They sit there in T-shirts an tattoos, sideburns and jeans -- victims and relics of the American Dream, the one that told them our love affair with the automobile would last forever. Laid-off auto workers one and all, the 22 crowded around a UAW local meeting room in Monroe, Mich., aren't paying a whole lot of attention to the news coming out of the Republican National Convention at Cobo Hall some 40 miles up river in Detroit.
GOP heavies like Sen. Robert Dole and national chairman William Brock are now wooing the blue-collar vote. Over bacon and eggs with UAW president Doug Fraser, the Republicans claim they are "clearly the party of working men and women." Fraser, in a move designed in part to zap Jimmy Carter, allows that "there is a noticeable movement toward Reagan" among rank-and-file members as unemployment deepens.
Meanwhile, down river in Monroe, Bill Privett, 23, out of work a year, on welfar, "scrapin' and scratchin'" for jobs ("around Monroe, if you can get a job shovelin' s---, you're lucky") has other thoughts. "Ole Jimmy Carter can go bag his a--, he's got it so screwed up. But if Reagon gets in there you might as well hang it up. He's against everything for the working man." Another says "He's against labor." Still another sighs, "Everybodt's against us.
Then another offers a well-worn joke, savored by all. "Kennedy, Reagan and Carter were out fishing and the boat capsized. Who was saved?" Every one laughs a cynic's laugh at the Cynical answer: "The American people."
In and around Detroit they are singing the Blue Collar Blues like it has never been sung before. Frustration and despair are everywhere as the auto industry is staggered by hard times not seen since the depression of the '30s. For years the autoworkers were among the most pampered and protected laborers in the world. Not too long ago they were pulling down $21,000 to $$25,000 a year with heavy overtime. Then there were those months of coasting on hefty unemployment benefits. But for many, the future is a frightening here and now as the benefits run out. They try to sell it all -- boats, vans, motorcycles, pickups; cherrished possessions of the past affluent times. But nobody is buying.
Years of Southern mirgration have given Detroit a distinct and lasting Southern subculture. Deep South twangs echo everywhere. For many, their last true hero was George Wallace, who got 800,000 votes in Michigan eight years ago -- almost twice as many as George Mcgovern -- and many of those votes came from the Good Ole Boys and their families who are the backbone of the auto industry labor force.
Wallace always got their cheers when he railed against the welfare loafers. Today, the grim irony is thatthey themselves have turned to welfare. lTheir eyes wear a stunned look at the unreality of it all.
Wilbur Hage "come up this way from West Virginia in '59." He worked in construction before shifting to Ford's four years ago. He is in his 40s, has four kids. His unemployment, after a year of being laid off, just ran out. "Now I don't have nothin' coming in. I went down to welfare. To qualify, you can't have nothin.' You gotta sell a home, your car. You try sellin' today," Privett says. "You can't eat that home or that car." Another murmurs, "And then them Cubans can come in and fight for our jobs . . ."
Vern Moore, secure in his top seniority UAW committeeman position, makes circles on the table with his damp beer bottle, brushes his hand through a slicked-back pompadour, and says his on and his friends are laid off. t
"It's a very foul feelin,' being laid off and unwanted." Moore, from southern Ohio , describes himself as "part hillbilly." He looked upon Carter as another good ole boy now and says "I'm very let down. "It's like a brother that turned up bad." Reagan "has got a shaky record." Like many, Moore feels a lot of auto workers just won't vote. The hawk talk of Republican candidates once so popular with blue-collar workers is not heard anymore; their immediate despair makes Afghanistan and Iran and communism distant concerns.
They are mad at everyone -- the Japanese and their imported cars; the auto companies that, they feel, sacificed quality for production. "They just want them lines to roll. In '73 you got wrote up if something wasn't right, but now all they want is the money," says one. And they are mad at the oil companies for hiking the prices.
"It's all related," says Moore. "Only way you can turn things around is if you could convince them American bastards -- I can't blame the Aye-Rabs -- but them American oil barons is rippin' us off."
He takes up the saga of his son's unemployment. "He got laid off and went out to work the coal mines in Colorado, but they was just too deep in the ground for him. Then he went to Seattle, but by the time he got there the lumber industry was flat down. A guy was goin' to Vegas and gave him $25 to help him drive. He sold off his car and motorcycle. I been in layoffs before, but this is the worst I ever seen. Look Away, Dixieland
Through the years and despite periodic layoffs, Detroit has embraced the auto industry for its jobs, its very life, since that day, March 6, 1896, when Detroit's first car moved down the streets at eight miles an hour drove by charles Brady King with his friend Henry Ford riding behind on his bicycle. In the 1920s, signs tacked to Appalachian pine trees beckoned the Southerners to come north for the good life. Many of today's workers are third-generation Southern dreamers who still pronounce it "DEE-troit" and remain, as one said, "sad on the inside" for home.
Production reached 8 million in 1950 -- outrageous, extravagant monuments to mobility with their fins and chrome and brilliant paint jobs that would be waxed to a sheen on Saturday afternoon. Gulping gas guzzlers that raced mile after mile daily on the freeways were the soul and sinew of this town. But who cared? Gas was a quarter a gallon. Motown's New Sound
"The ERA I don't like. A wife should be home taking care of the kids. It's in my breeding. Only time I ever heard high voices was my father gettin' mad at my mother if she didn't have supper waitin' on the table when he come home from work," says Moore.
Even out of work, many of his co-workers echo a macho sentiment; the wife should stay home and raise the kids.
Their manhood is especially threatened today, out of work. "Drinkin' wife beatin', fightin' with your kids; I read where it's all goin' up on account of the unemployment around Detroit," says Moore.
Later, at a bar down the road in Monroe, the despair is on Thomas Bomia's face as he sips a beer and thanks a visitor for picking up the tab. "I've got tension. It's starting to show on the family. I snap at the kids, argue with the wife. I spend an average of $15 a week, looking for work -- all over, Toledo, Detroit." It is a cliche, but it is truth-filled as Bomia stares and says, "When a guy can't provide for his family it makes you feel like you're not a man anymore."
Ron Vollmer nods. "I just get out of the house and walk. At home I just don't say nothin'. Lots of times I just go there and lay on the bed and think about what the hell I'm gonna do." He pulls out color snapshots of his two young children. He talks about the mortgage on his three-bedroom duplex and his payments on his '79 four-wheel drive that he can't unload. "I went to auto body places looking to get a job repairing cars, but they're hurtin' so bad too. I'm going from good credit to bad, but what can you do?"
Carter and Reagan seem far too distant to solve their problems. There is a no-one-will-make-any-difference pessimism. "You can say, if only Jimmy Carter would straighten up,' or 'maybe Reagan could get his s--- together,' but you know it ain't gonna happen," says one.
For some of these auto workers, life has come full circle.
It's a helluva note," says one, at the irony of it all.
"Here we are, the guys who used to make these cars, just sitting around waitin'. Just waitin' for them to repossess ours."