I creak back into writing, one of a few new year’s resolutions. Of course, there are the usual others: eat better, drink less, be nicer to people, etc. But really, I’m trying to be a more organized and disciplined writer. That’s the best way for me to make sense of things, and, as such, one of the reasons I started writing this blog. It is just a nice coincidence that my anniversary at Chrysler is at the start of the year. I meant to write something for the new year, but the time got away. So this is even better.
I, and 250 fellow toilers, celebrate our first year in the plant. Nearly a thousand people came in around the same time, much as we’re reading about now. We were the first big wave of brand-new tier-2 hires. Fresh off the street, many of us. A few refugees from places like American Axle, people with memories of the good life, before the 2-tier system. For a bunch of people, it’s their first job; we watch them with trepidation, hoping they don’t blow a good deal. If you’re willing to work, the work is here. Most of the time, at least. For others, like me, it’s just the right thing at the right time. I got my job in the plant right at the same time that I finally finished my degree. But I wouldn’t trade this past year for anything. Life at Chrysler has been, often in the same day, so rich and funny and human and bafflingly subject to dictatorial whims, technological disasters and plain stupidity. I’ve spent nights wandering the plant because of breakdowns and other nights working so hard, so fast, for so long that I didn’t think I’d make it back to my car, nevermind all the way home. Nights we built not one car and nights we built over 600 cars.
I’ve had my patience tested to the utmost, but not often. I’ve seen co-workers display staggering generosity for funerals, houses burning down, ‘adopting’ a kid at Christmas (which we didn’t do, so then, feeling guilty, ever single person on my team donated money, which was probably way more than we would have done anyway). I’ve seen people do the dumbest shit possible. I’ve seen people carpool like you wouldn’t believe. I’ve seen people buy groceries for co-workers, using their own Bridge cards. Cause sometimes it’s like that. I went three weeks with no paycheck, but during that time I took my son on our first ever TRIP, that we planned and paid for, bit by bit. We went to Universal Studios in Florida, stayed in the fancy resort and took the water taxi back and forth from the park to the hotel. Bought VIP passes to skip the lines. Spent money like there was sure to be more coming. And, eventually, there was.
It’s no crystal stair, though, that’s for sure. I’ve missed all the parent teacher conferences of the year. I’ve made it to one swim class (a random layoff), and for the first time in his life, spent my son’s birthday away from him. I only spend one or two days a week with him now, because working second shift means never being around to put a kid to bed. I try to remember that it won’t be forever. He’s a good, level-headed kid, though, and takes it in stride. And, he tells me, that when he sees the cars that come from my plant, he always points them out and tells whomever he’s with, “My mom builds that car. She’s tough, like Rosie the Riveter.” I am immensely proud of this, his pride in me.
And of course, it’s so easy to be sentimental about working in the auto industry. It’s Detroit, after all. It absolutely rules our narrative. Nearly everyone came here at some point because this was where the work was. Great big factories all over the place, each one a beehive of humanity and opportunity and possibility. The promise that hard work would pay off, you could buy that cottage Up North, send your kids to college, or get them a job doing the same thing, with the same good life possible. I am not looking at anything like the life my grandfather was able to build working at Chrysler. For one thing, he went in at 16 and spent 42 years there. We have no reason to do that. I’m simply too old to do that, but the youngsters in the plant don’t have that pension waiting for them. They have a 401(k), which is held by Merrill Lynch. A bank that was bailed out unconditionally, while the auto bailouts came with the conditions that allowed for the 2-tier system to be so easily implemented. I don’t know what those guys are Merrill Lynch did with their bailout money, but I can tell you that thousands of jobs came from the auto bailout. Ask RJ’s Lounge, or Maceri’s Italian Kitchen, or any of the other businesses that are thriving now because we have people working and spending money. You know, participating in the economy.
So, to cut it short, cheers, salud, mazel tov to my brothers and sisters who came in with me last year. Second tier, loud and proud, making our way. Picking through the ashes of what used to be, and creating what’s to come. “Because this is the Motor City and this is what we do.”
Stepchild in the Promised Land