Hard Times In Motor City


Motor City.

It's the place that's famous for the assembly lines that snaked through brick and glass factories to the roar, the clang, the screech, the scream of metal being shaped, holes being drilled, paint being sprayed on cars and trucks and tanks.

The place where blast furnaces glowed red in the black of night and enormous cranes, like the skeletons of Trojan horses, lined the riverbanks.

The place where politicians traditionally campaigned at the factory gates as throngs of workers came in waves at dawn, in late afternoon, at midnight, for the ritual of the changing of the shifts.

But no more.

Many of these once-thriving, booming factories lie dormant, their windows broken, gates padlocked; the only movement and sound come when an icy wind sends rubble clattering across deserted parking lots or blows a discarded newspaper into the air.

Workers are not lining up to punch in or punch out, but joining ever-lengthening lines of the jobless in a state with the worst unemployment in the nation.

It's a severe testing time for these men and women who call themselves ''factory rats,'' because it's a rat race to keep up with conveyor belts that swoop, jerk, and slither past endlessly, like ravenous beasts that never get their fill of parts - and because, like rats, the workers never see the light of day.

In Detroit, it's called ''working in the shop,'' not ''in the factory,'' and ''working on the line,'' not ''on the assembly line.'' Older workers still refer to ''the car plants,'' not ''the auto plants.'' That's part of the jargon people grew up with in what has always been called a ''lunch bucket town,'' because the black, tin bucket with the thermos and the sandwiches and maybe a homemade slab of pie was as much a part of the worker's uniform as the blue work shirt and grease-stained work pants, the high, safety-toe work shoes, and, for some, the hard hat.

Their primary concern, if you talk to them about their life's work, is that they be seen as people, individuals, not statistics. ''We're not just the little cogs in the big wheels that mass production makes us out to be,'' one workman said.

Some are old-timers with a long history, who have seen dramatic changes for good and ill through years of turmoil, layoffs, strikes, improved working conditions, and deteriorating morale. Others, like Karl Hayhurst, 21, are relative newcomers. Karl is the third generation of his family to go into the shop, and like his father and grandfather before him, he has that chronic yearning to ''own a little land and work outdoors.''

Karl's first two years were in a shop where ''the monotony and the boredom were getting to me.'' But he was able to rent his own apartment and buy his own dirt bikes and a street motorcycle, and he liked that.

Then he was laid off. He sold his motorcycles and eventually had to move back home, bringing only his 10-year-old car and his parakeet, Henry. He likes his folks and the younger children, but he misses the privacy and feeling of independence when he had his own place.

''But I'm lucky,'' Karl says. ''I got a job a few months ago with a tiny plant in (suburban) Troy with only eight people. I do a little of everything - clean up, shipping, receiving, cutting stock. They're real decent. They treat everyone fair. We're like a family. We're all young - the oldest is the foreman, who's 30. Everybody works hard, because if you don't, you know you can be replaced.''

Karl, a low-key young man with black hair, a small black mustache, and a warm , wide grin, likes to read, visit friends, play pool, and help at the Boys' Club of his church. He plans to enroll in night school at Macomb County Community College next semester to study numerical control and hopes to be a computer programmer in a shop someday. His daydream: ''To drive a truck cross-country, especially in the South, where it's warm.''

The home where Karl lives with his parents, James and Shirley Hayhurst, is a trim, three-bedroom house with white asbestos siding and black trim. White concrete flower urns and swans decorate the porch. It is in a row of similar modest houses in Warren, a shop workers' suburb that mushroomed on Detroit's northern border after World War II.

The driveways and streets are generally lined with cars, vans, campers, and until recent hard times, boats and snowmobiles - the symbols of middle-class achievement in the Motor City. Schools have enjoyed unusually strong support from Warren's ethnic mix of people, who put a high value on education and want their children to have more of it than they had.

On a recent evening visit, the Hayhurst house was not only filled with four of the couple's five children (one married daughter has her own home), but also three preschoolers Mrs. Hayhurst was caring for because their parents ''have a real emergency.'' The father, she explained, was laid off from the shop, his unemployment insurance ran out before he could find another job, and now he works part-time nights at a store. His wife went to work but must soon quit because they expect another child.

Friends say it is characteristic of the Hayhursts to ''always be helping somebody out.''

James Hayhurst's first job, for 13 years, was in a cold rolled steel plant in Detroit where his father was a foreman and a brother was the union president. Jim was a crew leader in shipping. Having one relative in management and one in the union gave him a middle-ground view.

''My brother was a more conservative union man and he was very needed,'' Jim says. ''My own view is that the union retards advancement, but it cuts partiality by management, too.''

His father had come to the shop from the West Virginia coal mines, where he managed company houses. He saw his share of strikes and layoffs, but before he died he realized his dream by owning eight acres of land in rural New Baltimore which he gardened.

Jim Hayhurst didn't like that first job in the steel plant. It was ''the same old grind every day'' and he couldn't see any opportunity to advance as a leader. He quit to do the work he loved, serving five years as a Salvation Army recreational director in Warren and driving a truck on the side to make up the difference in his paycheck.

But his wife had died, and when he met Shirley at church (she was a Salvation Army lieutenant for 11 years), they fell in love, married, and added two children to his three. He had to go back to the shop to support them.

Today, he has a job he likes - ''it is challenging and every day is different.'' He operates a cold header, which makes metal fasteners for G. B. Dupont in Troy, just 12 miles from his home. He's been there six years. The company, which also has a plant in Lapeer, Mich., has laid off about one-third of its employees, ''but it's not as bad as other plants,'' Jim says.

The employees take great pride in their work.

''It's a family-owned company and the four top men, who grew up with it for 25 to 30 years, are on the floor with us every day,'' Jim says. ''It's not impersonal. They do the selling, too, so they put their reputations on the line with our work. It has to be good.''

Another important consideration for him is the annual profit-sharing plan.

''It's better than a pension for me,'' Jim says. ''It helps instill pride and it has been really good. I can't see myself retiring, anyway. I always want to work. I think it's the wrong philosophy to sit and do nothing and draw a pension.''

The work ethic was drummed into him by his father, he says, and he drums it into his children.

''We don't live high and we pay for things as we go to stay out of debt,'' he says. ''We garden and Shirley cans and bakes and sews a lot. The boys and I keep the cars repaired. We have a cabin in northern Michigan, one old station wagon, and a new car we bought last year. . . .''

Shirley Hayhurst holds home parties to sell home wall accessories. Many sconces and brackets in elegant gold and crystal decorate her cozy living room. She teaches ceramics and heads the women's Home League at her church. Jim, like his son Karl, works with the Boys' Club. Weekends they visit his widowed mother to help her in any way they can.

'My job keeps the house warm and puts food on the table,'' Jim says. ''We can't all be presidents of the United States. It's a way of life. I've been lucky. I've had layoffs, but I've been able to better myself every year. Last year we took a trip west and went to Yellowstone. It was wonderful.''

Daughter Patti, 9, loves soccer and wants to be a teacher someday. Her mother would like to see the children get ''more education, depending on their abilities and on circumstances.'' Raising children is harder today, she thinks. ''Teaching them basic morals'' is important. As for her husband's work: ''It meets our needs and he's happy in his work. That's important.''

She has confidence in the future. ''If you give to God, if you tithe and give a love offering, he generously rewards you.'' Her husband adds: ''That's the basis of life, not religion but the word of God.''

A friend and neighbor, James Hicks, who is a retired Chrysler worker and has seen all the best and worst of shop life, says he would ''never go back, not under any conditions.'' In the late '40s, when he came to the city from his family's farm in northern Michigan, he was only 18.

''There were lots of wildcat walkouts and weeks when I didn't get more than three days' work and three days' pay,'' he said. ''Whenever I was laid off, I had to wait two weeks before I could draw workmen's comp [layoff pay], and it wasn't retroactive. We had no paid holidays. We gave up a nickel-an-hour raise all year to get our first two paid holidays. Some of the young people don't know that.''

Among the grim times: His first son was born when he had been laid off for 11 months and exhausted all his unemployment benefits.

''I worked afternoons for 17 years, which meant sacrificing my family life,'' he recalls. ''I didn't help Florence raise our first two children. I was asleep when they went to school, and when I got home from work at midnight they were asleep. Weekends, I often did odd jobs to make ends meet.''

He realizes the loss, now that he has time with his two youngest teen-age boys and his three little grandsons, who visit often from nearby Holly.

''I used to meet him at the factory gate sometimes and bring him his lunch and a newspaper at 7 o'clock in the evening,'' his wife, Florence, says. ''The last few years when he was a die storage man, he'd be working in the shop yard by himself and I'd say, 'Aren't you lonely out here?' He'd always say, no, he'd rather be away from the people inside.''

That's because in the last decade ''it's gotten very rough in the big shops, what with dope and guns,'' Jim Hicks says. ''I worked in one shop where an innocent bystander was shot to death when there was a fight, but three days later it was business as usual, with the men playing cards and carrying guns.''

Shop work is very dangerous anyway, he points out, and when people high on drugs manipulate big machinery, the risks to everyone increase.

''The toughest part is the monotony,'' Hicks says, echoing the major complaint of shop people, ''and no matter how well you do your job, you never get a pat on the back.''

The contrast with his life today as a happy retiree who is only in his early 50s is enormous.

''The 30-and-out retirement plan is the greatest thing the union and company ever did,'' he says. Under the plan, workers only have to work 30 years before they can retire. ''Without the gradually better working conditions over the years, and the benefits we still have, plus my pension, I could never have retired with two boys still to raise.''

He and his wife operate a small ''ma and pa'' business cleaning carpets in private homes and small offices to augment his pension. They are suffering from the high prices of gasoline and chemicals, but ''we're our own bosses,'' they say, and they like that.

Although it was 23 years before they could afford their first vacation and they never had a second car, they have been able to buy his family homestead in Hale, Mich., where they spend more and more time. They live ''farm style,'' buying produce in season and in quantity and doing a lot of canning and freezing of meat, fruits, vegetables, and Florence's home-baked pies.

''I'll always remember the first week Jim retired,'' Florence says. ''We were sitting at the picnic table in our yard and it was 7 in the evening and he said: 'You'll never have to bring me my lunch again and I'll never have to punch a time clock.' It was a sweet moment.''

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