The despair on the faces of muscled, redundant GM workers last week as their truck plant prepared to close was a glimpse of a future without oil. It was a reminder, too, echoing Dorothea Lange’s classic 1936 Migrant Mother portrait. Either that or Nick Nolte’s arrest mugshot.
Put a frame around the workers’ faces, and they become what is heartlessly called “found art” or “objects not normally considered art.” I’d display the images with a voiceover of CAW leader Buzz Hargrove calling GM’s decision “a betrayal of the collective bargaining process” and using words like “relationship,” “obligation” and “principles,” the desperate way you talk when your spouse offloads you and you know in your heart that you are too flabby and decrepit to find someone else to intercourse with in the years remaining. You resort to begging.
But GM has been dumped, too, and rightly so. It lost a collective $51 billion in the last three years making ridiculously big pickup trucks and SUVs. It’s only now talking about selling its once-treasured Humvee division which, as fuel prices climb forever, is unlikely to find a buyer who doesn’t also own an oil well. Turning around GM is like turning around the Queen Mary in a bathtub. Big corporations reach the sea level of their incompetence and never budge.
And it’s not as if GM wasn’t warned. David Halberstam predicted the collapse of the American car industry in The Reckoning in 1987. Bruce Springsteen wrote about the Rust Belt in Youngstown in 1995. Michael Moore made Roger & Me in 1989. M. King Hubbert predicted continental peak oil in 19-effing-56.
Responsible politicians and business executives exist for one purpose: to prepare for and ensure that there is a future. They haven’t. Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty advised the 2,900 autoworkers to retrain for the financial services sector. Did he mean becoming ATM installers or driving a Brinks truck? I suppose he’ll tell the 195 Hallmark Cards workers laid off this week to retrain as janitors at Evites.
As I prepare to fly to Ottawa this week rather than take the bullet train the federal government should have built long ago, I think about this in what I hope is an ironic way, not a bitter one: I try to console myself that I am writing this online instead of in a “hard copy” newsprint publication — that plucky Mallick thinks ahead! — but the fact is that none of us is ready for the massive and nearly immediate adjustment that will be demanded of us as oil prices rise.
San Francisco columnist Mark Morford has this advice as he watches this fascinating “albeit enormously grim” shift in modes of living: “Stay home, read, have sex.”
Yeah, but with whom? Who wants a used autoworker? Who wants a print journalist who can’t cope with the internets and the Google“? Who can predict whether SUVs will become the status symbol of the future when only the rich can afford to drive them, or an emblem of society’s failure as they sit in the driveway for good?
But I do know that being an economic unit of one is not a sensible path. “Wouldn’t be prudent,” as George W. Bush’s father used to say. How I miss that absurd man.
Trade union relevance
The smug Schadenfreude specialists who posted online abuse of unions as a concept and hailed the free market (ask not for whom the bell tolls, buddy) don’t understand power. As much as humans are terrified by what’s coming at them, they still understand that it’s a human, and indeed insect-like, trait to seek power somehow or to shelter beneath it. The free market crushes individuals like a sow bug. As demonstrated this week, that includes GM executives.
Unions can’t make employers smarter, but they can give workers breathing room, like severance and retraining packages. Unions can gather votes. Unions can still get you into that great, disappearing-in-the-free-market-U.S.A-club known as the Middle Class.
Amid this cataclysmic economic change, fabulous new industries will open up. Indeed, as oil prices make imports from China increasingly expensive, old manufacturing jobs might well come back, too. We’ll be building rickshaws and Smart cars, but it’s a living. If Canada elected a wise federal government, we’d be building bullet trains.
Universal health care makes Canada a hugely desirable place to set up business for an entrepreneur who thinks about climate change and water shortages and looks north, where water flows like, er, water. Unions can pressure the feds to release the money stolen from employed Canadians in the form of EI and currently kept in a fat bank account helping no one. But not a union headed by a retro-thinking Hargrove. Unions need a visionary. But we still need unions.
The Boss wrote about a foundry started in 1806 that made cannonballs for the Civil War and bombs to drop in Vietnam. But the real bosses closed the plant in Youngstown.
Seven-hundred tons of metal a day
Now sir you tell me the world’s changed
Once I made you rich enough
Rich enough to forget my name
Yes, plant workers, GM has forgotten your name already. And the company you work for, dear readers, will forget your name, too. When that happens, remember these GM workers. And consider the irony that your face, too, has become found art.
I watched my favourite writer, David Sedaris, interviewed on The Daily Show just as the doorbell rang and a package arrived containing his new book, When You Are Engulfed in Flames — the same one he was promoting on TV. Sedaris is funny, but in the kind of artful way that makes you buy two copies of his book and six more to give to friends. His philosophy is this: No matter how awkward things get, there’s always something extra humiliating in it just for you. The title comes from a sign he found posted in a Tokyo hotel room, advising guests what to do in case of fire.