"Punching Out" describes the downsizing of industrial America

Steve Chiotakis Jan 18, 2011

TEXT OF STORY

STEVE CHIOTAKIS: The American economy is so different today than it once was. A lot of manufacturing plants have closed. But what happens after the closing announcement is made?

Author Paul Clemens chronicled the shutdown of the Budd Company plant in Detroit, that for decades made panels and parts for the big car makers. His book “Punching Out — One Year in a Closing Auto Plant,” is out today and he’s with us now. Good morning.

PAUL CLEMENS: Good morning.

CHIOTAKIS: Why were you so interested in telling this story?

CLEMENS: It seemed to me an unexplored area. We see all the time the headline, “Plant to close.” And it dawned on me that I didn’t know what happened then. And, you know what I found was that taking apart industry is itself an industry. And what I try to do is track that process and so press lines went to Mexico, they went to Brazil. And those that were scrapped went all over.

CHIOTAKIS: You actually observed the disassembling of this equipment right with these, what you call, rigors right?

CLEMENS: Yeah I observed it as often as I could and as best I could. And it’s an amazing process. You try to convey to a reader just how big these things are. I mean you’re talking about presses that weight a million pounds. I described it in the books as looking like several Stonehenges of steel. And that’s what a stamping plant looks like and a press shop looks like.

CHIOTAKIS: But when it’s done, it’s done. And I can imagine — you’re from Detroit — watching this happen, I mean what was going through your mind?

CLEMENS: Yeah, it’s a sad process to watch. But what I hope comes through in the book — I think it does — is there’s a vitality to the guys in the book. There’s a bedrock of decency and insight into what they have to say about the process that I think makes it somehow uplifting even though what it’s describing is not.

CHIOTAKIS: We keep hearing about an American automotive comeback. Do you see it?

CLEMENS: I hope so. It’s something you certainly want to root for. To me Detroit and this auto plant are not really the subject of the book, they are the setting of the book. The subject of the book is wither the working class — whither industrial America. You know if I were in Pittsburgh maybe I would’ve written about a steel mill, farther down south a textile mill. I mean that’s just the setting. It’s my way into the topic. The topic is really, what do we do now?

CHIOTAKIS: Paul Clemens, author of “Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant.” Paul, thank you.

CLEMENS: Thank you.

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