Health Editor’s Note: Here is a behind the scenes view into the Detroit auto industry after WWII. Post war shortage of materials, wildcat strikes, layoffs, etc. all took their toll on the workers…Carol
Separating Truth From Myth in the So-Called ‘Golden Age’ of the Detroit Auto Industry
by Daniel J. Clark, Zocalo Public Square Smithsonian.com
In the popular as well as the political imagination, the 1950s were a golden age for American industrial workers, especially for the hundreds of thousands who toiled in Detroit’s auto factories. The story holds that lucrative contracts negotiated by the United Automobile Workers resulted in rising wages and improved benefits like pensions and health care. A blue-collar elite emerged: primarily white male, industrial wage earners who stepped up into America’s middle class and bought homes in the suburbs, eagerly purchased new cars, owned cabins “up north” in Michigan, and sent their children to college.
But as a historian of Detroit’s autoworkers, I’ve come to realize that no one back then saw things that way. All but the most stubborn local boosters recognized that the auto industry was always volatile, and that auto work was always precarious. Throughout most of the 1950s, the big three automakers mostly earned hefty profits—but autoworkers themselves suffered from layoffs and insecurity beneath those numbers. The post-World War II boom that is central to our understanding of 20th-century American history, not to mention the autoworkers who are said to have led that boom, must all be reconsidered.