Quote for the day: "Invent a simple device like an automobile, to get you from here to there more quickly than you could go without it: before long you are in bondage to it, so that you build your cities and shape your countryside and reorder your entire life in the light of what will be good for the machine instead of what will be good for you." Bruce Catton. Waiting for the Morning Train. 1972.
Midnight in the Vehicle City: General Motors, Flint, and the Strike That Created the Middle Class by Edward McClelland.
Like many born and bred Flint kids I lived in a GM built house in a GM created neighborhood. In retrospect, it was as if by osmosis I learned of the Flint Sit-Down Strike, its importance to this city, its impact on America's labor force, and how instrumental it was in the creation of our country's middle class. So it was with great interest I picked up this succinct, very readable and authoritative narrative that gives a near blow by blow account of the ground-breaking strike. I was interested in finding out what I did and didn't know about the strike.
The author makes clear that Flint was a company town in which the mayor, the city council, the police were all controlled by GM and the Flint Journal served as the company's mouth-piece. The author also does a fine job of describing workers complaints and GM's oppressive assembly line demands. A pre-strike crankshaft grinder had to lift by hand a 108 lb. crankshaft off the assembly line and carry it to the grinder then carry it back. By the end of shift the worker would have lifted tons of crankshafts. GM also sped up the assembly line to where it moved faster than the engineers designed it to run and at end of shift workers were often near collapse from exhaustion. GM had no safety standards, no disability pay even when the company was at fault and employees lost fingers, hands, and even legs. Then there was the tyranny of the supervisors and foremen who could fire employees on a whim, expect them to do work or perform general maintenance at his house to keep their job, and even expect sexual favors from workers' wives. Which goes a long way to explain why as the strike wore on and there was talk of the National Guard being ordered to remove the Sit-Downers the strikers were ready to die if attacked.
I was surprised to learn that President Roosevelt became involved in settling the strike and his Secretary of Labor worked hard to bring the company and union to the bargaining table. The Sec. of Labor didn't let the fact that she was a woman deter her from strong-arming Alfred Sloan and other GM bigwigs. Governor Murphy bent over backward to prevent violence and stopping any attempt to remove the strikers by force. The book also makes clear that the union leadership were savvy negotiators and knew when to bluff both GM and the Governor.
In the epilogue the author makes a strong case that the union movement and especially the Sit-Down Strike had a major role in the creation of the blue-collar middle class and the decline of unions and recently passed laws creating open shops has meant the decline of unions and the middle class. When I grew up in the 1950s Flint and Genesee County boasted the nation's strongest middle class, it now suffers the country's highest poverty rate but that happened when GM employment in greater Flint dropped from 80,000 to 9,500. In Flint GM even tore down vacant building so they couldn't be taxed.
This book deserves rave reviews. It is driven by a narrative as powerful as a souped-up up V-8.
Midnight in Vehicle City: General Motors, Flint, and the Strike That Created the Middle Class by Edward McClelland. Beacon Press, 2011, $27.95.
Motown Man by Bob Campbell
Based on this fine first novel Campbell, a native of Flint, has a bright future in fiction. The novel takes place over the course of a week in the early 1990s in an unnamed city which is obviously Flint. Bradley Cunningham is single, a Control Engineer in an auto plant, and like the author an African-American. Bradly likes to say he's enrolled in UCLA, the University of Chevrolet Line Assembly.
Bradley is engaged to a white reporter from Flint's major newspaper and she has been sent to cover a diversity workshop in Florida. During the week each of them reassess their relationship and take sharp looks at the demands made on the lives of biracial couples. The result is a sensitive and honest portrayal of ethnic and racial diversity within Flint and the country. Bradley and his family are finely drawn characters and there's not a false step in this engrossing picture of being Black in Flint. His prose in describing Flint, especially Black Flint cuts like a knife. He writes, "The other side of the river was simply the northside. For many readers of [insert the Flint Journal], it was so distant a place it could have its own dateline." And, "The northside: what you get when there are too many blacks gathered in one place; the embodiment of an affirmative action gone awry." Yup, whether in the 50s when I was a kid, in the 90s when this book is set, or yesterday, the description rings true as a church bell.
Although Flint is never named it is captured perfectly as in this description of the Flint Cultural Center, "...it was so unlike the rest of the city, that it almost seemed as if they [the visitors]were in a different city altogether." or "a private sanctuary hidden in plain sight amid a creeping desert of desolation." The author is equally good at describing the de-industrialization of Flint and its near abandonment by GM. Then there are the sentences that once read linger in the mind. "Bradley likes to say that recorded music in a club is like macaroni-and-cheese from a box."
Wow, what a debut!
Motown Man by Bob Campbell. Urban Farmhouse Press, 2020, $20.95
Kawbawgam: The Chief, The Legend, The Man by Tyler R. Tichelaar
This book is much more than just a fascinating biography of a singular Ojibwa chief that had a significant impact on the history of the UP and helped preserve the culture of his people. Woven within the account of Kawbawgam's life is a history of his family, and the fate of the Ojibwa people as they first witnessed the encroachment of Europeans and then the usurpation of their land and subsequent vanishing of their way of life and culture.
Kawbawgam was the first resident of Marquette. He was living on the site of the future city when Peter White arrived with a small boatload of men and founded the city. Kawbawgam fed and sheltered the men and became a close friend of White, the city's most prominent citizen. Members of the Chief's family led Europeans to iron deposits and other Native American's led a state expedition to the famous Ontonagon Boulder, a 3,700 pound mass of pure copper. The Ojibwa revered the boulder and made offerings to it for "health and well being." The boulder was taken to Washington and housed in the Smithsonian.
The book abounds in interesting stories and forgotten sidelights of Michigan history. For instance, the tribe asked for the return of the Ontonagon Boulder in 1991. The request was denied. Famously, Ohio and Michigan went to war over whether Toledo was north or south of the border between the two states. The Federal government stepped in and awarded Toledo to Ohio and in compensation gave the UP to Michigan. I didn't know until reading this book that the western UP wasn't theirs to give away. It was Ojibwa land. Or that in digging the first lock at the Soo Ojibwas were removed from the land needed for the canal, their homes were torn down and Ojibwa graves were dug up and the remains, "flung into muddy pits." Kawbawgam's relatives held part ownership in a mine but were denied company profits. The family brought a lawsuit that ended up in the Michigan Supreme Court and broke new ground in Native American rights.
Charlie Kawbawgam ended his days living in a house White built for him in a city park on Lake Superior. He spent much of his time there helping to preserve Ojibwa culture by recording stories, tales, events and tribal history. He died a famous and celebrated citizen of Marquette. The book is a result of impressive research and is both scholarly and very readable. It is also a major contribution to the history of the Michigan's Upper Peninsula and I'm betting it is a shoe-in on next years Michigan Notable Book List.
Kawbawgam: The Chief, The Legend, The Man by Tyler R. Tichelaar. Marquette Fiction, 2020, $24.95.
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