Punching Out in Detroit: Autopsy of an Auto Plant

Another American factory closes. Thousands of union laborers lose their jobs. The host city, in this case Detroit, spirals further into debt. The automobile parts will be coming from an obscure Mexican town, shipped into the United States across a national border.

The scenario is a cliché by now, and hyper-aware readers might be forgiven for groaning at the thought of yet another journalistic account. But trust me, Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant is a journalistic account worth reading—for its uniqueness and its humanity.

When freelance journalist Paul Clemens decided to document the closing of an automobile industry factory in his native city of Detroit, he did not initially grasp the international implications of the story. After a year of immersion reporting, Clemens not only grasped the implications, he lived them as he crossed national borders in pursuit of the big picture.

Punching Out is an excellent example of how time equals truth in journalism. Spending almost every day for a year observing any story up close is bound to yield familiarity with sources (including the main characters) and processes unknown to journalists hampered by deadlines.

Born in 1973, Clemens watched the city of Detroit decline in conjunction with the American automobile industry. The sites of automobile parts plants that used to employ thousands of proud, well-compensated laborers now sit empty. After the Budd Company automobile parts stamping factory closed during 2006, Clemens decided to investigate the reasons for the closing and observe what would become of the gigantic building in its abandoned state. (Stamping plants manufacture specific parts, such as doors. Engine plants manufacture, naturally, engines. Assembly plants put the parts and engines together until a finished vehicle emerges.)

He learned that heavy machinery from the closed factory would be transported to Mexico by truck to perform the same functions as before, while Detroit workers drew unemployment checks from the state of Michigan and perhaps the federal government. Eventually, Clemens made the journey to Aguascalientes, Mexico, to view for himself the bitter irony of machinery from the Budd plant—which had been situated between two Chrysler-owned factories in Detroit—stamping parts for none other than Chrysler’s Dodge Journey line.

To educate himself in the early stages of the project, Clemens studied the biweekly publication Plant Closing News, founded by Jon Clark during 2003. Successful journalists understand that every story can be enhanced by specialized publications such as Clark’s newsletter. The first year of publication, Clark reported on 983 plants closings in the United States and Canada. The number rose every year after that.

Clemens also draws on first-hand knowledge from an open stamping plant. The result is vivid prose. Here is an example:

Like the liftoff of an airliner, the stamping of auto body parts requires inhuman force, producing decibels registered by your internal organs. The presses sound, unmistakably, as if they could kill you, which they could, without much interrupting their normal functioning. You’d notice the collision more than they would…It would be difficult to find a stamping plant of long standing without a history of tragedy. In recent decades, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and automation have helped to reduce the human loss—the latter, in large part, by reducing the need for humans altogether….Compared with a state-of-the-art assembly plant such as Ford’s Dearborn Truck Plant, the scene in an old, closed stamping plant such as Budd is hellish, backlit by Goya. (There were in fact foam fingers in the Budd plant that said GOYA. It stood for Get Off Your Ass.)

To find sources in the early stages of his research, Clemens printed the online comments connected to a Detroit News feature about the Budd plant closing. One married couple mentioned she had worked at the plant for 30 years, he for nearly 33 years, and her father for 36 years. Naturally, Clemens interviewed them, and they led him to other out-of-work laborers. Clemens also contacted the representative of United Auto Workers Local 306 to gain access to documents and the physical plant itself. Through his contact with the union representative, Clemens received an introduction to Eddie Sanford, a former Budd factory security guard recently employed by the rigging company dismantling the gigantic presses. Sanford provided entry into the plant for Clemens, making the immersion reporting possible.

Here is a sampling of the remarkable scenes and facts throughout Punching Out:

•The electoral implications of factory closings and layoffs should be obvious, but sometimes are not. Clark, the publisher of Plant Closing News, heard from Democratic Party leaders as early as 2004; they wanted his help in calculating the number of American jobs exported during the presidency of George W. Bush. “I tell you what,” 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. And that was four years ago. And that’s 5,000 plant closures ago.” Well, Obama got elected. But what is his administration doing about the pace of plant closings, and how many votes of displaced laborers might depart the Democrats in 2012?

•Factory closings are immensely complex, with huge ripple effects. But American corporate executives and labor union leaders generally fail to convey their significance. As Clemens notes, “…a car requires thousands of parts; these parts are provided by countless suppliers who, in turn, are supplied by countless suppliers; all of these suppliers employ hundreds of thousands…with the whole industrial supply chain stretching back as far as the eye can see. This message, bungled however badly, remains absolutely sound.”

•Trust of corporate management by workers must be re-established, even if by government sanction. It is heart-rending to overhear a conversation between the United Auto Workers counselor and a terminated employee who wonders about selling his lifetime health insurance guarantee back to Budd for $75,000 in quick cash. It sounds like a bad bargain, the counselor says. He then hedges while talking to Clemens later: “The company, more than likely, eventually, down the road, a number of years from now—somebody’ll say ‘No, no, that ain’t what we meant.’ “

Superb practitioners of immersion journalism older than Clemens include John McPhee, Gay Talese, Madeleine Blais, Susan Orlean, Walt Harrington, Mike Sager, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc and Tracy Kidder. Based on Punching Out, Clemens is a worthy addition to the list and an example for journalists not just in the United States, but around the globe. His story of another closed auto factory is sadly familiar. But it has never been told this well.

Steve Weinberg is an investigative reporter in Columbia, Mo. His latest book is Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller.