The recent automobile industry narrative reads like a case study in stunning incompetence coupled with a complete disregard for the storied innovations and the hard work necessary to build such a legacy. And while the Big Three carmakers foolishly flew to the nation’s capital for Senate hearings, then carpooled a short time later after being chastised for their hopeless audacity in seeking a record bailout, one of the more unforgivable stories seemingly went unreported.
On June 3, 2008, then-CEO of General Motors Rick Wagoner announced the closing of four GM plants, one of which was in Moraine, Ohio, in suburban Dayton. By the end of that year, this plant, which had produced four different SUV models at a rate of 280,000 a year, would leave 1,100 employees without jobs. Related job loss as a result of the closing includes thousands of regional suppliers and at least 400 additional nonautomotive positions based on the presence of the GM workforce and the lost revenue stream with more fallout to come.
Due to a break in their production schedules, area filmmakers Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert (Emmy winners for their documentary A Lion in the House) immediately responded to the announcement of the closing, setting up interviews with plant workers and spending as much time with them as possible getting to know the people and their stories — the stories of this community on the chopping block. But Bognar and Reichert (pictured) wanted and needed to dig deeper and were fortunate enough to enlist the support of several key plant workers who agreed to strap on hidden cameras to allow access to the factory floor during the last days.
The heart of the duo’s documentary The Last Truck: The Closing of a GM Plant, which debuts Monday on HBO, is the dedicated workers, the informal family born and bred in the more than 4 million square feet of the plant, which opened back in 1981 and at its peak (in 2006) employed 4,200 workers across three shifts.
But Bognar and Reichert also spend time in the local bars and in the communities where not only the workers live but also the employees of those regional suppliers and mechanics impacted by the closing.
And towards the end, those places coalesce into characters as well, along with the actual last truck to come off the assembly line on Dec. 23, 2008, the last day. That last truck is the final symbol, the last gasp of the auto industry, the last drop of lifeblood to coarse through this part of the Moraine community. It is fascinating to watch the footage of the tracking of this truck as it goes from station to station. Workers who have contributed their efforts follow it along silently; many take a moment to sign some interior part of the body, to leave a mark of their time and dedication to this job and their co-workers. This film marks a transition of sorts in our global economy and the hopefully abating crisis as we once moved from our agrarian roots to the more industrial system to what will likely become a more technologically driven future. One of the toolmakers featured in the film addresses the notion that this is the end of American manufacturing, saying, “My grandson will have a worse life than I had,” because as so many of the workers point out anecdotally, the factory and the labor union provided support to families. There was a solid option for employment for the next generation and the chance for them to have an even better life, through their hard work, than the previous generation.
The Last Truck presents the human face behind the anonymous corporate facade and the mismanagement fiascos. The film also serves as the perfect summation of HBO’s summer slate of original specials that has run every Monday night from July 13 through Sept. 7.
Timeliness has been the hallmark of this season’s presentations. The first week’s broadcast, Teddy: In His Own Words, chronicled the life and nearly half-century Edward Kennedy spent in the U.S. Senate, from childhood through his speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Other subjects included the continuing struggles to integrate Southern society, mental health issues, immigration, the plight of foreign journalists in Afghanistan and fallen political figures. But, it is this Labor Day presentation of The Last Truck that, while closing the series, should open up discussion about the plight of regional American workers, both now and as we move forward. The local premiere of the film on Aug. 19 at the Shuster Center in downtown Dayton offered many of the Moraine plant workers a chance to gather to share their story once again, to catch up with one another and to remind everyone that this doesn’t have to be the end. (tt stern-enzi)