Friday, November 16, 2012

Greatest Generation Ever? Maybe.

Not all were Champions...

I was reading this August 1973 issue of Car Classics, and there was an article written by a former head of Engineering at Studebaker.  These paragraphs jumped off the page at me:

It has been beaten into our heads since birth how lucky we are that our parents fought the Nazzies.   And many of them did - and died, or were wounded, or were kept as POWs - such as Mark's Dad.    But for every one who fought, there were 10, 100, or 1,000 who didn't.  And many of those had a jolly good time at war - such as my Dad, who managed to party his way through WW II - or others who profited wildly from the war, with war contracts or high-paying jobs.

But that is not the story we are told.   Rather, we are told about Rosie the Riveter, patriotically riveting together those bombers and battleships - but apparently missing every third rivet.   Or we are told how hard it was to live with rationed meat and gas.

And it likely was - for a lot of people.   And a lot of people did work hard and do their part.   But others, it appears, didn't exactly stress themselves out over the whole thing.

The malaise at our nation's auto plants in the 60's and 70's was not some creation of the excesses of the 1960's, as we had been lead to believe.

By the time I went to work for General Motors in 1978, people were doing the things mentioned in this article - slacking off, sabotaging the assembly lines out of sheer boredom, and running business or running numbers in the plant.  And the plant was hemorrhaging cash, too.

At the plant I worked at, workers would take their "time cards" - which were IBM punch cards, and carefully cut out replicas from the side of a milk carton, patiently cutting the rectangular holes in the cards to match their own time card.   This way, you could give the facsimile card to a friend, who could then "punch you out" later on, even if you left the factory minutes - or hours - early.

And I had always assumed this was a sin of our generation - that we were lazier and less motivated that the "Greatest Generation Ever" (not yet named as such at the time) as we had no Nazzies to fight, and thus had declined into debauchery and decay.

But this article about Studebaker paints a different story - that the slacking off and laziness of the American Union worker was something that was fostered by the "cost-plus" contracts of the War, as well as the desire to avoid strikes at all costs - two trends that continued throughout the 1950's and 1960's, as management lived in fear of strikes, and merely passed on higher costs to consumers.

Today, at an auto plant, I suspect there is a lot less of this sort of thing.   Competition from overseas, and competition from non-union plants means that there is no room for slackers and goof-offs.   Payrolls have been pared to the bone, and fewer people are needed to actually build cars anymore.  And thanks to bankruptcy negotiations, the "Big-3" need no longer keep people on the payroll who aren't actually working.

Today, in most families, both spouses work, and the odds of either of them having a union job are very slim.  While once representing 30% of the workforce, unions represent less than 8% today.

Perhaps the "Greatest Generation Ever" was not so great.   And perhaps if they had to be in the labor market today, they would find it a rude awakening.

History has a way of rewriting itself, and nostalgia is always suspect.