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Hill-Billies Come to Detroit (1934)

The Hill-Billies Come to Detroit

  by  Louis Adamic, The Nation, February 13, 1934

–Detroit, January 25

THE automobile industry, as you may have read in the daily press, is having the best beginning of a new year since 1929. The New York Automobile Show was a vast success. As I write, it is reported that similar shows, with their attractive new models, are very successful also in other large cities throughout the country. Orders are pouring into Detroit. Some of the departments of the Ford plants are working in three shifts six days a week. Several General Motors plants operate in two shifts seven days a week. Tens of thousands of men and women have been put to work in recent months in various branches of the great motor industry, and more are being employed weekly-not only in Detroit, but to a lesser extent in some of the smaller towns nearby as well. A number of Detroit boosters to whom I talked gave me glowing accounts of the sudden upswing in the industry. Things are starting to hum again: no maybe about it. They all used the word “hum.” And to my question about the labor situation they replied-most of them, it is true, with a suggestion of uneasiness-that there was nothing to worry about. Yes, all was quiet…. No, no; absolutely no danger of a general auto strike this year, nor anything resembling real trouble.

I met several intelligent workers, one or two would-be labor leaders, some red agitators, a number of white-collar employees of automobile plants, and miscellaneous citizens of my acquaintance who are vaguely radical, progressive, or liberal and more or less informed about what is going on in Detroit’s leading business. Talking with these people I became convinced that despite prophecies last year of impending trouble in 1935 there is no possibility of any great upheaval in the motor industry during the current high-production season, nor, as a matter of something a little more substantial than a guess, later in this year. But by this I do not mean that the labor situation in Detroit is anything to be happy about. It is not.

Detroit still has 52,000 families, or approximately a quarter of a million people, on various forms of relief, while there are somewhere between 50,000 and 75,000 unemployed persons in the city who, chiseling along in other ways, are not on relief. In some of the automobile plants employment lately went up as much as 100 per cent, whereas the relief burden was decreased only about 20 per cent. The explanations for this discrepancy are interesting.

For one thing, the companies have hired great numbers of girls and young women with no previous experience in the automobile industry; in many departments of the intricate but superbly organized production process no experience is necessary. These girls were given and continue to be given jobs in preference to experienced and physically better equipped male workers. The companies’ theory–no doubt very sound–is that women and girls are not as apt to join unions or become otherwise troublesome as men. And many of these new automotive workers come not from families on relief but from a slightly higher economic level–again because such persons, not having been exposed to the extreme hardships and humiliations of the jobless, are less likely to respond to labor-union agitation than the ax-unemployed.

The automobile manufacturers’ labor policy is this: The industry must not be unionized, and to keep the unions from gaining a foothold, we must take every precaution and spare no expense. Among the experienced automotive workers living in Detroit and the vicinity, only those have been and are being rehired whom the plant employment managers personally know to be “safe,” or who can secure personal O.K.’s from prominent citizens in Detroit, such as well-known judges and commanders of American Legion posts. Workers known to be inclined, however slightly, toward unionism or radicalism are almost generally taboo in the production department, whether on relief or not. Those hired are watched by stool pigeons, who in some plants go so far as to search the men’s overcoat pockets for possible radical literature.

Apparently there is a great dearth of “safe” workers in Detroit. In recent months, with production increasing, it has been necessary for the companies to bring in tens of thousands of people from outside, principally from the South, and put them to work in the busy plants. For months now the companies have been sending their labor agents to recruit hill-billies from Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Alabama. These hill-billies are for the most part impoverished whites, “white trash” or a little better, from the rural regions. The majority of them are young fellows. They have had no close contact with modern industry or with labor unionism–this, of course, is their best qualification. Their number in Detroit is variously estimated as between fifteen and thirty thousand, with more of them coming weekly, not only in company-chartered buses but singly and in small groups on their own hook, for no one has a better chance of employment in Detroit these days than a Southerner of unsophisticated mien. They are employed at simple, standardized tasks in production departments, for which very little or no training is necessary, at 45 or 50 cents an hour, except in Ford’s, where the wages are slightly higher. These workers are happy to receive this pay and are much “safer” –for the next few months, anyhow, while big production is on–than local labor, poisoned by ideas of unionism and perhaps even more dangerous notions.

The hill-billies, with their extremely low standard of living and lack of acquaintance with modern plumbing, are looked down upon by all but the most intelligent local workers, both native and foreign-born; they are despised also–indeed, mainly–because they take employment away from the old-time automotive workers. This, naturally, is agreeable to the geniuses running the Automobile Chamber of Commerce. In fact, it is exactly what they want. It splits the workers still more. Any kind of solidarity between these newcomers and old-time Detroiters is out of the question in the immediate future. It takes an American worker a long while to assimilate the union idea; and these unfortunate Southerners–though just now most of them consider themselves extremely fortunate–are nothing if not Americans.

It is all very, very clever, and it will take the labor movement, such as it is, some time to devise the strategy and tactics to cope effectively with this latest of dirty tricks played upon the workers by the automobile tycoons and their brain-guys. Individual proletarians, however, already are inventing counter-tricks. To crash a job at a plant one man I know practiced up on the Southern dialect and drawl, then presented himself at the factory gates, and was hired as soon as he opened his mouth. Another good way for a man to get a job in Detroit, I am told, is to look and act stupid.

Do the people of Detroit as a whole know about this importation of workers from the South? The newspapers, I have been informed, never mention it. Naturally not. They are strongly in favor of the automobile industry remaining open shop. The same is true of important people in the city in general. Anything is justified to keep out the unions, which to them signify only trouble. They are willing to contribute to relief; they are willing to do almost anything to keep the industry from being “strangled to death by the unions.” Of course, most of the big people deny that the companies are importing outsiders wholesale. An important engineer of a great body plant, however, said to me: “The industry’s been in the red for years. Now for the first time since the depression began it looks as though a nice profit is probable. Can’t you see the manufacturers’ point of view? Can you blame them, things being as they are, if they take precautions–if they insure themselves against possible interference with production? True, some of the people brought into the city will be ‘dumped,’ as you say, into the lap of Detroit when high production ends in April or May, but what is more important to Detroit-the fact that the industry goes on humming uninterrupted or the danger that the city will have ten or fifteen thousand more relief cases in May? Anyhow, I believe that both the city and the industry figure that they’ll deal with that in May. No use crossing bridges till you come to them. That’s the American way.” He smiled. I said that it seemed to me a bit cruel to bring in these people from the South, then dump them. “That may be true in some cases,” was the answer, “but in a big thing like this and in serious times like the present you can’t worry about that. The automobile industry is the most important industry in the country. The prosperity of other important industries depends on it.”

The middle-class and lower-middle-class people are more or less aware of the importations of workers but are too full of troubles of their own to try to do anything about them. Petty landlords and realtors who have rented their vacant houses to the hill-billies complain that their tenants, unappreciative of modern appliances, are damaging their properties. The automobile workers, particularly the unemployed, feel the angriest about the importations, but are largely helpless against them. They have no organization through which to act, no power. Their anger is directed chiefly against the hill-billies.

There is but one union in the automobile industry of any consequence, and this one of no great consequence–the Mechanics’ Educational Society of America, an independent organization essentially interested only in the “aristocracy” of automotive labor, the tool-and-die men. The A. F. of L. momentarily is embarking on an “organization campaign,” but anyone who knows anything in Detroit knows that the campaign is only a lot of empty motions, that in all probability the organizers are closer to the brain-guys of the Automobile Chamber of Commerce than they are to the organized workers. A number of federal unions have been formed in the past year, but none have any numerical or other strength, while scores of plants have large unions under “safe leadership.” Speed-up is the rule in nearly all plants, and big sections of automobile labor have other grievances which make them anything but anti-union, but the A. F. of L. organizers, living in good hotels and taxiing about the town, are careful to do nothing to inspire them with courage to join the union in the face of the employers’ fierce and consistent opposition. In mid-February the kingpin of American labor, William Green, is expected to visit the automobile centers; the occasion doubtless will be marked by the customary geysers of blah and bluff which have marked the A. F. of L. campaign so far. The rank-and-filers will be told again to put their trust in the tried-and-true leadership of the great Federation. But it is obvious that the Federation has no desire to organize the industry. Its immediate motive is merely to prevent the appearance of some new organization which eventually might succeed in unionizing the industry and then possibly become a rival of the A. F. of L. in other fields.

The Communist Party in Detroit has a large apparatus, but owing to the Communists’ serious tactical blunders in the past it is totally isolated from the masses of workers and therefore of no immediate importance. The American Workers’ Party, now the Workers’ Party of the United States, whose tactics were so successful in Toledo last year, is just beginning to get a foothold in Detroit, but is practically incapable of developing any real power during 1935. The tactics of the Workers’ Party, I understand, will be to attend A. F. of L. mass-meetings and develop rank- and-file pressure upon the A. F. of L. “organizers.”

In brief, no big movement or upheaval is possible. Possible, however, are small local blow-ups. The only important plant in the automobile industry which is effectively organized is the Auto-Lite in Toledo, the scene of the serious strike last spring led by the aggressive A. W. P. strike tacticians. The federal union there, I am told, is in better condition now than it was when the strike was called last year. Its leadership is more militant and vastly more intelligent than it was early in 1934. It is under the influence of the A. W. P. A new explosion in Toledo is possible. The managers of Auto-Lite, at any rate, seem to think so. This time last year they employed about two thousand workers. Today their working force is over five thousand. The explanation is not only that production has gone up generally but that Auto-Lite fears a possible shut-down in March or April. If a new strike occurs in Toledo, it probably will be fiercer and bloodier than the last. Behind Auto-Lite will be, as in the last strike, the power of the entire automobile industry, while on the workers’ side will be much of the militancy developed in the 1934 struggle and vastly more experienced leadership. The most important factor working against the strike is the general socio-economic situation in Toledo, which has improved somewhat in the last five months, superficially at any rate. Fundamentally the situation is practically the same. One out of every three and a half persons in the city is still on relief, and it must be remembered that it was the unemployed who so largely contributed to the fury of the 1934 incident.

Source: Adamic, Louis, ” The Hill-Billies Come to Detroit,” The Nation, Vol. 140, No. 3632, p. 177 (February 13, 1934), New Deal Network, (June 8, 2014).

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