“I’m 47 years old. I’ve got three kids that are grown. I’ve got six grandchildren. I don’t know,” says Kathy. “I couldn’t see myself going back to school. This has been my life, you know. I’m a factory worker. I’m proud of it.”
Kathy lost her job on 23 December 2008, when the plant closed as part of GM’s effort to cut costs. A final line worker at the General Motors Moraine Assembly Plant in Ohio, she’s one of the employees interviewed for The Last Truck, which premiered Labor Day and runs throughout the month on HBO. Opening in 1981, the plant was one of GM’s most productive and efficient, bigger than the Pentagon, and winning 11 national awards and making some 280,000 trucks annually. Many interviewees describe the pride they take in their labor (It’s very physical when you’re pulling a sheet of tin… And it cut the crap out of you”); some express sadness at having to leave their “family” (“For me, it’s about sharing things hard things: my oldest daughter had a drug addiction, two in particular people that I work with on the line helped me tremendously”). And several are visibly angry: body shop worker Louis notes, “After all the money we made them, they’re dropping this bomb on us.” “What do you think of the timing?” an interviewer asks one man seated behind the wheel of his own GM truck. He nods, his face grim: “Merry fucking Christmas.”
Such candid responses helps to make Steven Bognar and Julie Reichert’s film seem like the workers’ own creation, a commemoration of their devotion to their labor and one another. That they think little of management is not surprising, given that even as they loved their jobs, they have long felt a class divide. If their coworkers are talented and devoted, their employers mostly go unmentioned, except as the source of pain. A few title cards suggest the company’s structural problems (“GM has four retirees [who are paid for every active worker,” and “Every auto plant job creates five to seven additional jobs,” most also lost with the closing), but the film focuses on the workers’ experiences, their anticipations of loss and trauma as well as their appreciation of one another over good and hard times (“It’s a factory sense of humor in there, that you can only know if you work in there”).
For the most part, workers deal with this by emphasizing what they loved about their jobs. They remember their first days on the job fondly (“It was glamorous, almost,” smiles Kate, a forklift operator. “We were young, 20ish, and we all looked good, young and tanned and skinny”) and see their work much as a GM promotional campaign might portray it (“We were building cars for families”). They also have jokes, rueful and worried: when Vanessa, wife of an electrician named Kim, smiles, “It’s gonna be nice having you home,” he smiles right back, “No, it isn’t.”
One of the more loquacious interviewees, Popeye, is a 52-year-old toolmaker with a sense of various contexts. He recounts his own training and dedication as it illustrates the skills of his coworkers. Noting the several degrees’ worth of skills he has acquired, Popeye observes, “In my opinion, a good toolmaker is actually a frustrated artist. I can’t draw and I can’t paint, but I can make you anything you want in metal.”
He points out in the small space of his own neighborhood the effects of the company’s bankruptcy: half the houses belong to GM workers or retirees, all likely to be lost. The camera tends to offer close-ups of speakers, then pull back for long looks at their environments — on the line, on the lot. The shots are mostly mobile but suggest as well that such movement leads nowhere in particular. The larger backdrop for Popeye’s comments has to do with global markets and greed. “American-made” is no longer a first choice for consumers or a best choice. Instead, Walmart and other stores sell the cheapest products, without regard for the future of the U.S. economy. As a result, the shape of his own family’s future has changed: “My grandson’s not gonna have a better life than his grandpa,” Popeye laments “And that sucks.”
Kate has her own perspective. On the day workers collect their toolboxes, loading them into truckbeds to bring them home (these and a photo of the plant are their “parting gifts”), she looks around at her colleagues, confused and trying their best to keep focused on the task at hand. “Twenty-three freaking years,” she laughs, “And for the last 22 years and nine months, it sucked really bad. Then we found out we were gonna get fired and we love this job!” the camera shoots Kate through her own truck windows as she hugs friends and then gets in. It’s an ending for Kate and her coworkers, but hardly conclusive.