Workers recall their days at Lansing’s Fisher Body

November 6, 2011

Workers recall their days at Lansing’s Fisher Body

/ Lansing State Journal

Lansing— Dorothy Stevens remembered her badge number: 348.

She remembered her starting wage: $1.72 an hour. And she remembered what solidarity looked like among the workers who made seat cushions at Lansing’s Fisher Body plant in the 1950s.

“In the cushion room, we took care of each other,” Stevens said. “If they picked on this guy here, let me tell you, that foreman, he might as well hang it up, because nothing went down off that line that didn’t have to go in the scrap pile. Nothing.”

Stevens was the first woman at Fisher Body to demand one of the better-paying jobs reserved for men. She once told her bosses, when they floated the idea of making her a supervisor: “I fought you bastards all these years, there ain’t no damn way I’d join you now.”

But speaking in the fall of 2005, decades after her retirement and months after the plant that was part of General Motors Co. had gone silent, Stevens said its impending demolition was “heartbreaking.”

“You hated to see it go, even though you know it’s old and the new one will be much nicer,” Stevens said, “but it won’t be the same, it won’t be the same. There won’t be the camaraderie.”

In a conference room at the United Auto Workers Local 602 union hall, a team of interviewers, autoworkers themselves, listened quietly. A digital recorder picked up her words for posterity.

Stevens’ interview is one of 125 recorded in the months after the last car body, a Pontiac Grand Am, rolled off the line at GM’s Lansing Car Assembly plant, better known as Fisher Body.

The plant on Verlinden Avenue was shutting down, finally going silent in May 2005. The Lansing Delta Township assembly plant wouldn’t be up and running until late 2006.

Workers were churning through the UAW Jobs Bank — a program that allowed laid-off workers to do community service in exchange for full paychecks.

They had time on their hands and leaders from the union got the idea of using that time to capture a piece of the plant’s history before it slipped away.

“It was the fact that we had all these people, we’ve got all of them together and we’re not going to ever have this opportunity again to capture the stories of the working people of the Fisher Body plant,” said Doug Rademacher, then the president of Local 602.

The union reached out to Michigan State University, which organized training in oral history methods for a small team of autoworkers.

What they created over the next several months was an uncommon collection of everyday stories, a history of working life in the industry that defined Lansing for decades, told by people unlikely to make it into the history books.

“The history of blue-collar labor is scant,” said Kevin Beard, who, as an autoworker, was one of the initial organizers of the project. Now retired from GM and working for the MSU Library, he helped catalog the interviews and bring them together this year in an online digital catalog called the Lansing Auto Town Gallery.

“To be able to get first-person stories from people who actually worked on the line or were supervisors in the plant or were family members or ran a business that the workers patronized was just a gold mine we couldn’t pass up,” Beard said.

Sam McGhee had been asked to tell a funny story about working security at Fisher Body. He chose the one about the guy who got drunk every Friday and had to be removed from the plant — every Friday.

“It really wasn’t funny,” he said, “but it got to be a funny thing because it happened every week and it was the same guy and it seems like, every time it happened, they would figure out a way to get me” to remove him.

There are moments in the interviews that “will confirm people’s worst fears about autoworkers,” said John Beck, a professor of labor and industrial relations at MSU who helped organize the project. There also are interviews that will turn the negative stereotypes on their heads. To look for heroes and villains is to miss the point.

“This shows the complexity of what it means to be an autoworker and that one size does not necessarily fit all in terms of that experience,” Beck said.

Equally as important, it shows what it meant to be an autoworker in the years when Detroit’s GM was the largest company in the world, the union was strong and sons followed fathers onto the shop floor with the confidence they would retire on full benefits 30 years later.

It shows what it meant to be an autoworker when the company began to falter and the confidence began to ebb.

It shows what it meant to be an autoworker in Lansing.

Eldridge Cook taught school in Mississippi in the early 1960s. He came to Lansing in the summers to work at Fisher Body. The fact that he made more money from June through August than he did the rest of the year finally convinced him to move north for good.

He took the test to become a supervisor in 1970, though there were few black supervisors at the time. He was told he failed, which “was really amazing to me after being a schoolteacher for two years and having a bachelor’s degree.”

A year later, as the legal landscape changed and the company began pushing to diversify its upper ranks, one of his bosses told him he was going to become a supervisor whether he liked it or not.

Some of the people he supervised had no trouble working under a black man. Others did.

“They wouldn’t take their paychecks from me,” Cook recalled. “I had to mail them.”

What’s left of the Fisher Body plant, the acres of weed-cracked asphalt and hillocks of broken concrete, are walled off from the surrounding neighborhood by a high chain-link fence.

Most of the men and women who worked there have retired or gone on to the Lansing Delta Township plant, where they have been joined by workers from other shuttered plants around the country, making Buick Enclave, GMC Acadia and Chevrolet Traverse crossovers.

Beck wants to extend the oral history project, to bring in that changed workforce and the Lansing Grand River plant that currently makes the Cadillac CTS line, as well.

“The hope would be that this is not a static collection but a dynamic collection,” he said.

“It should be looking at capturing things in the here and now,” capturing them before they’re past and gone and forgotten, like the stories of Fisher Body might have been.

“There was something very distinctive and unique about the Lansing automotive labor force,” said Lisa Fine, a history professor at MSU and the author of “The Story of REO Joe,” a history of workers at the REO Motor Co.

Lansing had had its labor unrest, its share of radicalism, but those were “willfully forgotten and not claimed as part of the labor heritage,” she said.

“That’s not the important part for them. What’s important is doing a good day’s work, getting a good day’s pay for it, providing for their families, being respectable working-class people, taxpayers, citizens.”

It’s a story, Fine said, of working-class people “who don’t believe they are outsiders.”

The interviews with Fisher Body workers contain stories of strikes and lockouts and “blue Mondays,” an older term for a sickout. But conflict often takes a back seat to belonging, a pride in the plant, pride in a job well-done.

“People, when they worked for Fisher Body, took pride in their work,” Thomas Pizzo, who retired from the plant in 2002, told the interviewers. “You could say you were from Fisher Body Lansing and you were known all over the country.

“General Motors has known all along that Lansing is the capital of quality … that the Lansing worker has pride in workmanship and I felt a part of that. I still do.”

Rademacher grew up on Jenison Street, three blocks from Fisher Body. The plant, for him, was an extension of the neighborhood.

“We were all the same, whether you were the management, the worker, the security,” he said. “It’s a family thing, a neighborhood thing. We all went to church together. We all worked together. We all played together.”

That was true for many. The workers interviewed, at times, give voice to an extraordinary sense of solidarity and support. But it wasn’t true for everyone.

If the shop floor became an equalizer of sorts, a place where blacks, whites and Latinos, men and women, worked side by side and eventually earned something like the same pay, it also could be a place of discrimination and resentment.

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