The End of the Line

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Early in America’s history, many believed that the key to the success of the nation was through industrial development. With her vast resources and space, the continued growth and development of industry would allow America to eventually catch and surpass Europe, and in particular England, for global dominance economically. While it would take nearly 150 years for this to come to fruition, with the end of World War II, America was able to take her place as the dominant economic force in the free world. Unfortunately, as prompt as this assent to industrial dominance was for America, its demise seemed to be every bid as dramatic – no sooner had America reached the apex of global dominance, new competition from Asia was working to knock the United States from its throne.

This fact is no more evident than in the auto industry within America. While not the birthplace of the automobile, Americans were able to master and perfect the production of the car through various inventions and improvement in design. With the introduction of the assembly line by Henry Ford, mass production of the car became possible, allowing the price of autos to drop dramatically. More important than his introduction of the assembly line into the auto industry was Ford’s notion of paying his workers in the factories a wage that would allow them to afford the cars that they were building. More important than improving their lot in life, the money a worker could make in a Ford factory also led to the development of the belief that factory workers were not to just be seen as incompetent workers whose job could be done bay any physically able body. Instead, workers in the auto industry believed that they earned the money they made – they were the people who kept America strong. Without the brawn of the factory workers, America was doomed to lose its position in the world.

As with most of America’s industry, autoworkers began to face competition from outside of the nation. Modern factories and lower wage costs allowed countries like Japan to produce a superior product at a fraction of the cost. As these cars continued to flood into the American market, autoworkers began to feel the affect of receiving what many Americans saw as an over inflated wage. In her book The End of the Line: Lost Jobs, New Lives in Postindustrial America, Kathryn Marie Dudley examines these very topics through a sociological case study of Kenosha, Wisconsin, one of the initial cities to develop and prosper from the auto industry. Beginning with Thomas Jeffrey in 1901 and ending with the closing of the plants Chrysler purchased from AMC Motors in 1986, Kenosha and the thousands of people that called the city home came to depend upon the production of cars for their very dependence. For these blue-collared workers, life without these factories and the jobs that they provided was incomprehensible.

Through her case study of Kenosha, Wisconsin, Dudley is hoping to provide to the reader with a better understanding of the numerous hardships and challenges that faced displaced workers as changes in the American economy shifted focus from blue-collar high school educated worker to the white-collar college educated employee. While many factors need considering when examining the causes and consequences of this change, Dudley believes that historians and politicians have lost site of the most significant aspect of this change – the effect that it had on individuals and their psyche. As the author points out, “The difficulty with the concept of disaster is that it focuses almost exclusively on the experiences of victims. Many community studies attempt to correct the image of passive victims by emphasizing the strategies people use to cope with their situation, but the focus remains squarely on the people who are traumatized by the event under consideration. This approach implicitly assumes that the source of social disorder comes from outside the afflicted community, and that everyone inside that will experience or perceive the event in essentially the same way” (p. 84). Through her book, Dudley hopes to put this myth to rest and instead show that the city itself was divided over the closings of the plant.

Through numerous in-dept interviews with individuals who live in the city, Dudley is attempting to determine how the various groups living in Kenosha reacted and dealt with the closing of the Chrysler plant in 1987. From the 30-year veteran of the factory world to the recent college graduate, every member of the community is examined and taken into consideration as to their position on the closing of the plant to what the future of the city should be. Interestingly, it seems that in the mind of the author, the interviews she conducts with the history teachers from the city represent the center of her overall point – a combination of a lack of higher education and job security led the workers of the Kenosha plants to grow dependent on a dying institution. While the auto industry had given Kenosha its birth and success, many of its citizens attempted to freeze the city in its prime, while the world around Kenosha was changing. At some point, the two simply could no longer coexist and unless Kenosha and its citizens were willing to adapt to these changes, the city was doomed to a death that had befallen other cities unable to adapt to the post-industrial world.

Overall, I believe that the author did a tremendous job in providing to the reader a thorough and fair examination of Kenosha, Wisconsin and the numerous problems that its people had to solve with the closing of its auto factories. While this topic is one that brings with it tremendous emotion, the author seems willing and able to ask the difficult questions. More importantly, she seems to have gained the trust of those she interviewed, as they were willing to provide honest responses that many within the city may have had difficulty with. There are no simple answers to the problems that industrial cities faced with the closing of its factories throughout the 1980’s. As many of these cities have yet to recover, it is by asking these difficult questions that its citizens can derive solutions that provide the greatest good to as many of its members as possible. --Tdemharter 23:55, 5 Dec 2005 (EST)

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