Detroit: Empire of Rust
The UAW’s stranglehold turned one of America’s most prosperous cities into a wasteland.



On Detroit’s east side, the abandoned Packard automaking facility looms tomb-like over 40 acres of once-prime real estate, its hollow buildings ringed with mounds of glass and littered with broken beams and broken dreams. The complex once housed busy workers assembling the cars that connected America, and it once hummed and hissed with the sounds of muscle meeting machinery.

But those sounds are long gone, replaced by the wind through the shattered windows; the scurrying of half-starved rats, picking their way through the rubble; the whispering of spray cans as graffiti artists paint the walls with their kisses of bright red and blue; the crackle of the flames that warm the hands of the homeless.

The complex was abandoned by Packard as long ago as the mid 1950s. And though other companies have found intermittent uses for it in the intervening years, it has remained for the most part a symbol of the decline of a once-great metropolis and its once-great industry, as Detroit the city has now followed GM the company into ignominious insolvency.

This is the story of how a city came to depend too much on one industry, and how one union took over the industry and therefore the town, killing both in the process.

As World War II raged throughout Europe and Asia, factories and plants in America’s heartland became Roosevelt’s “arsenal of democracy,” churning out the planes, tanks, and guns that eventually drove the Axis powers to submission. At the height of the war, American plants spat out an astonishing eleven planes per hour.

When the fighting stopped, American manufacturers found themselves in a singular and unprecedented position. The industrial capacity of much of the world lay in ruins; the world needed rebuilding; and American factories and workers were uniquely positioned to supply that demand.

And so America prospered. And the cities that housed America’s industry especially prospered. In fact, as Steve Schifferes wrote for the BBC in 2007“in the 1950s the Detroit area had the highest median income, and highest rate of home ownership, of any major U.S. city.”

But already in these boom times there were hints of the decay that lurked decades down the road. The force that would help propel Detroit into prosperity would also, in the longer term, prove the instrument of its demise. That force was the United Auto Workers union.

The UAW had, like other labor organizations, observed a wartime truce with captains of industry at the behest of Franklin Roosevelt. But it lost no time in agitating as soon as the guns fell silent: In November 1945, a mere three months after V-J Day, the union led a 113-day strike against General Motors known as the Great Postwar Strike, demanding and securing significant wage increases.

The industry could afford these higher labor costs in the decade following the war. Factories were bursting; Eisenhower would soon expand the nation’s highway system as never before, helping to create America’s insatiable car culture. According to Pulitzer-nominated historian James Stuart Olson, “there were 25.8 million registered cars in 1945. . . . By 1955 the number of registered automobiles exceeded 52 million.”

Americans became car addicts and Detroit our dealer. In addition to the Big Three that Americans are familiar with today, back then a variety of smaller automakers existed to fill America’s growing appetite for the road, including Bobbi-Kar, the Keller Motor Corporation, and Packard.

The Packard company was founded in Warren, Ohio, in 1899 by brothers James and William Packard. In 1903, the growing company relocated to Detroit into facilities designed by legendary industrial architect Albert Kahn. By the 1920s, Packard had used its Detroit plant — widely known as the most advanced of its kind — to dominate the luxury-car market in the United States. The 3.5-million-square-foot Packard complex employed an estimated 36,000 to 40,000 workers at the height of its production in the 1940s, or roughly 2 percent of the city’s entire population.

Riding the explosion of automobiles’ popularity was the United Auto Workers. Formed in 1935 by disgruntled members of the American Federation of Labor, with the help of legendary labor leader Walter Reuther, the UAW successfully organized General Motors in 1937 after its infamous 44-day sit-down strike. GM had little choice but to recognize the UAW — by the end of January that year more than 125,000 workers had shut down 50 GM plants. (Crippling a company that employed thousands of people at the height of the Great Depression, when over 14 percent of Americans couldn’t find work, is surely a triumph of avarice over ethics.)


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