A Scrap Economy

“HOW CAN A plant stop?” wonders Paul Clemens, a Motor City native who made his nonfiction name with the 2005 memoir Made in Detroit. “How can all its stuff, weighing uncountable tons, be cut up and trucked away? How can all the equipment that once made such a racket be quieted so completely? How can 2 million square feet that once made so much now make nothing?”

Those questions sent Clemens inside Detroit’s Budd stamping plant, which at the time of its closing employed about 350 people making parts for Ford SUVs: “roofs, doors, fenders, tailgates, liftgates, and body side panels.” Budd, which sat “sandwiched” between two Chrysler plants, was one of Detroit’s oldest plants, and in May 2006, when its closing was announced, Budd briefly headlined The New York Times. But within a single news cycle, the story had faded even from Detroit papers, which turned their attention to the FBI digging for Jimmy Hoffa’s bones at a horse farm in Milford Township, Michigan. The speed with which Budd’s shuttering vanished from the papers is misleading. The closing of a plant outlasts the news cycle. The closing of a plant can take more than a year.

One might tell this story by singling out half a dozen of the men and women who worked at Budd and following them as they adjust to the plant’s closing—as they apply for new jobs and unemployment benefits; as some of them find those new jobs and some don’t; as one man, say, loses his house and has to move in with his grown kids; as one woman, say, enrolls at the local community college to (in the odious idiom of education salespeople) update her skills.

That is not Clemens’ strategy, although he is interested in how the “American working class has not only declined” but “transformed.” In Punching Out, we overhear the benefits rep of the union (UAW Local 306) trying to “tend to the concerns of the retired and the laid off,” but for the most part we don’t get to know those retired and laid off.

Clemens focuses instead on ma-chinery, on the plant itself, and on the people (mostly men—some of them former Budd employees) hired to do the hard work of disemboweling the plant. We see some of Budd’s presses cut up and turned into scrap. (Clemens asks a few men working at a scrap yard if “it was a good time to be in their business.” “Most definitely,” comes the reply. “The best time. Unfortunately.” Scrap processing, Clemens dryly observes, “is in large part countercyclical.”) We see some of the machinery—lathes, grinders, robotic welders, drill presses, die lifts—sold at a three-day auction. Excluded from that auction were three press lines, which had already been purchased: “These were 2-line, sold to Delga, a Brazilian auto supplier, and 9-line and 16-line, sold to Gestamp, a Spanish auto supplier that had in turn contracted Müller Weingarten, a German press maker, to help oversee 16-line’s dismantling in Detroit and its installation in Mexico in the fall.”

And that bit of political economy, the transfer of work south, is the animating center of Clemens’ engrossing book. In the preface, Clemens quotes Jon Clark, the founder and editor of Plant Closing News, saying that the real question is how “a plant could sit between two manufacturing plants and could push parts out the door, and now they can pick up equipment and take it 2,000, 3,000 miles, and run the same equipment to make the same parts and ship ’em back cheaper.” Clark serves as Clemens’ town crier, calling our attention to the most important thing. Punching Out—which concludes with Clemens touring the Mexican plant that is the new home to Budd Detroit’s largest press line—may be said to be an absorbing, illuminating, and disturbing meditation on Clark’s insightful words.

Lauren F. Winner is an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School. Her books include Girl Meets God.

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