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



After the fall of GM, the UAW marched to Chrysler, where it staged a similarly spectacular coup; in March of that same year, 17,000 workers went on strike at Chrysler’s nine Detroit plants. And just like GM, Chrysler capitulated, agreeing to recognize the UAW and agreeing to a host of other demands, including a general wage increase and seniority rights. Ford held out the longest, but inevitably waved the white flag in 1941.

It had taken the UAW a mere four years to seize and occupy the major players of the American auto industry.

After the war, automakers competed for the dollars and loyalty of the returning GIs who were starting their families. In 1949 General Motors and Ford engaged in a price war, each wanting to get as many Americans as possible into the habit of buying its brand. Smaller companies like Packard, which had been in decline since the end of the war, found it hard to compete, especially given the higher costs and decreased flexibility that unionization inflicted on them. Unlike the giants, these small manufacturers operated on a razor-thin profit margin and had less capacity to absorb the demands that labor leaders made upon them.

As James Arthur Ward relates in his book The Fall of the Packard Motor Car Company, on June 17, 1948, the UAW led a strike, closing Packard’s Detroit plant for half a day. But this wasn’t enough for the union leaders: They also organized a walkout at the Bendix brake plant, cutting off Packard’s supply and forcing it to shut down for an entire week. Later that same year, guards at the UAW-organized Briggs Manufacturing plant also went on strike, once again cutting off Packard’s access to necessary parts, leaving the company no choice but to shut down for two entire weeks.

In other words, at a crucial time in the company’s history, when returning GIs were driving up demand and its larger competitors were slashing prices, Packard was sabotaged on multiple fronts by the UAW.

And the blows kept coming. Though Packard’s financial situation continued to deteriorate, the UAW led 8,000 workers on strike in August 1950, demanding higher wages and pensions. The strike lasted two weeks, and Packard had no choice but to make concessions — concessions that cost the company an additional $9 million per year, at a time when it could ill afford such expenditures.

In a desperate attempt to remain financially viable, Packard merged with Studebaker Corporation in 1954. Even though the new Packard-Studebaker became the fourth-largest auto company in the nation, this wasn’t enough to save the new entity. In 1956, it shut down its Detroit plant. Packard was gone for good, and the union had unwittingly killed it.

So what has become of Packard’s vast mini-metropolis since the company abandoned it over half a century ago?

Did another company swoop in and snap up valued real estate, utilizing its productive capacity in order to boost its own (and the city’s) fortunes? Did the city purchase the land and turn it into a center for culture and public gathering, the way Athens did in 1999 when it converted its old gas factory into a performance and exhibition space?

No. Sadly. (How ironic that the Greek capital could serve as an example to the capital of the American auto industry.)

Instead, a variety of occupants have leased and used some parts of the plant, creating for the city a tangle of legal disputes over ownership rights and property taxes. But most of the complex has sat unoccupied and decaying, its hollow halls proving irresistible to the people and pathologies that thrive at civilization’s edge. As the president of the Detroit Fire Fighters Association, Dan McNamara, recently put it, the abandoned facility is “open to all kinds of people just doing illegal activities.” Especially arson.

Deputy Fire Commissioner Edsel Jenkins estimates that the abandoned Packard plant is the target of arsonists so often that it costs Detroit about $1 million each year to put the fires out. During the first nine months of 2012, firefighters were sent to the plant 59 times.

One ex-commissioner refused to allow his men to fight a fire from the inside, so unsound had the structure become. Jenkins questions the wisdom of sending men there at all: “When the firefighters respond to that scene, they’re just pouring water on a structure that has no useful purpose today. And with the budget constraints today, we have a lot less fire apparatus on the streets. So when these engine companies, truck companies, the rescue squads, chiefs, respond to the Packard Plant, they’re taking protection away from the other businesses, civilians and visitors in this city who could actually use our services.”

It’s not only firefighters who are at risk — the homeless, drug dealers, graffiti artists, and hordes of roaming and listless youth are omnipresent in this structural nightmare. As McNamara put, anyone who goes in to “[play] around, chipping something out of a wall or off a column or a truss, . . . they’re going to drop that building on top of their heads.” He concludes: “[The plant is] a threat. It’s an immediate, an imminent threat to public safety.”