Friday, April 2, 2010

A different tale of love and loss


By Martha Grevatt
Published Apr 1, 2010 8:49 PM

“The Last Truck: The Closing of a GM Plant” was shown March 26 at the Cleveland International Film Festival. The 2009 film portrays, through autoworkers’ eyes, the process leading up to the closing of a General Motors assembly plant in Moraine, Ohio.

This writer participated in a panel discussion which included directors Julia Reichert (director of the 1976 classic, “Union Maids”) and Steve Bognar, plus laid-off Moraine workers Kim, Darlene and Chuck. My plant, the Chrysler stamping plant in Twinsburg, Ohio, is scheduled to cease production in June and has been bought by Maynards, the same liquidator that will be auctioning the building and contents of Moraine Assembly.

For me, an autoworker for 22 years whose plant will close in a matter of months, “The Last Truck” was a powerful, eloquent and brutally realistic artistic statement.

I saw workers like myself who first learned — not from GM but from the news media — that their plant would be shuttered for good two days before Christmas, 2008. They talked about how hard they worked and how much it changed their lives to acquire a good-paying union job. They expressed their love for their coworkers — their “family” — a love that cut across lines of race, nationality, religion and sex and, by suggestion, sexual orientation. I felt proud when these union sisters and brothers challenged the near-unanimous chorus of news commentators who insisted the financial woes of the auto industry were “all the union’s fault.”

The film depicted people like us — me and Kim and Darlene and Chuck — people with the knowledge of all that goes into producing an automobile. We have this knowledge in our bodies, our bones and muscle, our eyes, ears, heart, lungs, skin, fingers, knees and definitely our feet. In every cell of our body we know what goes into each vehicle that rolls off the line.

Our minds know it too — doing the same thing over and over for eight, 10, 12 hours, five or six or seven days a week, as the workers described. We know the crippling effect that it has on our intellect and creativity. Those of us who became skilled trades people know that exhilarating feeling — that rush — from suddenly, even within proscribed parameters, being able to use our brains on the job.

A powerful moment in the film was when it showed that winter day when all of these talented workers had to roll their toolboxes out of the plant. One could feel the solidarity as women and men helped each other hoist the boxes onto ice-encrusted truck beds.

I watched and listened as there on the big screen my brothers and sisters of IUE Local 798 showed the kind of people we are: not dense factory hands, but individual people with deep thoughts and feelings, expressed thoughtfully, astutely, politically and poetically — and with righteous anger. These are strong workers who revealed to us their tears and vulnerability, and did so with dignity and integrity. That’s the people of Moraine Truck and that’s the people of Twinsburg Stamping, and we deserve to be treated better than this.

Feasting on the dead dragon

Toward the end of the film a woman worker tells us how she had an image come to her of a gigantic dragon dying, with all its various body parts shutting down one by one. Now that the plant has closed, Maynards, which calls itself “the preeminent liquidation and auction and appraisal company in North America,” has invited vultures in to feast on the dragon’s carcass.

Maynards’ holdings include dozens of GM and other auto plants throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe. There are no plans to find buyers to restart these highly productive plants. The vast arsenal of robots, conveyor belts, stamping presses, machine tools, plastic molding machines and much more will be sold off piecemeal. Don’t smell what you want in Moraine, the liquidator asks the vultures? Check out Twinsburg, check out Michigan, check out California, Missouri or our European holdings. We at Maynards will find you the specific organ that your profit-driven palates desire.

All the workers in the film have a sense that something is being taken away that rightfully belongs to them. “That’s our plant,” a brother in the film flat-out states. I agree. We have paid for these plants with the best years of our lives; we have outbid the highest bidders. We have earned the right to own and operate the plants ourselves, especially since our bosses don’t want them.

Workers in the Dayton, Ohio, area now face a terrible economic crisis. In addition to the 2,500 Moraine plant workers laid off permanently from GM, 10,000 more jobs were lost indirectly as a result of the closing. Delphi, the former parts division of GM that was Dayton’s biggest private employer, closed all of its eight facilities, leaving the city with no auto plants.

Kim, an electrician, has finally found a job after 15 months, but it doesn’t provide the pay and benefits he came to expect from GM. Darlene and Chuck have become full-time students under a state-sponsored program, but they had to jump through numerous hoops and choose from a narrow list of state-approved occupations before they could receive a subsidy. Whether their training will lead to meaningful employment remains to be seen.

By the end of 40 minutes, “The Last Truck,” which was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary short, had everyone in the sold-out audience in tears. This story of love and loss is the first serious film about plant closings since Michael Moore’s 1989 classic, “Roger and Me.”

The filmmakers stated that they wish they hadn’t had to make this film. Now is the time to fight for a world where no one will have to make another one. A good place to start a protest campaign could be at any one of the plant auctions that Maynards — the liquidators of our futures — will be conducting this year.

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