Book Excerpt: Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant

In May 2006, ThyssenKrupp announced that the Budd Detroit plant, built in 1919, would close by the end of the year. The plant mainly stamped out auto body parts, and, among other distinctions, had built and assembled the metal for the 1950s Ford (F) Thunderbird. For his book, Punching Out (Doubleday, published on Jan. 18), and from which the following is excerpted, writer Paul Clemens tracked the Budd closing and its aftermath. He spent more than a year talking to former workers and union members before the closing, watched the auction of the plant's massive equipment, and documented the disassembly of the massive press lines, which did the stamping. In this excerpt, he meets riggers, truckers, and scrap crews—the workers charged with taking apart American industry.

It was early June 2007 when I first got into the closed plant. Though the rigging crew had been in Budd for a little more than a month by this point, I hadn't missed much. The crew was spending most of its time prepping for the upcoming auction, to be run by the Ashman Company of Walnut Creek, Calif. Along with the Ashman workers, the Detroit crew was sorting the plant's contents into auction lots. The auction preview would be on June 18, with the auction itself on June 19 and 20.

There were 1,242 lots included in the Ashman Company catalog. Excluded were three large press lines, tagged "Not in Sale," that had already been sold overseas. These were 2-line, sold to Delga, a Brazilian auto supplier, and 9-line and 16-line, sold to Gestamp, a Spanish auto supplier that had, in turn, contracted Müller Weingarten, a German press maker, to help oversee 16-line's dismantling in Detroit and its installation in Mexico in the fall.

I went to the Budd plant as often as I could—weekends, mornings, evenings, vacation days, holidays, lunch hours. At first, with the rest of the crew, I parked in the plant parking lot, beneath the "ThyssenKrupp Budd Detroit Plant" sign. At the end of the day, some guys would strip down to their underwear in the lot, removing their work clothes so as to not get their cars' interior dirty or dirtier. Almost everyone switched from shoes to boots and back again before leaving, and many were sure to scrape the goop from the bottoms of their boots with metal rods.

Parking in the lot meant that I got to pass through the plant's turnstiles—an act not without emotional pull. This was working-class kitsch, but kitsch can be affecting. I listened for the factory whistle and regretted my lack of a toolbox or lunch bucket to lug.

On me, instead, were a notebook and pencil (come winter, ink could freeze in the plant's cold), a tape recorder and batteries, and occasionally a camera. The notebooks that I filled from early June 2007 through late April 2008 constituted my journal of the plague year. I told those who wondered at my presence I wanted to see what happened to an auto plant right after it closed—to its equipment, its people, and to the old plant itself, the product of an industrial era that would leave behind ruins to rival the Romans. That first day, Jeff Jinerson, the first rigging crew leader, took me around, the two of us touring the closed plant on a golf cart. Jeff was forty, lean and rugged despite some hard living. He often wore a Jägermeister bandanna. He smoked continuously.

Jeff's smoke-cured voice didn't just make sounds; it produced decibels. A terrifically talented rigger—"rigger" being the general term for the men, mostly, whose job it is to move immensely heavy stuff—he could function at near-optimal levels no matter what. "I was born and raised in a pile of grease," Jeff told me by way of introduction. He was the grandson of a boilermaker and the son of a press repairman who owned the grease pile, American Welding and Press Repair, in which he had been reared. "I spent seventeen years putting s—t in," Jeff said of the presses he'd installed, "and I've spent the last ten taking it out." Budd was the largest such taking-out job he'd done. "I'm running a 1.8 million-square-foot facility—water, power, elevators—everything, minus production."

That very morning, Jeff said, his crew had begun to take apart 16-line, bought by Gestamp for installation in its Aguascalientes (Mexico) plant. There was so much work to do that Jeff was looking to bring on four more skilled riggers. Starting pay, he said, was $22 per hour. Jeff called the Budd plant's old presses "world-class," meaning by American standards they weren't much, but first-rate to much of the rest of the world. "We're clear-cutting the forest," Jeff said to me sometimes. Budd, in this metaphor, was just one of the trees being felled in a great industrial forest, one centered geographically and symbolically on the city of Detroit but spreading through parts of Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York State, and known as the American Rust Belt. Later that summer, splinter crews would leave Detroit to dismantle presses at the bankrupt auto supplier Tower Automotive's plants in Upper Sandusky, Ohio, and Kendallville, Indiana. By winter, crew members from Detroit would be in Newton, Iowa, to cut up presses in the closed, iconic Maytag plant.

Standing in the center of the press shop, 16-line had been the Budd plant's biggest line, with several of its presses having been shipped to Detroit from Budd Philadelphia in the 1990s. It had produced body sides for Ford's large SUVs: the Ford Expedition, the Lincoln Navigator, and the Ford Excursion. Gestamp had bought seven presses for its expanded plant in Aguascalientes—seven presses that needed to be dismantled and trucked 2,000 miles from Detroit to central Mexico. It was early June; the line's disassembly would take until mid-November 2007.

The rigging company's first makeshift headquarters in the plant were on the second floor of the central maintenance building, in the old Budd Employee Involvement Center. Amid slogans of corporate self-improvement ("No One Knows Your Job Better Than You. Only You Know How to Make Your Job Better") were a TV and VCR, along with videos such as Mechanical Maintenance Training: Rigging and Lifting. These were shown to new guys on the crew. "I got cherries to pop," Jeff said. "I give them the video so that, when they die, I can sleep at night." He pointed to a skeleton. "That's our safety mascot, up there in the corner."

Beneath the skeleton, leaning against the wall, was a poster sized aerial picture of the plant as it appeared on Mar. 18, 1940. To the plant's east, the blocks that are visible are dense with housing, though the postwar building peak is still a few years off. Each Saturday at noon, Jeff said, he had a barbecue for the crew on the plant roof. Seen from above, the surrounding neighborhood looked a bit different now. It was full of empty lots, resembling missing teeth. "It looks like a crackhead's mouth," Jeff said.

The Budd auction was the only public event to be held in the plant post closing. If you wanted to see its insides, this was your chance.

Out-of-state license plates were common in the parking lot during the auction's three days. Missouri, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Indiana, Tennessee, Arkansas, Ohio, and Ontario, the Canadian province Detroiters consider a suburb, were all represented.

The first day was the auction preview, at which prospective buyers were allowed to see up close the equipment that might have caught their eyes in the catalog: mechanical presses, power shears, mills, lathes, grinders, band saws, boring machines, radial arm drills, drill presses, blast cabinets, threading machines, robotic welders, arc welders, radial arm saws, planers, air compressors, cooling towers, boom lifts, forklifts, hydraulic lifts, and a whole bunch else under the technical term "Misc."

My favorite item, Lot 354, was a mammoth 1979 LeTourneau, a 132,000-pound capacity diesel forklift taller than a small-town courthouse. Included in the catalog under the section "Rolling Stock"—stuff with wheels, that is, such as forklifts, tractors, electric carts, floor sweepers, floor scrubbers, and fire trucks—the LeTourneau had been used to carry dies when the plant was active. Too big to move, it simply sat there. Nine months later, as the crew's time in the plant was coming to a close, guys discussed driving it off of the plant property and down the road, an idea that overhead power lines, lower than the LeTourneau's height, would have made tricky. Three years later, the LeTourneau still sits outside the plant, a symbol of Detroit itself: a big thing with a French name that no one can quite figure out what to do with.

The preview and auction were like an estate sale for men. Jeff Jinerson called it a "boys' day out." (I saw one woman in the plant in three days.) Instead of going through the dead widow's jewelry, hundreds of guys rooted around in the closed plant's presses, mills, and lathes. "Can you imagine what the place looked like in the Fifties?" a guy in a gas station uniform asked, of no one in particular, the day of the auction preview. We were standing in the inspection area, checking out Vernier calipers (Lot 144), Starrett bore gauges (Lot 173), and Brown and Sharpe micrometers (Lot 157). The inspection tools were many decades old; a majority came in inlaid wooden cases. "Things were labor-intensive back then," the gas station guy said. "Everything manual. You needed the people."

To Jeff, the crew leader, none of the stuff in the auction was of the slightest interest. His focus was the disassembly of those press lines, tagged "Not in Sale," that had already sold and were destined for far-off lands. "My job," he said, "is to get the stuff loaded onto the trucks."

His lack of interest in the Budd auction did not extend to the Budd plant itself. For Jeff, the plant was full of friendly ghosts. He was sentimental about it, collecting photographs, plaques, buttons, and anything else that had been left behind with the Budd name on it. (No one was touched, for some reason, by the ThyssenKrupp letterhead still scattered about: "Das Beste. Von uns. Für uns.") As a souvenir, Jeff gave me a Frisbee he'd found on the floor of his electric cart. Covered in decades of grime, it carried the logo of UAW Local 306 and, in a red-lettered circle around the Frisbee's center, said: "I Believe in Budd Detroit."

"I got a bunch myself," Jeff said.

The auction started the next morning. Inside the plant, I was given a ride to Lot 1 by Walter, a Mexican from the Ashman Company who had use of a cart. The first of the twelve hundred lots was less than thrilling: "(3) Barrel Cart, Floor Magnet, & Shop Vac." In charge was the auctioneer, Lloyd Ashman himself, whom I'd seen and heard practicing the day before. He hovered over the action, standing at an elevated podium atop a Motrec cart. While the patter of the auctioneer is ancient, or seems so, the wraparound mike he wore was that of a modern pop star.

There was no skipping ahead. The group moved, en masse, from lot to lot, sequentially. Walter, my driver, served as the auction's sighter, acknowledging bids with a quick yep. Another worker stood above or next to the lot being auctioned, holding a sign with a red arrow that said: "This Lot Is Being Sold." To a former Catholic school kid, the process was akin to doing the Stations of the Cross with a priest who talked terrifically fast and who would walk us through twelve hundred stations rather than fourteen. One obese fellow, not up to all the walking, moved from lot to lot on a rolling chair, propelling himself with his feet like Fred Flintstone.

A few of the bidders looked flush, dressed in khakis and oxfords and fiddling with their cell phones. More common were the blue-collar guys who had their eyes on an item or two for their machine shop downriver or their tool-and-die place out in Macomb County. They wore dirty work pants and work shirts with their names patched on the front. Their T-shirts said things like "Lincoln Park Boring."

By Lot 80, it was time to move the cart and podium some twenty yards, for improved proximity to the upcoming lots. Fred Flintstone scooted along; the rest of us walked. By Lot 85—"Rack w/ Assorted C-Clamps"—Mr. Ashman was cracking jokes. "I don't like anything we've just sold," he said, "but this is a nice lot." For a while thereafter, I'd attempt to keep score, marking my auction catalog's columns with dollar amounts: "$10,000," "50K," "$85."

I soon stopped, too tired to tally. By afternoon, bidders were looking for a relatively clean place to relax. Some sat on the Yale and Caterpillar hi-los—Lots 392-420—that had been grouped together north of the press shop and had yet to be auctioned. The selling off of Budd equipment required stamina from buyers and sellers both. The man in the chair, it seemed, had been through this before and knew about pacing.

Later in the summer, Matt Sanders, the rigging foreman, gave me a spreadsheet, dated July 24, 2007, that outlined the transportation of 16-line's heavy parts. The five weeks from early August through early September were to follow a similar pattern, beginning with the shipment of the crown, then the slide, then the bolster, then the upright left column, and the upright right column. The estimate was that 120 truckloads would be required to get the line to Mexico.

Matt was bearishly friendly. He'd endeared himself to me right away when he sized me up and asked, "When can you start?" I wasn't capable of working on his crew, but I liked him for flattering me nonetheless.

Matt had brown hair and a bushy copper mustache a week shy of being walrus-like. One of his fingers, years ago, had gotten chopped; he showed me where it had been reattached. The stitching was nearly unnoticeable. "The doctor did a good job," he said.

One hot Saturday afternoon, I stood with Matt in Budd's old human resources offices, on the second floor of Independence Hall. Matt puffed away at his cigarette, Chrysler's Jefferson North Assembly Plant visible out the window behind him.

Matt saw a falling off not only in the country's industrial production—his presence in the closed Budd plant testified to that—but also in its capacity to dismantle the plants that were no longer producing. It was industrial decline in its second declension. "The s—t me and Jeff do, it's a dying trade," he said. "When we're gone, you're not gonna find a good rigger, you're not gonna find a good welder, you're not gonna find a good machinist. Nobody wants to do it anymore. Guys who don't mind getting dirty and actually want to throw their back into their job, they're getting to be few and far between. At the end of the day most days, I got a sense of accomplishment. I walk outta here, and you can physically see—'That big son of a bitch was in the air, and now it's down on the ground. I had a good day today, look at that.'"

It was raining outside the morning they started to remove the crown of the first press on the 16-line, which meant that it was raining inside as well, with water dripping down through the holes in the roof. The plant exaggerated whatever the external conditions, making warm weather hot, cool temperatures cold, and converting humid conditions outside into the primordial soup inside.

I'd told Matt the day before that I'd be in around 7:30 in the morning to see the crown of 16-1 come down. How long would it take? "If everything goes real well, two hours," he said.

It took longer than that simply to set up. It was a Sunday morning, and I wandered around the plant to kill time. I'd long since learned not to kick any of the junk—bolts, nuts, screws, bits of this and that—with which the shop floor was cluttered. You found that items that looked light didn't budge when nudged by the end of your foot. Without boots, you'd have had a badly stubbed toe, if not a broken metatarsal. I kicked bolts that felt like fifty-pound dumbbells. After a time, you learned to step over and around most everything.

On one of my wanderings, I'd picked up a discarded set of "commitments" signed by the twenty-five Budd Detroit press shop workers who had been part of the 16-line "natural working group." In the Budd cafeteria there was a ThyssenKrupp poster—"Natural Work Groups: The Power to Secure Our Future"—that showed all hands in, as in a football huddle.

Framed as a set, the four 16-line "commitments" were signed by all twenty-five members of the natural working group. The commitments were to "Group Purpose," "Vision," "Goals and Objectives," and "Standards/Norms/Expectations."

I'd sometimes snatch up a stray bit of company correspondence from the plant floor and read what I could stomach. From the Handbuch "THYSSENKRUPP BEST:" "Against the background of a visibly weakening world economy....It is vital to identify internal value-adding potential....The success of 'ThyssenKrupp best' is very much in the interests of the workforce: only a successful company can offer its employees secure and challenging jobs with good prospects."

Outside the press shop's bay door, red Cassens Transport trucks drove up Conner Avenue, carrying Jeep Cherokees and Jeep Commanders from Jefferson North Assembly to the Ford Freeway and, from there, to Chrysler dealer showrooms. It was nice to remember that some plants, for the time being, were still producing.

Budd, by contrast, was just about ready to begin some serious disassembling. To make the lift, the crew had "trucked the gantry up from Sandusky," Matt said, referring to the Tower Automotive plant in Upper Sandusky, Ohio, that a splinter crew was taking the presses out of. A four-hundred-ton lift system with four hydraulic "legs" that looked like large jack stands and functioned like powerful floor jacks, the gantry would be going back to Ohio the next day.

"It's like working for the carnival," Jeff said. "Set it up, tear it down. Set it up, tear it down."

Working with Matt and Jeff were Nedzad, a Bosnian, and Z., a black woman who left the crew shortly thereafter. The fifth member of the heavy-lift team was a guy named Guy. Matt said that Guy had worked in the "press shop in the Rouge"—the storied Ford Rouge plant—and that "though he doesn't know much about rigging"—there was a "yet" implied—"he knows his way around a press shop like nobody else."

One of the bigger presses in the Budd plant, 16-1 was a Danly QDC D4-2000-180-108. Twenty-six feet tall, it weighed around a million pounds. About 400,000 of those pounds were in the crown, but that figure had been reduced by 75,000 since they'd taken "some s—t off" in preparation for the lift, Matt said.

Two beams—the "headers"—ran across the crown length-wise and rested on the gantries' pads. Two more beams, atop the others, crossed the crown widthwise, forming a rectangle, for what Matt called a "box lift." The gantry then pushed the beams and, with them, the crown up from below, in what resembled an industrial bench press.

The crowns of all of the presses in 16-line were lifted with the gantry. Matt assumed, however, that about two-thirds of the crowns in the press shop were small enough to lift with an overhead crane. Lifts with overhead cranes were less dramatic: they pulled the crown up with a set of spreader chains and suspended it in midair before moving it this way and that. The crane looked like an industrial Geppetto pulling a heavy puppet's strings.

To hear Matt tell it, disassembling a press and taking it down just wasn't that difficult, however it was done. Take care of the electrical, the plumbing, and a bunch of other tedious stuff, and then "you just start unstacking it," Matt said. "You pull the crown off. You pull the ram next. You pull or drop the side columns. You pull the bolster. You pull the base." And, just like that, a million pounds of press was on a truck, bound for central Mexico.

The lift of the crown of 16-1 would begin this heavy rigging process. Tape measures ran from the base of the lengthwise beams down to the gantry legs below. During the crown's slow descent, the crew constantly checked the tapes to see that all four sides were level.

"It's a game of inches," Jeff said to me.

Six hours after they started—and two months and a day after work on the line began—the crown of 16-1 was down, setting securely on blocks. Jeff brought out a case of beer to celebrate. The first big slab of Budd's industrial Stonehenge had come back to earth, bound for south of the border.

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