For May Day, here’s a guest post by Philip Conklin and Mark Jay, authors of the new book A People’s History of Detroit, which uses a class framework to tell a sweeping story of Detroit from 1913 to the present.
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, two notable strikes took place in the Detroit area. On March 17, bus drivers from the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26 walked off the job in protest of fatal work conditions, shutting down Detroit’s public transit system. Among the workers’ complaints were unhygienic buses, lack of access to rest rooms, and forced close proximity to maskless passengers. Detroit is the poorest large city in the US, and due in part to the high cost of auto insurance more than a third of Detroiters can’t afford a car; the result is that, even as the pandemic ravages the city, hundreds of thousands of Detroiters are forced to rely on the underfunded, overcrowded bus system to get around. “This is death walking around here,” Roderick Nash, a city bus driver, said. “And nobody’s taking it serious.” The city government responded to the strike by suspending bus fare collection during the pandemic to limit passengers’ interaction with drivers, providing masks for passengers, and making more toilets (including porta potties) available for drivers. But days after the strike, drivers reported that conditions remained unsafe, with passengers still lacking access to masks. The government’s safety measures came too late for Jason Hargrove, a city driver who, just days after posting a video on social media complaining about safety conditions on his bus, died of coronavirus.
Two weeks after the bus drivers’ strike, 40 workers at an Amazon warehouse in nearby Romulus launched a protest action of their own. According to organizer Mario Crippen, Amazon treats their employees as “expendable.” “It’s a scary, scary place to be right now,” Crippen said. “There’s no hand sanitizer, no face masks given out. We’re limited on glove use. . . . They’re not worried about anyone’s safety, they’re worried about shipping out packages.” Amazon responded to a similar strike in Staten Island by firing the lead organizer and deriding him as “not smart.” Following a precedent set by Henry Ford a century ago, Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos has decided it’s simply better business to deploy harsh union-busting tactics than to acquiesce to the basic, humane demands of his workers.
As we argue in our A People’s History of Detroit, Detroit has long served as a metonym for the myths and fantasies of urban life in the United States, a sort of endlessly generative symbolic backdrop for our national unconscious—from the industrial miracles of the early 20th century, when Detroit was the manufacturing hub of the world and the birthplace of the manufacturing middle class, to the deindustrialized landscape of poverty, crime, and decay from the latter third of the 20th century up to the present—or, rather, the recent past. Now, Detroit is being hailed as the “greatest turnaround story in American history,” as billions of dollars of real estate investments transform the derelict cityscape into an urban playground of consumption, entertainment, and white-collar industry. In light of this “funhouse mirror” effect (to quote local celebrity journalist Charlie LeDuff), one might wonder, what can the Motor City tell us about the coronavirus epidemic? Indeed, Detroit has also magnified the problems of this virus, as Michigan falls just behind New York and New Jersey in COVID fatality rates, with Detroit tallying 35 deaths per day in early April.
Crises, however universal they appear, have unequal effects, which reflect the inequalities of society more broadly. Much like “natural” disasters, epidemiological ones hit hardest among the most vulnerable sections of the population. On the other hand, crises can also serve as catalysts for coordinated action on the part of these groups. Detroit autoworkers took advantage of the high demand for labor during World War II to jockey for better working conditions at the notoriously dangerous and enervating auto factories that had been converted to produce military equipment, striking despite a nationwide strike ban negotiated by union leaders and government officials behind the backs of the rank-and-file. In early 1944 Detroit workers averaged a dozen strikes per week, making the Motor City the leading center of workplace militancy. That year one workplace death, five amputations, and one hundred serious injuries occurred per day in Michigan.
The two recent labor actions in Detroit highlight a similar dynamic of workplace unsafety and worker power during crises—the essential difference now is the severity of generalized precarity among the working classes. Amazon warehouses are particularly illustrative of the current situation. The corporation has opened several massive “distribution centers” in the Detroit area in recent years. Employees inside these behemoths have denounced their “inhumane” working conditions, decrying the company’s union-busting techniques, as well as productivity standards that force people to stay on their feet all day long and leave no time for bathroom breaks. One undercover reporter described “employees collapsing at work, suffering panic attacks, pulling muscles and more.” Even in the midst of the pandemic, Amazon continues to hire workers for its Metro Detroit warehouses, despite workers’ insistence that the work they’re doing is not essential. “People are ordering the same stuff as usual,” one employee who took part in the strike explained. “If it was purely medical supplies and if Amazon actually stepped up and did that then I’d be much more willing to put myself [on what feels like] the front lines because we get stuff from everywhere, but that’s not what’s going on. . . . It’s people ordering the same cat litter, toys, ramen noodles.” According to another worker, “We aren’t heroes and we aren’t Red Cross workers—we are working people who pack and deliver goods. We’re working through a crisis not by choice but by necessity.”
Although most of the media coverage surrounding these and other workplace concerns have understandably focused on the particulars of the coronavirus, it’s important to bear in mind that deadly work conditions and worker “expendability” are nothing new in Detroit. If there is an abiding truth of the past 100 years of Detroit’s history, it is this: the city’s prosperity is built on its workers, and its hardships have likewise been borne by them. And a cursory glance through the annals of the modern Motor City shows the high cost even of this “prosperity,” which at every turn was wrenched from the living grasp of labor.
A 1973 report by the US Department of Labor found that significantly more people died each year inside U.S. factories than on the battlefields in Vietnam. The report “estimated 65 on-the-job deaths per day among auto workers, for a total of some 16,000 annually.” These deaths pale in comparison to the toll of industrial diseases, which the Public Health Service estimated took a remarkable 100,000 lives each year at this time. Foundry workers, machinists, and coarse-metal finishers were at significantly greater risk of fatal heart disease and lung disease than other workers. These were the jobs that Detroit’s black workers were primarily assigned, making the city’s black population particularly vulnerable to premature death—just as black workers and those living near polluting factories are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus today.
In their struggle for safe and dignified living conditions, Detroit activists have not only come up against profiteering businesses, but also governments who have slashed public programs and the social safety net in favor of subsidies to these same businesses. For decades, organizers such as Maureen Taylor and Marian Kramer, have been leading the struggle for a universal living wage and adequate healthcare for impoverished Detroiters. If their basic demands had been met, non-essential workers would not have to risk their lives by getting on the bus each day to get to degrading, underpaid jobs throughout the metro area. But instead, tax breaks for big business and austerity for the masses have been the order of the day, compounding the devastation of the COVID-19 crisis.
To get a sense of the government’s priorities, consider the fact that in recent years, the Detroit government spent $547 per capita on police, whereas, throughout Michigan, per capita spending on food stamps was $22, and per capita spending on public health was less than $13.
Across the country, and the world, urban landscapes have been vacated to stop the spread of coronavirus, with images circulating online showing abandoned streets in usually bustling areas. The eerie emptiness of tourist traps and national landmarks is enough to spook even a nonbeliever. But ghostly landscapes are nothing new in Detroit. A New York Times writer recalled being “unnerved” by the emptiness of Detroit’s downtown back in 2001. “It felt like the beginning of a zombie apocalypse movie,” he wrote.
Starting in the 1940s, the “Big 3” auto companies fled Detroit precipitously, first to the suburbs, then increasingly to low-wage areas across the world. By the late 20th century, after decades of federal cutbacks and failed initiatives to lure investment to the Motor City, signs of this corporate abandonment were unmistakable. This dramatic situation led to a range of competing visions for the future Detroit.
One vision was to make the city a spectral theme park of decay. Camilo Jose Vergara, the famous Chilean photojournalist and author of American Ruins, made the following suggestion for Detroit in the April 1995 edition of the leading architectural magazine Metropolis: “As a tonic for our imagination, as a call for renewal, as a place within our national memory, a dozen city blocks of pre-Depression skyscrapers [should] be stabilized and left standing as ruins: an American Acropolis…Midwestern prairie would be allowed to invade from the north. Trees, vines, and wildflowers would grow on roofs and out of windows; goats and wild animals—squirrels, possum, bats, owls, ravens, snakes and insects—would live in the empty behemoths, adding their calls, hoots, and screeches to the smell of rotten leaves and animal droppings.” Coronavirus has given us a glimpse of this dramatic vision, as animals have ventured into urban spaces formerly occupied by humans.
Against this fetishization of decay, a second vision for Detroit’s future was proposed by the late activist Grace Lee Boggs, who saw in Detroit’s abandonment the seedbed of revolution. Boggs was inspired by the fact that, as Detroit hollowed out, activists were responding in a myriad of inspirational ways, by repurposing vacant buildings, creating communes, community schools, starting small businesses, and planting urban farms:
Detroit, which was once the symbol of miracles of industrialization and then became the symbol of the devastation of deindustrialization, is now the symbol of a new kind of society, of people who grow their own food, of people who try and help each other . . . When you look out and all you see is vacant lots, when all you see is devastation, when all you see—do you look at it as a curse, or do you look at it as a possibility, as having potential?
Boggs’s vision is a powerful one; but it was not only activists who saw potential in the city’s emptiness. “Detroit has bottomed out,” Dan Gilbert’s business partner John Linkner wrote in Forbes in 2012, “so now, there’s nothing but upside.” In recent years, investors have pounced. Gilbert has led the way, purchasing around 100 buildings in the city, making him the owner of more than half of downtown Detroit. Even after Gilbert wrangled hundreds of millions in government subsidies, at one point even threatening to move his company QuickenLoans to Cleveland, the corporate media has hailed Gilbert’s efforts. The Atlantic wondered if he was “Detroit’s New Superhero,” while the New York Times called him a “missionary.”
Repudiating Vargas’s American Acropolis, companies and wealthy individuals are buying up the quintessential subjects of ruin porn photography to enact their own vision. And there is no more dramatic ruin than Michigan Central Station, which, when it was built in 1913, was the tallest train station in the world. Closed in 1988, the abandoned train station has for decades been a mecca for urban spelunkers, the subject of myriad investigative reports, and a go-to backdrop for post-apocalyptic Hollywood action films. Now, in an almost too-perfect metaphor for the current remaking of Detroit, Ford plans to turn the train station and its surrounding area into a 1.2 million-square-foot “innovation hub” geared toward “mobility solutions that will shape the future of transportation.” According to a local columnist, “Ford’s act of faith in Detroit’s future with the enormous investment it will bring signals a new era.… From now on, redevelopment will occur as the natural and expected outcome in a city once again on the move.” Corporate investment is seen by those in power as the solution to Detroit’s abandonment. But even while these investments have failed to address the needs of poor Detroiters, the coronavirus epidemic has shown just how fragile this “solution” is even for those on the receiving end of its benefits.
As workers in Detroit, and around the world, protest against deadly workplace conditions, capitalists are using the crisis as an excuse to justify automation. This is nothing new. There is a long history of capitalists using worker protests against inhumane conditions as a pretext to invest in labor-saving technology, leading to unemployment and an increasingly hectic pace of work, as human labor is forced to adapt to “the inhuman speed of the machine.” Under the banner of public health, the current wave of automation is sure to reproduce these same effects, barring coordinated government intervention or a robust response from workers’ movements.
As people around the world attempt to maintain their work and their lives during the pandemic, they are forced to find creative ways to adapt to the limitations imposed by the crisis. While the ensuing innovations are an encouraging sign of our collective imagination and resilience, one can’t help but wonder whether these adaptations will serve to further the encroachment of labor-saving technology into new realms. To give just one example, academic workers are being forced to find ways to provide instruction virtually. This happens amidst an already prevalent trend toward online education; as the CEO of online learning platform Coursera has explained, “The current crisis will accelerate this trend.” The implications for the casualization of academic labor attendant to this trend are already being felt. At UC Santa Cruz, the pandemic hit in the middle of a months-long labor action by underpaid graduate student workers, and the move to a virtual learning and working environment has undermined their ability to withhold their labor and to disrupt the functioning of the university, which insists on “business as usual” during the pandemic.
What first appear as “innovations” and “creative adaptations” to the pandemic, take on another valence: they are forced accommodations to a “leaner”, more exploitative regime of capital accumulation. In effect, workers are being compelled to participate in their own devaluation. In the last half-century, political elites of deindustrialized American cities dealt with its growing “surplus population” and the recalcitrance of radical labor activists by hounding them with police and throwing them in prison. With millions more workers slated for redundancy as the coronavirus accelerates automation, and amidst unprecedented (and ever-increasing) ecological catastrophe which threatens humans and ecosystems across the globe, we shudder to think how the coming crises will be resolved.
If the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the fault lines of our unequal society, it’s no wonder that Detroit, which has long been a benchmark of the extremes of urban life in America, has been hit harder than most cities by the coronavirus, and also had already evinced many of the crisis tendencies wrought by this virus. Deadly working conditions, abandoned urban landscapes, structural unemployment due to automation, and extreme precarity—these have been the order of the day in Detroit for the better part of the last 100 years, coronavirus or not. Today in Detroit, a corporate revival is hailed as the answer to the city’s protracted decline, but this has proved tenuous for the Detroiters hardest hit by recent dispossessions. Even as the New York Times acknowledged that “there are no real assurances that gains will be spread democratically across the city, or that city planning and public resources will serve the needs of everyday Detroiters,” it found solace in the vague “hope . . . that private individuals will keep the greater good in mind.” If this hope seemed far-fetched before, in the midst of the devastations wrought by COVID-19 it now appears so remote as to appear ridiculous.
Leaving aside the fact that a primary source of pandemics lies in the ravages of the capitalist system, we can see that COVID-19 is an accelerator of global capital’s rampaging devastations. However, like other crises, it also presents an opportunity for workers to assert their power, for the animation of our political imaginary, and for a radical restructuring of society’s priorities. 52 years ago tomorrow, May 2, 1968, 4,000 workers walked off the job in protest of deadly conditions at the Dodge Main plant in Hamtramck. DRUM’s actions inspired dozens of other anti-capitalist unions to form across the city, and they all eventually coalesced into the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, an organization committed to challenging the power of the “parasitic, cannibalistic, vulturistic“ corporate elites who ruled Detroit. If the latter continue to have their way, crisis will remain the norm for most Detroiters.
Mark Jay is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Philip Conklin is a PhD student in the History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz. After attending the University of Michigan, they met while working as tutors in Detroit public schools. They lived and worked in Detroit for about seven years, during which time they founded a small literary magazine and continued their work with Detroit’s youth. A People’s History of Detroit is available for 50% off during our Spring Sale with coupon SPRING50.