The dust is still settling in Michigan after a whirlwind legislative session by lame-duck lawmakers put what’s known as a “right-to-work” law on the books last week. The law would allow workers covered by union benefits to avoid paying union dues or fees. It’s too soon to know exactly what the political and economic consequences will be, but many see the law’s passage as a crippling blow to organized labor in Michigan. And although 23 other states already had similar laws, the fact that one could succeed in Michigan — long a labor stronghold — has people asking themselves: of all places, how could this happen in Michigan?
In the mid-20th century union representation was strong in the state, with half of Michaganders unionized. Today the rate is just one in five. So what changed? I went to the birthplace of the modern American labor movement — there’s an actual place, you can pinpoint, in Flint, Mich. — to trace the rise and slow-motion fall of union strength.
The Bad Old Days
I started near downtown Flint, just off United Auto Worker Highway, which has more than a few cracks in it these days. My tour guide is Geraldine Blankinship, age 92. White hair in a bun, red lipstick. Long ago, she helped get the union movement started, right here, on a picket line.
Geraldine is looking out the window of her Buick at what is now a giant, half-empty office park. But for most of the 20th century, it was a giant factory, churning out cars for General Motors. Geraldine’s father, Jay Green, hired in at the plant, known as Fisher Body Number 1, in 1934. He earned less than a dollar a day. And this next sentence is the kind that barely sounds real anymore, but it’s true: the family was so poor Geraldine had to walk to school barefoot in the snow. She wore a pair of shredded canvas sandals held together by tape.
Geraldine’s dad worked ten hour shifts with no breaks and saw men collapse from exhaustion on the assembly line. Then one night in December of 1936, Geraldine says, her father called the house.
“He said, ‘We’re on strike. It’s going to be a sit down. I’ll be home when it’s over,” Geraldine recalls. She says she remembers him telling her “’I got tired of being a slave.’”
The Flint Sit-Down Strike
The strike went on for days, and then weeks, during a bitter cold winter. Police shot and tear-gassed strikers, and strikers fought police with nuts and bolts and milk bottles. A few weeks in, Geraldine’s dad called home again, sounding like he wanted to come home. Her mom told him, only half joking, if he came out, she’d divorce him. “She believed in strikes,” Geraldine says.
Geraldine Blankinship at home in Flint Township, Mich.
Geraldine and her mom visited the picket-lines after school and passed food to the workers, through the factory windows. After 44 days, the strike worked. GM — the largest car company in America — signed a contract with this new union called the United Auto Workers. Eventually, the rest of the industry did too.
Under the new contract, Geraldine’s father got better working conditions and better pay. The next year, for Christmas, Geraldine got a pair of ice skates. And in a way, those skates launched Geraldine, her kids, and their kids, on a path out of poverty. Even if it wasn’t obvious right away.
A Path into the Middle Class
“They called us shop rats,” says Tom Blankinship, Geraldine’s son. He started at GM as soon as he graduated high school, in the 1960s. That’s what most of his friends did too.
“Pretty much everyone understood that if you weren’t college material — and a lot of us weren’t.” Tom starts to explain, but Geraldine interrupts him with a correction.
“You thought you weren’t,” she says. “We just didn’t have the money.”
“Yeah, there wasn’t any money for that sort of thing,” Tom says. “And the plants were easy to hire into.”
You could make a decent living at the plants, even without a college degree, Tom says, thanks to a union contract that included overtime pay, health care, and regular raises to keep wages in line with inflation. “That was one of the benefits of the union,” says Tom. “We worked our way into the middle class, because of that.”
By the time Tom was middle-aged, he and his wife owned a house, two cars, a cabin up north by the lake. And they could afford to send their kids to college.
Fewer Factories, Fewer Unions
By now, we know what happened next. In the 1980s and 90s, the global economy, and the way Tom, and his union fit into it, were changing. He and Geraldine have driven me across town, to Tom’s old plant, to show me what was left behind.
Tom Blankinship at the site of the old AC Spark Plug plant in Flint
“Right on the corner is where I worked for 28 years,” Tom says, pointing to an empty expanse of concrete with weeds and small trees pushing through the cracks. “It’s a square mile of nothing now,” he says, staring out. “I didn’t even realize that they were tearing it down til I drove down on Dort highway one day and I realized some of the places were gone.”
As the plants left, to Mexico and China, or downsized because of automation, a lot of Flint crumbled. Tom keeps driving through town, and we pass miles of run-down or burnt-out buildings. He points to one empty building that used to be a union hall. “If the plant’s gone, there’s not much use in having a union hall,” he says. In the void that was left, some of the workers that managed to hold on to jobs grew resentful, Tom says, blaming union leaders for asking for too much, or not enough, or protecting problem workers who many thought should have been fired.
Are Unions Still Relevant?
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I ask 4-year old Corbin Cox, in his kitchen.
“A dad,” he says, definitively.
“And what does your dad do?” I ask.
“He likes to go to work every day,” he says.
“And what does he do at work?” I ask. Corbin thinks for a moment, and then the phrase he must have overheard hundreds of times comes out.”
“Loads a robot!” he says.
Corbin Cox and his father, Keith Cox, playing with an iPad
Corbin is the great-grandson of another of Flint’s original sit-down strikers. But Corbin lives about an hour south of Flint, because that’s the only place his parents could find work. Keith Cox, Corbin’s dad, is 42, and works as a supervisor in a car parts factory that’s expanded in the last few years. He says he appreciates what unions have done for his family. “Probably got me to where I am now. But, I’ve never been a part of one, so I don’t know.”
Early on, Keith says he tried to get a job at the union shop where his dad worked, but it was about to close. He says he likes his current, non-union job. He feels like the conditions and the pay are pretty good, for now, and at least in his own life, unions seem kind of irrelevant.
“I don’t think unions ever hurt anybody, but I just don’t think they’re necessary anymore,” he says.
Still, when I ask him about how he feels about his grandfather, and the other strikers, he gets emotional. I ask him why. “I don’t really know,” he pauses. “Probably because I’m proud of him.”
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