concern for workers everywhere.

Mexican workers recently had a big breakthrough in June of 1998. Experienced workers walked into the Han Young factory, which welds truck chassis for the Hyundai manufacturing complex in Tijuana, and turned off the means of production. They then strung strike banners across the plant and parked their cars in front of the doors, so no one could go in or out. Unlike the Flint sit-down strike of 1937, the Mexican political establishment worked against the strikers instead of for them, complaining that the strike was provoked by foreign unions to discourage foreign investment in Mexico (Bacon, "Tijuana" 1).

Right now there are more than 2,700 foreign owned maquiladora (factory) plants near the Mexican-American border, employing nearly a million workers. The low wages and proximity to the U.S. make it an ideal place to put factories, but these labor disputes challenge this system. If Mexican workers are able to form their own unions and strike for more benefits wages will increase and foreign investment is less likely. This has the current Mexican government worried. "[G]overnment policy relies on maintaining low wages as an attraction for foreign investment. So the government, its affiliated unions and the employers’ association have all allied themselves against us," says Enrique Hernandez, organizer of the October 6 Union for Community Labor Defense, which is the independent Union responsible for the strike at the Han Young factory. Strike leader Mijuel Angel Sanches continues, "the Mexican Government is protecting foreign investors who are here exploiting us and violating our laws, when they should be protecting us and enforcing the law. If it's OK for the companies to cross the border to do this, I think it's not only right for workers to support

each other across the same border, it's necessary" (Bacon, Tijuana 2).

It seems it would be in the UAW and Detroit's best interest if the Mexican government did become more pro-labor, and the Mexican workers in the maquiladoras joined the UAW to form a strong continental union. This would not only make the conditions in Mexico better, but would make it more unattractive for the "Big Three" to shut down plants in Michigan and put them elsewhere. Even if the Mexican workers don't join the UAW specifically, if they win the right to form their own independent unions, it may be good enough to protect the interests of both the American and Mexican worker, at the expense of the Corporation' 5 profits.

As American companies have moved into Mexico and employed thousands there, why cannot foreign companies move into the United States and employ thousands here? Japanese car makers have lately been moving assembly plants to the United States, to manufacture and sell the cars here. The Detroit area has a number of experienced assembly workers that need jobs from the years of layoffs due to foreign investment If Union workers want to protect their jobs, why do not they go out and get them. The UAW could recruit Japanese companies to invest in new factories or refurbish old ones and then supply the factories with experienced union workers. Examples of successful transplants already exist, a UAW workers assemble Mazdas, Toyotas, Mitsubishis, Isuzus and Nissans.

As the economy and production become more globalized, the United Auto Workers must keep their interests in mind any way possible. It is difficult to "buy American" these days as many products are produced at least in part all over the world. The UAW slogan "We buy what we make" now includes the "foreign" cars listed above. As we approach the next century and environmental and resource issues dominate the auto industry, the Japanese may lead the world in making the hybrid car, a realistic short-term solution to the future oil depletion. The UAW would be wise to find the companies where the future lies, and sit down at the bargaining table with them.

Hybrid Cars: A Possible Solution

The faltering American car industry as well as an increase of overseas-based plants has lead to an increased animosity toward the foreign car industry. While the big three has begun to move their assembly plants over to Mexico, the once patriotic dedication of the residents of Motown has turned from a positive way of promoting local business to a reason for taking out aggression on foreigners who, to the locals, represent a rival business that drives the American car companies to find cheaper labor to stay competitive. Recently, there has been a huge move to what are known as hybrid cars." Several years ago the hope for the future was the electric car but short battery life and long recharging times have proved that this type of car is not practical. The hybrid car, on the other hand, uses both gasoline and a more powerful battery to run the car. Many car companies in Japan have already built very efficient and relatively inexpensive hybrid cars. The Big Three in the US are struggling to catch up. Whether or not this new road the car industry is heading will revive the car industry in Detroit remains unknown.

One example of hybrid cars in the US is in New York ( . Recently in New York a fleet of 40 foot, 36 passenger hybrid busses have been deployed. Rather than running on a diesel engine the busses rely on a generator that runs on propane. The propane generator continuously recharges battery packs near the back of the bus. This new hybrid bus can run over 200 miles before refueling and doing a major recharge. Experts have determined that these hybrid busses emit 50% fewer emissions than diesel busses. The hybrid busses currently about $20,000 in price way of environmental are accompanied by an increase of but the benefits they bring in friendliness, they are well worth it.

Toyota Prius

Toyota, a leader in the hybrid industry, has developed a highly advanced passenger hybrid car, the Prius. The Prius by Toyota is the next step in the company's previous environment-friendly, low fuel-consumption cars. The Prius incorporates the technologies of both the clean-burning, high efficiency internal combustion engine as well as the pollution free, silent electric vehicle power systems. By utilizing their previous breakthroughs in environmentally friendly transmissions and electrical engine management controls, Toyota's Prius shows the perfect balance of electrical and internal combustion engines.

While the gasoline engine is used during ignition and acceleration the electrical component of the car takes complete control during long consistent driving periods. The Prius still has a gasoline engine but sports a nickelmetal hydride battery, an electric motor and an electric generator. By combining these components the hybrid nearly doubles the fuel efficiency of normal cars (up to 66 mpg) and has significantly lower emissions. The Prius can travel up to 800 miles on a single tank of gas but this does not take into account recharging. The price of the Prius in Japan is currently $16,000 American (

Honda is also a major competitor in the hybrid race. Honda on the other hand also offers the EV Plus, an electric car. The disadvantage of electric cars is that they must be recharged overnight almost every night. Honda also offers the Civic GX, a fuel-efficient natural gas vehicle.

Natural gas, however, does not provide the same top speeds, power, or acceleration as gas powered or hybrid cars (

Honda EV Plus and Civic GX

As for the auto US auto industry, the Big Three, Ford, GM, and Chrysler lag way behind in the competition to build a practical hybrid. The Ford headquarters in Detroit claim that research engineers are developing an extremely fuel-efficient, product feasible hybrid electric car that is superior to all other hybrid vehicles in that it is less complex and lighter. Ford's hybrid car is called the P2000 and is a 5-passenger sedan. Ford claims that the P2000 will be extremely light and aerodynamic. The P2000, however, will not be ready for several years. As an alternative to this hybrid vehicle Ford is planning on mass producing the LSR hybrid relies more on gasoline than a conventional hybrid but still increases fuel efficiency dramatically. The LSR hybrid contains almost all of the features of a normal hybrid. The fuel in the engine can be turned off when no propulsion is needed. The size of the engine is smaller which improves efficiency and contains an electric power source to complement the gasoline engine. The energy normally lost during breaking in the form of heat can be transformed back into electrical energy and stored in the battery.

The feature that the LSR lacks is that the electric component of the engine cannot provide propulsion therefore the engine relies more on gasoline and has slightly higher emissions than a normal hybrid but still less than a normal car. Ford is developing the LSR as part of its membership in the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) This group consists of the US Department of Energy, General Motors, Chrysler, and of course Ford (

Another member of the PNGV, General Motors, also has high aspirations when it comes to American made hybrid cars.


The EV1 by GM uses a small diesel engine in combination with an electric propulsion system. The EV1 gets upward of 80 mpg and sports a powerful 219 horsepower engine. The EVl can go from 0 to 60 mph in 7 seconds, which sets it apart from all other hybrid vehicles. The EV1 can go up to 550 miles before needing a recharge. The EV1 can be charged anywhere, anytime. The "inductive charging" method allows the EV1 to be charged in less than 2 hours using a 220 volt charger. Like the LSR, the EV1 also uses the regenerative breaking system but it also has the ability to rely on the electric component of its engine for propulsion (

Of the three car companies that make up the PNGV, Chrysler has been the least successful in creating a practical hybrid vehicle.

Chrysler ESX2

The E5X2, like the EV1 attempting to reduce the increment in cost caused by the hybrid powertrain uses an engine that relies more on gasoline and uses a less effective battery. The ESX2 only gets 50 mpg and has higher emissions than both the EV1 and the LSR. The E5X2, however, can generate 323 horsepower from a combination of its gasoline engine and electric motor. A Chrysler spokesperson has said that the engine is very efficient, emits less carbon dioxide than a conventional car but the emissions still need to be lower (

Whether or not this new sect of the auto industry will jump-start the Motown economy has yet to be answered. Most research on hybrid vehicles in the US is currently taking place in the Detroit area but no mass production has begun. If Japanese companies such as Toyota and Honda were to open assembly plants in the Detroit area, they would have access to a skilled work in need of employment. This would also help the Detroit economy by reducing the unemployment rate and increasing the average GDP. Currently, Mazda, Toyota, Nissan, and Honda all have assembly plants in the US. If these companies were to continue expanding in the Detroit area, it would be a win, win situation.

Moreover, the people of Detroit need to accept the new global economy. "Buying American" does not mean what it once did. For the most part, there are no truly "American" products anymore. With the situation that the city of Detroit is in, jobs are jobs. Detroit should welcome with open arms any car company that is interested in setting up shop in the area, whether the company be American or foreign.


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