I, Rivethead

"My theory about the Detroit gene pool is this: Everywhere in the country and in the world, people left their beloved homelands to try their luck in this cold, faraway place where all you had to do was be willing to work. Whether one came from the segregated South, post-revolutionary Mexico, Europe, Kentucky or the Virginia mines, everyone who came here was ready to work. And there was plenty of work to go around.

This was an amazing place, a Promised Land, where with nothing but hard work — not political connections, not silver-spoon wealth — one could buy a house, a car, even two, raise a family and take vacations. Anyone could earn an honest day’s pay. The union contract protected every worker from the tyranny of nepotism, favoritism, racism, sexism, and every other evil -ism that has ravaged society since the beginning of time. Of course it was not perfect, but it was a lot better than it would have been without the Battle of the Overpass, the Flint Sit Down, the Ford Hunger March, and countless other battles our parents and grandparents told us as bedtime stories."

From "We Came to Work: A Postcard from the Promised Land" by Elena Herrada for the New York Times

What does it mean to be an autoworker right now? As General Motors and Chrysler lumber towards some form of solvency, much is being made about the UAW's role in prompting the current crisis faced by the automotive industry. While whittling the current problems the industry faces down to one factor is an obvious gross simplification of a complex set of issues, one outcome is certain - autoworkers have found themselves back in the popular imagination. This week we take a look at two recent UAW-themed appearances on television, and consider examples of the depiction of the UAW from the mid 1950s and 70s.

"Shutting Detroit Down"
John Rich

"Laid-off UAW Auto Workers Guests of Eminem, Jimmy Kimmel"

Jimmy Kimmel Live, May 15, 2009

Screenwriter and director Paul Schrader was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Blue Collar (1978) was his debut as a director, and was shot on location in and around Kalamazoo, Michigan and Detroit, including the Rouge Complex owned by Ford Motor Company. The film documents the discovery of union corruption after a robbery attempt made between three friends goes wrong. Please note, the clip below contains language which may offend.

Columbia's 1955 release Inside Detroit focuses again on the connection between labor and organized crime, yet unlike in Blue Collar, the UAW, through Dennis O'Keefe's portrayal of union head Blairs Vickers, is depicted as morally upright.

'Inside Detroit'; Gangster Film Is Low on Gas at Palace
January 28, 1956, New York Times

NONE other than John Cameron Swayze pops up in "Inside Detroit," which came to the Palace yesterday. He resonantly leads us into this tale of an explosive gangster bid to control a local of the United Auto Workers Union. Once inside "Inside Detroit," though, one finds it low on gas, with a faulty transmission and some of the styling of a Model T.

Here are some of the not-too-well-oiled parts: A bomb bursts out all over the union's headquarters but not all over the local's president, Dennis O'Keefe. Mr. O'Keefe suspects racketeer Pat O'Brien.

From then on it's O'Brien vs. O'Keefe, with Irish eyes smiling forebodingly, righteously, menacingly or indignantly.

Besides assorted skullduggery "Inside Detroit" presents that old melodrama favorite—a reckless race through the dark, dark night, with Mr. O'Brien's disillusioned daughter (Margaret Field), who just can't believe her Daddy's a cold-blooded killer. Mr. O'Keefe, who at one time was thinking of starting a union with her, catches up just as she crashes down a long, long hill. (She survives.)

One of the keys in the fight to keep the auto union clean turns out to be Mr. O'Brien's moll (Tina Carver), possessor of quite a chassis and proprietor of what is unblushingly called a "model agency."

Miss Carver switches allegiance and the gangster plot fizzles. At which point enter Mr. Swayze: "Well, that's the story, folks. Glad we could get together."

Screen play by Robert E. Kent and James B. Gordon; directed by Fred F. Sears; a Clover Production presented by Columbia.

While we have focused on film and television this week, I do want to make brief mention of Ben Hamper's book, Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line (1992) - "...an irreverent look inside the world of American auto workers." Read an excerpt. Hamper also produced a cable access show during the 90s, Take No Prisoners.

More Take No Prisoners