Detroit author spent a year inside a stamping plant as it lay dying.
Published: January 19, 2011
"What I thought I had seen inside the closed Budd Detroit plant through a particularly bad summer, fall, winter and spring," Clemens writes, "was the American working class, mopping up after itself."
The following are excerpts from Paul Clemens' Punching Out (Doubleday), published this week.
When Jon Clark started his newsletter, Plant Closing News, in 2003, he promised subscribers that he'd report on the specifics of 25 plant closings a month — 300 per year. In 2003, he reported on 983; the next year, 1,130; the next, 1,180. When I first talked to him, in October 2007, he'd reported who, what, when, where, and why on 980 plant closings in the calendar year — "that's so far," he stressed, "plus an additional 250 bankruptcies."
The newsletter comes out biweekly and is "targeted to surplus industry service providers," including "rebuilders, used equipment dealers, dismantlers, demolishers, remediation contractors, equipment riggers, craters and equipment transport firms looking for current business opportunities, particularly those arising from the closing or relocating of North American industrial manufacturing plants." Each issue begins by noting the number of closings in the United States and Canada included in the issue. For instance, the January 15, 2007, issue is headlined: "44 Companies Closing 48 Plants + 18 Bankruptcies." These are then subdivided by industry— food processing, textile products, wood products, pulp, paper products, chemical products, rubber, plastics products, glass, cement products, metal products, electrical, electronics, other manufacturers — and again by state — "AL 2, FL 3, MI 6" — before the specifics of each closing are given. Clark recalled getting a phone call from a manager at a plant in Arkansas angry that his plant had appeared in the newsletter. Clark pointed out that the closing had already made the papers.
Clark has also written Plant Closing Checklist, which includes a couple hundred questions and comments covering areas pertinent to plant closure. "Know what one of the first things on the Plant Closing Checklist is?" Clark asked. "Tell your people what's going on!" His memory for individual plant closings is unusually good. When we first spoke on the phone, I told him I was working on a book about the closing of the Budd Detroit Automotive Plant, Stamping and Frame Division. "That was a 2-million-square-foot facility," Clark said of the plant, whose closing had appeared in the July 15, 2006, issue of Plant Closing News. He has industrial facts and figures at his mental fingertips, and his knowledge of plant closings is sought-after. The Democratic National Committee had contacted him in the buildup to the presidential election of 2004 in an attempt to determine "how many jobs had been exported under Mr. Bush." It was a question impossible to answer exactly but one that led Clark to a larger point. "I tell you what," he said he told the Democrats. "If you can get everybody to vote for you that's lost their job in this country, you can easily be elected." He added, "And that was four years ago. And that's 5,000 plant closures ago. And I think that had a big impact on Obama being elected."
We met over breakfast in the Houston airport a week after the 2008 presidential election, when the depth of the country's financial crisis was becoming clear. The Great Recession had officially begun eleven months before, and later that month the leaders of Detroit's Big Three would arrive in Washington for a public flogging — a prelude, for General Motors and Chrysler, to the bankruptcies to come. Auto suppliers — Delphi, Lear, Tower Automotive, Dana, Dura — were ahead of the downward curve, beating GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy by years. Budd, a major Tier 1 supplier, avoided the possibility of a similar fate by simply closing.
I had flown from Detroit to Houston to talk to Clark while en route to central Mexico to see a press line. Once the largest press line in the Budd Detroit plant, stamping body sides for the Ford Explorer and Ford Expedition, it had been sold after the Budd plant's closure to Gestamp, a Spanish auto supplier. Gestamp had the disassembled presses moved, piece by piece, a couple of thousand miles to its newly expanded plant in Aguascalientes, Mexico, where it was now stamping body sides for the Dodge Journey, the Chrysler crossover assembled in Toluca, Mexico.
I'd observed the disassembly of that press line, along with much of the rest of the Budd Detroit plant's equipment, for the better part of a year. The trip to Mexico would cap a process that had begun two and a half years before, on May 15, 2006, when ThyssenKrupp Budd, citing the declining sales of the Ford SUVs for which it supplied components, announced that it would close its Detroit plant by year's end. The Budd plant had been built in 1919 by Liberty Motor — which, like most motor companies in Detroit's early days, would soon go bust — and bought by the Budd Company in 1925. The German steel giant Thyssen bought Budd in the late 1970s and merged with the German steel giant Krupp in the late 1990s. The Budd Company became the ThyssenKrupp Budd Company in 2002, though no one called it that. "Budd," "Budd's," and "Budd Wheel" — so-called after its former Wheel and Brake Division — were the plant's names around town. The new name with the German pre?x lasted just four years anyway: the Detroit plant closed, officially, on December 4, 2006. A sign saying "ThyssenKrupp Budd Detroit Plant" still hangs on the exterior of the empty plant — a misleading headstone on an exhumed industrial grave. At its peak, plant employment approached 10,000.
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