One summer in her youth my mother worked at the Willow Run factory in suburban Detroit where the short-lived Kaiser-Frazer automobiles were manufactured. The plant had been constructed just ahead of America’s entry into the Second World War for the production of B-24 Liberator bombers, which began rolling off the assembly line in 1941. A month after Japan’s destruction of the U.S. naval fleet at Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt established the Wartime Production Board to supervise the conversion of the country’s industrial might from civilian to military purposes. This adaptation was crucial to the Allies’ victory over Nazi Germany and imperial Japan.
During my childhood Detroit continued to manufacture the automobiles that had become indispensable to American life, fuelling the nation’s economy. In fact, my maternal grandfather was working on an assembly line at a General Motors plant in Pontiac, Michigan, while I was growing up.
Half a century later North America’s thoroughfares are largely filled with Japanese, German and Korean automobiles, with GM, Ford and Chrysler marques definitely in the minority. What happened to our domestic automobiles? Where did our manufacturing jobs go? Often they were exported to Mexico or overseas where nonunionized labour is less expensive and government regulations lax. In 1979 nearly 20 million workers were employed in manufacturing jobs, but by 2007 fewer than 14 million held jobs in this sector, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Over five million manufacturing jobs were lost just during the 11-year period following the turn of the millennium, which indicates that the decline has accelerated in recent years.
Is this decline a bad thing? If increasing numbers of employees are now sitting at desks staring at computer screens, is this something to lament? Not necessarily, but it may be a sign of an unbalanced economy.
Free-trade liberals tend to extol the virtues of an international division of labour, in which production of goods and services varies from one country to the next. If each country had to produce everything internally for its own people, huge numbers would not have life’s basics. Switzerland lacks arable soil, while Canada is one of the world’s breadbaskets. We buy Swiss watches and they buy foodstuffs. Everyone gains. Our “buy local” movements may not see this as clearly as others do.
Nevertheless, the deindustrializing trends of the past half century are producing a world in which brain and brawn are more geographically distant from each other than ever before. There have long been white- and blue-collar neighbourhoods in our cities. But now we may be seeing the rise of white-collar and blue-collar countries, where the differing legal systems prevent the development of healthy workplaces and labour relationships, especially in poorer countries attempting to live at the whims of the wealthy west’s consumption choices.
But there’s also a negative for the western countries. Given the rapid decline of industry, especially in the U.S., there is reason to doubt that that country could repeat its impressive performance in the Second World War. If a new leader were to arise elsewhere bent on world domination, would an effort to convert a shrinking industrial base to military use be sufficient to carry the day against such a determined enemy?
The General Motors plant in Pontiac, Michigan, is long gone, and GM closed the historic Willow Run factory in 2010. No one can deny that changing economies are a reality to which we must adjust as well as possible. Yet it may be time to work towards rebalancing our economies to put more unskilled labourers to work, to renew our manufacturing bases and to lessen the widening division of labour between the west and the rest.
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