Punching Out

In the early 1950s, myfriend Marty Glaberman wrote a pamphlet called “Punching Out,”reflecting on his experience of working in the auto factories of Detroit. Martylater became a professor of labor history at Wayne State University. But whenyou talked to him or read his writings, it was always clear that he’d gottenthe better part of his education from his decades “on the line,”—participatingin the constant struggle of workers to retain their humanity as they coped withthe unrelenting pace of the assembly line. That was what he tried to convey in “PunchingOut”: the vitality of the working-class community that emerged on the shopfloor. In Detroit’s factories, people were creating not just cars, but a way oflife.

WhenMarty died, ten years ago, the city of Detroit was already in bad shape—factoriesclosing, people leaving, abandoned buildings going up in flames each Halloweenin a grim festival of urban self-destruction. As it happens, Paul Clemens hasgiven his new book Punching Out—which follows thedismantling of a Detroit auto factory—the same title as Marty’s essay from sixdecades ago. Evidently this is a coincidence; there are no references in thetext to suggest otherwise. But either way, the echo is meaningful, for Clemensis writing about the destruction of both a workplace and a social world.

Theworkplace in question was the Liberty Motors plant of the Budd Company—one ofthe oldest factories serving Detroit’s auto industry, opened in 1919. Itstamped out the roofs, doors, tailgates, and so forth that were then assembledinto cars elsewhere. It changed hands in the 1970s and ended up as part of theGerman steel concern ThyssenKrupp. At its peak, ten thousand people wereemployed at the plant; by 2006, when it shut down, there were about 350workers. A typical product of three decades of deindustrialization, then. AsClemens writes, the United States now has “more people dealing cards incasinos than running lathes, and almost three times as many security guards asmachinists.” 

But Punching Out is not a retelling of the story of that decline.Instead, it is an account of what comes afterwards—when the workers have beenlet go, the security guards posted to keep property from being stolen ordestroyed, and crews brought in to dismantle the machinery and send itelsewhere (in this case, to Mexico, where a new factory is opening). The authorgained access to the inside of the plant—wandering around its “eighty-sixempty acres in the center of the city of Detroit”—during the long monthsit took to break it down. The executives of the ThyssenKrupp corporation weren’thelpful, but he became friendly with the guys doing the work, and his narrativeis a blend of impressions from talking to them and what he could learn aboutthe place from poking around in the ruins.

Attimes, Punching Out feels like a bookin search of a thesis to pull it together, and Clemens admits as much. He iskeen to avoid indulging in melancholy prose-poetry or cheap philosophizingabout the “creative destruction” of postindustrial society. The realvigor of the book comes from its character sketches of the men who shrug offthe label “vultures” as they go about their jobs.

Inmy friend Marty’s day, the factories ran constantly. You’d “punch out”at the end of a shift, but somebody else was walking in. Clemens calls his bookthe story of “the American working class mopping up after itself.” Andthen the lights go out. Nowadays what’s open all the time is the casino, wherenothing is made, and scarcely anyone leaves as a winner.

Editor’snote:Marty Glaberman’s essay “Punching Out” is collected in this volume.