Amongst the Ruins

Paul Clemens
Punching Out: One Year In A Closing Auto Plant

(Doubleday 2011)

Paul Clemens’s new book, Punching Out: One Year In a Closing Auto Plant, is a personal, upfront look at the desertion of the Motor City, and the effect that the automobile industry’s outsourcing has had on the city and the people on whose backs its wealth was created. Choosing to follow the process of a plant shutdown from announcement through the relocation of its equipment to Mexico, Clemens manages to give us something that is rare and sorely lacking in our public discourse: an honest and brutal examination of the atrophy of American manufacturing that refuses to yield to the euphemisms that plague much of the discussion about America’s working class.

Clemens is himself a native of Detroit, and his deep connection to the city’s past and present resonate throughout the entire piece. Beginning with a detailed description of the layout of what was once the heartbeat of the American economy, Clemens weaves the incredible history of innovation and success of the industry that Detroit housed for decades into an explanation of the devastating emptiness that has taken over so much of the city, so many of its factories. The scale of the exodus is perhaps best described by Clemens when he states, “Detroit’s empty spaces, if contiguous, would make a city the size of Boston.” As he moves from the expanding desert into the confines of the Budd stamping plant whose closing he details, the sheer size of the various endeavors—the construction of the factory, the running of it, and at the last its rapid end—is what captures the reader. Clemens expertly shows just how important this industry was to Detroit and the nation at large, when he explains the role of this plant and others like it. As a stamping plant, it is an early part of the car-making process, far removed from the moment when the car is ready to head to the dealership lot.

In a stamping plant, the inclination is to look backward. A stamping plant’s finished product…is of little or no use in and of itself…The sight of all the steel calls to mind, instead, the foundry of its forging. And that’s not to speak of all the steel—hundreds of thousands of tons of it—contained in all of the plant’s presses, and the thought of all the equipment that it took to make that equipment, et cetera and so on, until one is left contemplating the seemingly infinite regress of the parts that make the parts that make the parts.

Of course, the closing of one stamping plant is just a tiny part of a huge phenomenon, but Clemens manages to strike a balance of scope, at once showing how this is but one cog in the mighty machine, while demonstrating its larger importance. He does this by getting to know union leaders, plant managers, and the workers who have been tasked with taking the plant apart from the inside out. Their story is one of multiple generations; indeed it is the very story of the rise and decline of the American economy, told with Clemens’s strong narration and the often poignant words of the men he meets during this mostly painful process. The strange conflicts and frustrations of the workers are hard to read, but necessary to understand the seriousness of these issues. Indeed, the fact that a whole new (unsustainable) industry has been born of this massive economic migration is a great example of the problems. As one of the workers, Smitty, says, “The vultures are picking the carcass. Do you know scrap merchants are the only ones working overtime in industrial America? Think about that.”

The lengthy and detailed portrait Clemens paints of the plant grounds the story. Individual presses weighing over one million pounds, almost 30 feet high, the plant itself over two million square feet (roughly the size of 11 Walmart Supercenters). As the story unfolds, Clemens seems like a man lost amongst the ruins, aware that structures such as these are being left to decay, one day to put the atrophy of the Roman Empire to shame. That he clearly had and still has so much invested in Detroit makes the book all the more powerful.

What is particularly fascinating about the timing of Clemens’s book is that he writes it at the tail end of this decades-long process, after thousands of plants have already closed and thousands of workers have lost their jobs, left to seek (non-unionized) work within or outside the city limits. Instead of an action-packed narrative full of strikes and letters to the editor and a battle for Detroit, he shows the effects of the defeat, and the troubling future that he believes lies ahead. He puts this into harsh perspective by informing the reader that “[At] its peak, GM had employed over 600,000...GM’s Chairman and CEO appeared before Congress and noted—by way of making a ‘too big to fail’ case for government funds—that his company employed 96,000.” Clemens’s story is not one of hope and the possibility of restoration. It is about the finality of closure and the effect that large scale global trends are having on people, communities, cities, and America as a whole.

In the end, Clemens follows the plant’s equipment all the way to its new home in Mexico, doing a solid job discussing the reality of the outsourcing of such a large industry. But it is those directly involved with the process who seem able to more succinctly explain the unfortunate absurdity of it all, and Clemens rightfully gives the views and stories of these people the space needed to tell their own story. Jon Clark, who runs a plant-closing newsletter, said of the excavation of these relics, “People pick that stuff up…and take it halfway around the world and reinstall it and put their people to work. You know, it makes you wonder what went wrong, that a plant could sit between two manufacturing plants and could push parts out the door, and now they can pick up the equipment and take it 2,000, 3,000 miles, and run the same equipment to make the same parts and ship ‘em back cheaper…That oughta be a story.” Thanks to Clemens’s thoughtful and diligent work, it is.

Paul Clemens’s new book, Punching Out: One Year In a Closing Auto Plant, is a personal, upfront look at the desertion of the Motor City, and the effect that the automobile industry’s outsourcing has had on the city and the people on whose backs its wealth was created. Choosing to follow the process of a plant shutdown from announcement through the relocation of its equipment to Mexico, Clemens manages to give us something that is rare and sorely lacking in our public discourse: an honest and brutal examination of the atrophy of American manufacturing that refuses to yield to the euphemisms that plague much of the discussion about America’s working class.

Clemens is himself a native of Detroit, and his deep connection to the city’s past and present resonate throughout the entire piece. Beginning with a detailed description of the layout of what was once the heartbeat of the American economy, Clemens weaves the incredible history of innovation and success of the industry that Detroit housed for decades into an explanation of the devastating emptiness that has taken over so much of the city, so many of its factories. The scale of the exodus is perhaps best described by Clemens when he states, “Detroit’s empty spaces, if contiguous, would make a city the size of Boston.” As he moves from the expanding desert into the confines of the Budd stamping plant whose closing he details, the sheer size of the various endeavors—the construction of the factory, the running of it, and at the last its rapid end—is what captures the reader. Clemens expertly shows just how important this industry was to Detroit and the nation at large, when he explains the role of this plant and others like it. As a stamping plant, it is an early part of the car-making process, far removed from the moment when the car is ready to head to the dealership lot.

In a stamping plant, the inclination is to look backward. A stamping plant’s finished product…is of little or no use in and of itself…The sight of all the steel calls to mind, instead, the foundry of its forging. And that’s not to speak of all the steel—hundreds of thousands of tons of it—contained in all of the plant’s presses, and the thought of all the equipment that it took to make that equipment, et cetera and so on, until one is left contemplating the seemingly infinite regress of the parts that make the parts that make the parts.

Of course, the closing of one stamping plant is just a tiny part of a huge phenomenon, but Clemens manages to strike a balance of scope, at once showing how this is but one cog in the mighty machine, while demonstrating its larger importance. He does this by getting to know union leaders, plant managers, and the workers who have been tasked with taking the plant apart from the inside out. Their story is one of multiple generations; indeed it is the very story of the rise and decline of the American economy, told with Clemens’s strong narration and the often poignant words of the men he meets during this mostly painful process. The strange conflicts and frustrations of the workers are hard to read, but necessary to understand the seriousness of these issues. Indeed, the fact that a whole new (unsustainable) industry has been born of this massive economic migration is a great example of the problems. As one of the workers, Smitty, says, “The vultures are picking the carcass. Do you know scrap merchants are the only ones working overtime in industrial America? Think about that.”

The lengthy and detailed portrait Clemens paints of the plant grounds the story. Individual presses weighing over one million pounds, almost 30 feet high, the plant itself over two million square feet (roughly the size of 11 Walmart Supercenters). As the story unfolds, Clemens seems like a man lost amongst the ruins, aware that structures such as these are being left to decay, one day to put the atrophy of the Roman Empire to shame. That he clearly had and still has so much invested in Detroit makes the book all the more powerful.

What is particularly fascinating about the timing of Clemens’s book is that he writes it at the tail end of this decades-long process, after thousands of plants have already closed and thousands of workers have lost their jobs, left to seek (non-unionized) work within or outside the city limits. Instead of an action-packed narrative full of strikes and letters to the editor and a battle for Detroit, he shows the effects of the defeat, and the troubling future that he believes lies ahead. He puts this into harsh perspective by informing the reader that “[At] its peak, GM had employed over 600,000...GM’s Chairman and CEO appeared before Congress and noted—by way of making a ‘too big to fail’ case for government funds—that his company employed 96,000.” Clemens’s story is not one of hope and the possibility of restoration. It is about the finality of closure and the effect that large scale global trends are having on people, communities, cities, and America as a whole.

In the end, Clemens follows the plant’s equipment all the way to its new home in Mexico, doing a solid job discussing the reality of the outsourcing of such a large industry. But it is those directly involved with the process who seem able to more succinctly explain the unfortunate absurdity of it all, and Clemens rightfully gives the views and stories of these people the space needed to tell their own story. Jon Clark, who runs a plant-closing newsletter, said of the excavation of these relics, “People pick that stuff up…and take it halfway around the world and reinstall it and put their people to work. You know, it makes you wonder what went wrong, that a plant could sit between two manufacturing plants and could push parts out the door, and now they can pick up the equipment and take it 2,000, 3,000 miles, and run the same equipment to make the same parts and ship ‘em back cheaper…That oughta be a story.” Thanks to Clemens’s thoughtful and diligent work, it is.

Contributor

Michael Terry

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