Published: Aug. 30, 2011

Michigan State, UAW partner to preserve autoworkers’ stories

Contact(s): Andy Henion Media Communications office: (517) 355-3294 cell: (517) 281-6949 Andy.Henion@cabs.msu.edu, John Beck Labor and Industrial Relations office: (517) 432-3982 beckj@msu.edu

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Michigan State University has teamed with the United Auto Workers to collect and preserve the oral histories of the last generation of autoworkers, managers and others connected with the historic Fisher Body plant in Lansing.

The plant’s closing in 2005 threatened to effectively bury the workers’ experiences. But through the MSU/UAW partnership, these stories – which run the gamut from first and last days on the job, to tales of racism and sexism, to statements of pride and teamwork – are now part of a digital catalogue at MSU’s G. Robert Vincent Voice Library. The catalogue is called the Lansing Auto Town Gallery.

“This gave a lot of people a voice that they would not have had otherwise,” said John Beck, an MSU labor relations professor who helped spearhead the project.

As General Motors Co. was preparing to close Fisher Body after more than 70 years of production, leaders from UAW Local 602, which represents the plant, reached out to Beck about the possibility of preserving the workers’ history.

Beck helped a team of autoworkers get trained in oral history methods with Geneva Wiskemann of the Michigan Oral History Association as part of a history class at MSU. At the time these autoworkers were part of GM’s jobs bank, meaning they were getting paid but not working in the soon-to-close plant on Verlinden Street.

Once trained, the team, using MSU’s digital-recording equipment, interviewed about 125 people – a mix of line workers, supervisors and managers, skilled trade workers and community and businesspeople whose lives were intertwined with the plant, said Doug Rademacher, who as then-president of Local 602 led the effort for the union.

Rademacher, who grew up three blocks from Fisher Body and worked at the plant for 26 years, said the interviews captured the complex, family-like dynamic that existed in the plant. While there were day-to-day problems, he said, there also was a strong sense of solidarity and pride in the 4,500-worker factory, which built Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Chevy vehicles as part of GM’s Lansing Car Assembly operation.

“Generally, we became brothers and sisters,” Rademacher said. “The majority of people were there to do a world-class job so that people were proud to drive a vehicle from Lansing, Michigan.”

Rademacher’s story has been preserved in the digital catalogue. Among the other interviewees:

• Dorothy Stevens, the first woman in the plant to exercise her contractual right to transfer to a better-paying job. Stevens, who worked at the plant from 1952 to 1984, describes the unequal treatment of women that included lower pay, lack of restrooms and sexual harassment. “Girls didn’t have it so good,” Stevens said.

• Aristides “Art” Arvanites, owner of Harry’s Bar across the street from the plant. Arvanites, a Greek immigrant, talks about catering to the autoworkers, including the family of MSU basketball legend Magic Johnson. “The people from 602 have been my best friends,” Arvanites said.

• Jim Zubkus, who rose from plant clerk in the 1950s to become plant manager. Zubkus describes how the relationship between the rank-and-file and management improved through the years. “Back then it was us-versus-them … strikes were prominent,” Zubkus said. “Today it’s much more amicable.”

The next step was bringing in Shawn Nicholson and John Shaw from MSU Libraries to catalogue the interviews and add them to the Vincent Voice Library. This process was aided by a grant from Motorcities – the Automobile National Heritage Area, a division of the National Park Service, and work by Kevin Beard, a former autoworker and current East Lansing City Council member and master’s student in MSU’s School of Human Resources and Labor Relations.

The grant from Motorcities allowed the Vincent Voice Library to build a web gallery to present the interviews in an easy-to-use format. Shaw said the digital catalogue also was expanded to include oral histories from autoworkers at the shuttered Reo Motor Car Co. plant in Lansing. These interviews were conducted in the 1990s by MSU history professor Lisa Fine and local historian Shirley Bradley for Fine’s book, “The Story of Reo Joe: Work, Kin and Community in Autotown, USA.”

“Oral history is a very powerful tool,” said Shaw, a supervisor with the library. “And this is an example of oral history at its best. It’s a view of the auto shops that the outsider doesn’t normally have. To me, it’s amazing to hear.”

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