What really killed Flint, Michigan?

The media narrative tells us that Flint, Michigan has toxic drinking water because state Republicans failed to approve more funding for clean water. Others point out that Flint has had mostly Democrat control for a long time, or point to its intense racial divisions. The actual truth is far simpler and far removed from both.

What actually killed Flint was a lack of wealth, brought on by the raised costs of labor, but the money required for those additional costs did not go to Flint, which meant that when the jobs dried up, the city was broke. Many years ago, the unions took over in Flint, and two decades later when the automakers pulled out, the collapse began.

Many current narratives like to blame the automakers for pulling out, but this ignores the reality of commerce: what one’s competitors pay for labor, as mediated by shipping and tariff costs, determine the upper bounds of what a manufacturer can pay. When costs get driven above that, and consequences of strikes raise risk, manufacturers must withdraw or be destroyed by their competition.

Michigan State University has a great page about the history of Flint. In broken homage to the cut-up method of William S. Burroughs, I’m going to excerpt parts of it in re-arranged order:

Starting at the beginning of the 20th century Flint began to become an automotive boom town. Limited to no experience was required, jobs were being created faster than they could be filled with workers, and not to mention the pay was descent.

From December 30, 1936 to February 11th, 1937 the workers of Flint’s auto industry took part in what is now known as the Flint Sit Down Strike…On Febuary 11th or 1937 and an agreement was made that recognized the UAW as the exclusive bargaining representative for GM’s employees who were members of the union for the next six months. Within the next year the UAW saw its membership grow dramatically from 30,000 to 500,000 members.

During the Sit-Down Strike of 1936–1937, the United Automobile Workers succeeded over General Motors, inaugurating the era of labor unions. The successful intervention of the strike by Governor Frank Murphy, began an era of successful organizing by the UAW. Flint was also a major contributor of tanks and other war machines during World War II due to its extensive manufacturing facilities.

The unions took over just in time for World War II, which created a cessation in union activity as the nation mobilized to fight a war. Then, there was a huge wealth boom in the late 1940s and 1950s. But by the 1960s, Flint’s population had peaked, and by the late 1960s, people were retreating from the city in droves.

Let’s look at another source to see what happened next:

The first sign of any trouble came in 1956, when the Big 3 saw a minor slump in their sales, and the doubling of import sales. The change in the market was due to the growing popularity of European compact cars. Detroit did not panic. They began working on scaled down models of their successful lines, and some new compact models…(Wright, Richard A.)

During the civil rights movement, the blue collar assembly line economy and inner city social problems proved to be a dangerous mixture. The 1960’s showed the country that Detroit had its share of problems…

I truncate the above because it touches on the 1960s and then immediately shifts to mentioning the oil crisis in the 1970s, which is a way of deflecting from the original issue.

Many attribute Flint’s problems to race alone, but the real factoid is that in 1956 imports began to compete. Devastated postwar economies in Germany and Japan were coming online, but even more, American quality was falling as the postwar wealth boom wore off and the impact of unions was felt again. The parasite could be paid off when the money was falling like rain, but in times of drought, it began to sap vital energy from the auto industry.

As a result, during this time, automakers began the shift away from Flint. This did not happen in radical form until the 1980s, but at that point, automakers had been steadily building plants elsewhere for years. The UAW was born in Flint, and controlled it, and no automaker would ever be able to work there without the results of union labor.

Many of us remember how bad American cars became in the 1980s — so much so that they rivaled the products of British socialism for ineptitude. Door handles fell off; electrical systems shorted out; transmissions dropped. During this time, union struggles were in the news every week. It was as if the automakers were waiting for union problems to finally reach a peak so that the automakers could declare the situation unworkable and try something else.

They did, during the 1990s, launching companies like Saturn which made Japanese-style cars, and used an entirely new system of contracting with their workers to avoid the union troubles of the past. While these experiments died out relatively quickly, they also signaled the end of union dominance. The host had been squeezed for all the blood it would give, and American automakers signaled their willingness to make engines and other parts abroad and then assemble the finished vehicles in the USA in order to avoid giving the unions power.

This takes us back to Flint. Why is the water so bad? The city is broke and run by incompetents. Why is that so? Because the money left, driven away by the high cost of unions. Did the workers benefit? If drinking toxic water is a benefit, while the union reps and organized crime bosses run away with the union dues, then yes, they made out like kings.

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