Working class dreams fade as jobs dry up

February 8, 2014

By Dennis Glover

If you were asked to journey back to a different time and place, when and where would you choose? For me, the child of auto and cannery workers, there’s only one answer: Detroit in the early 1960s. It was when the unions were strong, wages were high, blue-collar skills were still at a premium and unextraordinary people spent their lives creating extraordinary automobiles to the soundtrack of Phil Spector’s wall of sound. I’d go back to Motown.

Of course, it’s impossible to go backwards in time, so blue-collar America must make do with the Detroit of today, where their children scavenge among the city’s industrial ruins, stripping the lead from factory roofs to the beat of gangsta rap, like squatters stripping marble from the ruins of Rome after the triumph of the barbarians.

In 1960, thanks to its auto industries, Detroit had the highest per capita income of any city in the United States. Think of that: not New York and its bankers, but Detroit and its factory workers were the locus and symbols of global affluence. That’s called democracy.

Since then the city’s population has fallen by 63 per cent, 78,000 of its homes lie abandoned, and its murder rate is 11 times higher than New York’s – mainly because the auto plants shut down, taking 90 per cent of all manufacturing jobs.

But Detroit is a long way to go just to feel depressed and possibly even get shot. There is a far easier alternative, especially if you live in Melbourne – go to the street where I grew up, in Doveton, in Melbourne’s outer south-east.

Let’s start in the past, using the time machine of my memories. It is 1975, I am 11 years old, I’m playing cricket in the middle of my street. The nature strips are a four, and it’s a six if you can hit it over the front fence of anyone’s house. There’s no risk of trouble, as everyone’s dad is at work.

On the off-side, number 28’s dad is at Perkins Engines, number 30’s dad (mine, a leading hand) is at GMH; so is 32’s (he’s a GMH line manager, and one of my dad’s bosses, who caused a minor street-wide sensation when he brought home a Leyland P-76). From memory, 34 and 36 were in vehicle production too, probably making trucks at International Harvester.

On the off-side, 23 worked for Ford (it must have been in retail, as the Ford plants were far away), 25 was a self-employed car mechanic, and 27 was an engineer called Boothroyd, the only person in our street with a degree. He who worked on the Holden design staff and was an officer in dad’s Dandenong-based Army Reserve artillery battery. My best friends, two of the players in our games of street cricket, were named John (now a left-wing state Labor MP) and Jimmy (who worked his way from apprentice draughtsman to the manager of a major engineering works).

The former’s dad worked as a cleaner in the same GM plant as mine, and the latter’s dad ran a small garage that specialised in converting imported American cars from left to right-hand drive. Every week there would be a gleaming new Chevy, Ford or Chrysler (”as big as a whale”) sitting in his drive. Cars – their design, manufacture, repair and sale – gave us our bread and butter, our political direction and our social structure. They were the art we created, and the delight of our little community, which centred on the primary school and neat strip shopping centre at the end of the street, with its kindergarten and its stop for the bus that would take our mothers to Dandenong for the weekly shopping.

I’m sure you get the picture – my little valley was green. But even after making allowances for nostalgia, here was a community built for us little people, in the age before capital cut itself free from our democratic control. In it were managers, factory workers, small business people, all living together, with their children going to school together. It all added up to a relative prosperity unknown to ordinary Australians, and perhaps ordinary people anywhere in the world until then. No wonder our dads were in the Army Reserve: this was worth fighting for. Take the vehicle plants and the canneries away and you take away more than jobs.

Little did my friends and I know we were living out the final days of a two-century industrial revolution, which we blithely assumed would go on forever. At 14, my father had been apprenticed into the Hilden Mill, in Lisburn, not far from Belfast, in Northern Ireland. Built in the late 1700s, the mill was one of the very first steam-powered cotton manufactories, and even in the early 1960s its massive stationary engines drove cotton spinning machinery through huge wheels and leather belts. Dad’s job as a hackle pin setter was to keep the production of the factory’s high-grade sewing thread running efficiently. Industry ran in his blood. His grandfather had been a labourer at Harland and Wolff shipyards, where he smashed thousands of infamously brittle rivets into the steel hull of the Titanic. This all made my father a valuable commodity when he migrated to Australia in 1963, giving him his pick of available jobs – first at International Harvester and then at General Motors Holden, where he remained for most of the rest of his working life.

Something keeps drawing me back to the street. Two years ago, when dad died, I stood outside my old house and wept, but not just for him. No more fours and sixes to hit here, the fences are long gone, and the nature strips and front yards are buried under concrete and rusting cars. Number 28 has an old caravan out front, just visible behind a collection of abandoned vehicles. The thing that made me shudder, though, was my own former home, where I lived until I went to university to study history and law just after my 18th birthday in 1982. Today its collection of towing trucks, decaying vehicles and stacks of metal panelling are suggestive of a car wrecking business.

From craftsmen to scavengers in one generation: here was the economic progress we were told would make us all wealthier. I hope that little home scrap business is thriving, but I challenge anyone to look at a sight like my old street without wondering what has gone wrong.

My reveries in my old street that day were interrupted by a huge man in a singlet and shorts who stepped out from a driveway to pointedly take my photograph in a manner obviously intended to intimidate. I wondered why, and left, bemused.

Some six months later I guessed the reason. My neighbourhood was in the news: a drive-by shooting had punched three bullet holes in the metal shuttered windows of a house further down the street, which, with its high walls, imposing gate and security cameras, resembled a fortress. The street is now a place obviously wary of strangers, and it doesn’t pay to loiter.

On my following trip just before Christmas, I went to the site of our old primary school. If you have ever read John Wyndham’s classic novel The Day of the Triffids you would know that its best scene is the one where the protagonist travels back to London years after the apocalypse to find the once great city reclaimed by nature, with pavements choked by spreading weeds, turf growing on roofs, tree roots undermining buildings and branches poking through smashed windows. That’s the primary school today, a vandalised jungle slowly disappearing under nature’s onslaughts. There’s a website that features haunting images of abandoned man-made structures, and if I were a better photographer I would take a photo of the school and post it there.

The school was closed a couple of years ago and replaced nearby with what is known as ”a birth to year 9 community learning centre”, which specialises in countering socio-economic disadvantage. It’s sadly necessary today, but when there were jobs and when there was prosperity – when we had auto plants and canning factories – all the local children needed to succeed in life was something called a school.

You can download reports from the new learning centre’s website, and they tell you that 70 per cent of the local 11-year-olds are below the expected level in reading, and 84 per cent of local 15-year-olds are below the expected level of numeracy for their age. If we take the educational reformers’ word for it and accept NAPLAN scores as accurate measures, the only conclusion to draw is that this new economy we have created is failing places like Doveton.

Many comfortable and progressive Australians think such forgotten and neglected places exist only in outback Australia. They should go to Doveton. Like many similar factories, Doveton’s biggest source of employment – the GMH plant in Dandenong – closed its gates in the mid-1990s after a long decline. Dad had been laid off a little earlier, in the ”recession we had to have”, and got another job the very next week – cleaning vehicles in a used car yard for lower pay, prestige and respect. My mother lost her job too, when Heinz downsized, and she never worked full-time again.

Places like Doveton contain a valuable lesson for us. They show what happens when the auto plants and the canneries shut down: you go from 1960s Motown to Piranesi’s Rome in a single generation. South Australian Premier Jay Wetherill tells us that the combined effects of closing Ford, Holden and possibly Toyota will be a decade-long recession along the south-eastern seaboard.

The gutsy Liberal MP Sharman Stone fears that if SPC Ardmona closes, the same fate awaits the people of Shepparton.

Who knows if they’re right? I can only accept what I see with my own eyes, which is this: in Doveton our auto plant and cannery started disappearing two decades ago and my old neighbourhood still has not recovered. So, sadly, my money would be on both being correct.

In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell said that it was a kind of duty for people in power to see the places the economy and our politicians have failed, lest we should forget they exist. But what conclusions should the powerful draw from places like Doveton?

Most obviously, that when you shut the auto plants and the canneries, the little people pay for generations.

But there is another lesson, one that provides some hope if we are willing to heed it: the need for a wider moral approach to economics, and policymaking more generally. Today we tend to see economic policy through narrow statistical prisms like ”productivity”. If we all just become more productive and give up unaffordable luxuries, the Productivity Commissioners tell us, a new Golden Age beckons.

But like a cat chasing its tail in ever decreasing circles, that Golden Age is never obtained. To the people of Doveton, the Golden Age seems to lie only in the past. In their aggressive push to make places like Doveton more productive, all the economists have done is ensure they produce very little at all.

Essentially, Doveton’s fate demonstrates that our approach to economics needs to be widened and deepened to take in the sorts of moral and aesthetic considerations that earlier policymakers, like the ones who created Doveton, accepted implicitly. People have to be efficient, sure, but they don’t have to live alongside junk yards, their schools don’t have to be turned into urban jungles, and they don’t have to be cleaners and gleaners.

They deserve to live in pleasing surroundings and have the chance to create objects of beauty and utility that embody craftsmanship and pride – things like cars, things like food. Creating Holdens in real life beats creating them in our dreams. Our economists need to understand this as they contemplate creating yet more Dovetons.