Writer Paul Clemens

Detroit native talks about his new book, Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant, and blue collar decline in America.

Born and raised in Detroit, Paul Clemens had a front row seat to the changes in the city during the '80s and '90s. He turned to writing and literature as a way of dealing with his frustrations and his contempt for suburban escapees. Clemons' work has appeared in The New York Times and The New York Times Magazine, and his '05 memoir, Made in Detroit, was selected as a notable book by the New York Times Book Review and the Library of Michigan. His latest book, Punching Out, describes the death of a Detroit auto plant and an American way of life.


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Tavis: That world has indeed changed, and the reality is the backdrop of the new book by journalist Paul Clemens. The Detroit native spent many months inside an auto plant on Detroit’s east side, a plant that was in the process of shutting down.
The book based on the experience is called “Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant.” Paul, good to have you on this program, sir.
Paul Clemens: Thanks for having me.
Tavis: Before I get into the book, I know around the country people’s hearts were just troubled by this recent shooting in your hometown – somebody walks into a police station, shoots four officers. Obviously at this moment we don’t know what was behind that, kind of like Arizona – nobody knows what the details are.
We do know, though, that in Detroit, and for that matter around the country, there’s a direct link between people feeling the pressure of hard times, recession and crime increasing. So what is life like in Detroit these days? Again, I don’t want to judge the city by one incident, but I know that Detroit’s having a difficult time these days.
Clemens: Well, Detroit’s like any big city. It contains multitudes. There are good stories and there are bad; unfortunately, this one obviously falls in the latter category.
But there’s a lot of good news as well. It’s like talking about New York or L.A. There’s not just one story in the place, it’s multitudinous.
Tavis: When you say there’s a lot of good news, one doesn’t get that reading this book.
Clemens: Well, the story I wanted to tell in the book was not really a Detroit story. Detroit is the setting, but the subject is really blue-collar decline, and that’s not unique to Detroit – you brought up the recession. That’s going on all over the country.
I’m from Detroit, so I’m writing about an auto plant and I’m writing about the city, but it could just as well have been set in a mill down South or in a steel plant in Pittsburgh or Gary. It’s just because I’m from there that I happened to write about an auto plant.
Tavis: What you wanted to share with us, and you do a good job of sharing it, is what actually happens when we read or hear that a plant is going to close down. You read that and you said, “You know what? I want to know what happens next,” and you jump into it. So what does happen once we hear that a plant is going to close down?
Clemens: Yeah, that’s exactly right. You see the headline all the time, “Plant to close,” and the question was, what is the process by which that happens? So my first step was to get in with the union, and I got in with the benefit rep at the UAW local for the Bud (sp?) plant and he took me through the plant right before it closed.
I talked to a lot of former workers and the history of the plant’s fabulous. It was built in 1919; it built and assembled the body of the Ford Thunderbird, the 1950s Thunderbird, which is one of Detroit’s classic cars. So there’s a rich history there.
Then after the plant closed I got in with a crew that was taking the equipment out – this is mostly stamping press lines that stamp the bodies, doors of cars, mostly Fords, toward the end Ford Explorer, Lincoln Navigator, the Ford SUVs. I tracked that process, and what I discovered was that taking all of this apart has sort of become an industry, or at least there are various industries involved in the taking apart of industry.
So I talked not only to the rigging crew that was taking apart the presses, but the trucking firms that trucked it down to Houston or down to the Mexico border. I talked to scrap crews who were chopping up the presses that were being sold as scrap steel.
There are also sorts of environmental remediation, demolition. I didn’t talk to those folks because the plant still stands, but those are some of the different industries that get involved in the taking apart of industry.
The pitch line for the book to my publisher was I wanted to tell theory of the American working class mopping up after itself, and that’s really what I sought to do in the book. It’s a skill set, taking these things apart, that could be applied to actually making things, but right now, because of decline in industrial work, that same sort of skill set is being applied to taking apart the things that had made things.
Not totally obviously; Detroit’s still making cars, but there’s not the jobs that there used to be and so now those skills can be applied sort of on the down side of industrial production.
Tavis: That’s process, and I’m glad you lay that out because a lot of the book is about process, but connect me, as I suspect you were connected, to the humanity of these people in this plant.
Clemens: Oh, absolutely. The book, if it succeeds at all, succeeds because of the people I met, and you discover things as you’re going through that you didn’t expect. I think that’s part of the fun of researching a book, and hopefully you can convey that sense of discovery to a reader.
One of the things I found was the deep respect that the people who were taking this plant apart had for its history, and the book concludes in Mexico – that’s the epilogue to the book. I traveled to central Mexico, where the largest press line in the plant was shipped and then reinstalled.
There’s a monologue in the book by a guy who had worked for Ford once upon a time, and he talked about the care he was taking in taking the press line apart. He said that this press line had helped to sustain American families, and he hoped it would do the same for Mexican families.
I found that very moving, and what I liked about it – you don’t write things just because they go against the grain of what you expected, but there is a perception, I think, that this sort of resentful, working class, and that’s not what I found at all.
Any given day in the plant I would hear Spanish from the Mexican engineers, I would here Portuguese from Brazilian engineers, you would hear German from German engineers, and it was amazing how global it was in this plant on the east side of Detroit, and nobody had any real problem with that. As the same worker said, he was happy that they were making things.
Tavis: That might be a charitable and generous read about what these persons who were about to be out of a job were feeling. What do you think, though, the American people should take from a story that starts with a longstanding plant in Detroit, closes down, and ends up, the plant, the machines themselves, end up being set up again, repurposed, for a plant in Mexico? How am I supposed to take that?
Clemens: Yeah, another one of the press lines went to Brazil. I think we all know this in our bones. I don’t think that the book necessarily breaks new ground in that sense. Industrial production being moved offshore is something that we know.
What I wanted to do, though, was to show that story. The old show, don’t tell, for a writer – we’ve been told that a lot. I wanted to show it in as much detail as I could.
What do people in Detroit or the upper Midwest industrial towns think about that? Obviously there’s an overwhelming sense of sadness about it that can’t be airbrushed, and I’m not trying to. But what the book tries to do is tell – it’s an elegy for a way of life that’s not gone. There’s still plenty of folk earning good paychecks working in industrial jobs.
But the scale of the loss of those jobs can’t be brushed aside, either, and the book tries to elegize that culture and that pride that went into Detroit’s 20th century.
Tavis: You say sadness. You experienced sadness as opposed to anger? I wouldn’t be sad about losing my job, about setting up this press in another country – Brazil or Mexico, whatever the country. You say sadness; you didn’t sense or feel any anger on the part of these people?
Clemens: Well, the people I was in with in the plant, they were not necessarily workers from the plant. There were a couple of guys who were. These were guys who in better days would have worked for the Big Three or one of the many suppliers or machine shops around town.
But there’s been a lot of bad news, and I think people are almost accustomed to it by this point. That’s its own story. But I tried initially to get in with the company that had owned the plant at the end and I couldn’t get into the plant that way, so I explored other avenues. But sure, there’s anger, but anger, I think, wears thin in a book.
You can do anger in 800 words in an op-ed or a thousand words in an op-ed. Eighty or 90,000 words of anger is going to get tiresome fast, and people have their opinions on this. I’m not the sort of writer who’s trying to convince anyone. If people think unions are a good thing or a bad thing or globalization is a good thing or a bad thing or NAFTA is a good thing or a bad thing, there’s a lot you can read on that.
What I was trying to do was to illuminate an experience that hadn’t been illuminated, and I think there’s value in laying out the process and that’s what I tried to do.
Tavis: To your point about unions, and again, I don’t know if this is part of the story that you wanted to tell, but what does this book say about the strength, or lack thereof, of unions? I raise that because as you know, being from Detroit, when this recession hit and the auto industry started suffering really badly and the debate kicks up about how much we’re going to do to save the auto industry, there was great debate about the role that unions played in bringing down this town. That they had overreached – you know the story well.
Clemens: Sure.
Tavis: So what does this book, if it says anything at all, what does it say about the power, the strength, the future or lack thereof, of unions?
Clemens: Well, the people I met at UAW Local 306, the now-closed Bud union, were fantastic. I have nothing but good things to say about them. I think as far as the larger issue that you’re getting at, the culpability for the bankruptcies and so on, I think there’s a consensus in Detroit that there was plenty of blame to go around. It was both on the part of the companies and the unions, but the unions wouldn’t have gotten what they were able to for middle class workers unless the companies had worked with them.
So I’m not sure if the book has much to say about that specifically. There’s pro-union and anti-union sentiment in the book, but again, the book doesn’t have a stance on that, necessarily. I allow people to say what they say, but I’m letting them articulate it.
Tavis: Yeah, I knew that from going through the book; I just wanted to know if you had a take on what I said. You’ve answered that now.
Clemens: Yeah, it’s interesting, though. The timing of my going into the plant, I began researching it in 2006. The Great Recession was a year and a half in the future; the bankruptcies at Chrysler and GM, no one had any idea that as going to happen.
No one had any idea of the recession’s depths, if they foresaw it coming at all. So it was a rather interesting spot to view these larger issues. The surround – there were strikes at GM and Chrysler while I was in there, very short strikes. But a lot of that sort of is on the periphery of the book.
Tavis: There’s a whole book, of course, to answer this question, but let me ask you while I have you here – what is it that you most want the reader, the American public, that is, to take away from what you experienced watching this plant close?
Clemens: Well, I think you want people to pay attention to what’s going on on the ground. I’m not going to make a pitch for where I’m from, but I do think that the Midwest is an important spot, and the industrial Midwest in particular, and if you just look at the numbers, whether it’s what Wall Street is doing or corporate profits, the picture you’re going to get of the economy and how people are doing is going to be very different than it is, obviously, if you’re spending months and months in a closing auto plant.
You want people simply to pay attention. This is going on, there are other things going on in the country, but this is an important story and you hope policymakers and politicians realize the depths of some of the difficulties in blue-collar towns and cities across the country.
Tavis: I’m only asking because you said you didn’t want to make a pitch for your town; I’m from the Midwest so you can always pitch the Midwest on this program. (Laughter) But having said that, right quick, when you cover a story like this, whether you see sadness or whether you see anger or any other emotion, as a writer, you’ve got to do your job – do you get emotional at all about seeing this?
Clemens: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, and looking at the book after I’m done, when you’re day-to-day researching and writing, you’re too busy to really feel too much. You’re just trying to get this story; you’re trying to get it down and so on.
But thinking about it now as I’m talking about it with the book coming out, I really do get a sense of sadness, and there’s some anger as well. But eventually, the anger subsides and you just – again, I tried to write an elegy, because you do feel like something is disappearing and you want to do honor and justice to it.
Tavis: Well, you did. The book is called “Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant,” written by Paul Clemens. Paul, thanks for the text and good to have you on this program.
Clemens: Thank you.
Tavis: My pleasure.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm