Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors, stated at the October 2018 CityLab Detroit Leaders Conference that she hoped to shift public perception of GM from that of an automobile manufacturer to a technology company before her retirement. Barra’s comment hinted at a desire to not only change the driving ethos of GM production but to also transform the configuration of GM’s workforce: imagine a future akin to Tesla’s automated assembly line, their factories quiet save for the AI programmed to build their “tech.” The wish to associate GM with an encroaching technocratic future reflects how labor, capital, and the management of these two components of late capitalism have shifted within the neoliberal paradigm. The dialogue of labor is rapidly changing. Rather than centering the conversation on workers, the question is now how production is managed, diffused and parceled out: human lives become human capital.
This message casts a long shadow over the recent United Autoworkers Union deal with GM, ratified on Nov 4th, 2019. UAW members were on strike for six weeks, the longest strike in modern history, in order to increase full-time employment opportunities and position security, ensure parity and equity in working condition, and safeguard any remaining plants from closing––a measure referred to as “product allocation.” Product allocation is a flashpoint for union members because for every plant closed, the workers impacted are relocated to new plants hours away from their homes and families. These relocated folks are forced to choose between unemployment or living apart from their families, taking on new expenses in order to keep their households afloat. Greater job security is also a critical goal for the UAW as it is a form of collective empowerment, a way to combat anti-union “Right to Work” policies through greater and more stable worker agency. When workers are unafraid of “Right to Work’s” punitive and unfair employment practices they are free to join together to become a positive collective for grass-roots change. While the outcome of the November 4th deal allows temporary workers to have better defined paths to permanent positions and better wages, workers are still not allowed to have stock in General Motors. Many plants will still close, the most famous closure occurring recently in Lordstown, Ohio.
David Green, current president of the UAW Local 1112 formerly located at the now defunct Lordstown plant, opens LaToya Ruby Frazier’s Renaissance Society exhibition The Last Cruze with the quote: “One day after we built the last Chevy Cruze in Lordstown, hope was all we had. Maybe if they see us, we thought, they would understand.” Frazier’s exhibition is composed of sixty photographs, written testimonies, video, and community events, by and for the workers and families of Local 1112 impacted by the Lordstown plant closure. The photographs themselves are situated on eight by seventy feet neon orange armatures that directly reference the uniform mechanization of the General Motors assembly line. This reference to the assembly line is done in solidarity with the members of Local 1112, an act that renders the materiality of their difficult work in arching, sculptural terms. Frazier’s photography also reflects a sustained investment in the intersections of American family, community, and working-class labor under the austerities of late stage capitalism; as stated in the exhibition’s written materials, there is a direct lineage between her work and the history of documentary photography in the United States. Photography possesses the power to address pressing socio-political issues as it is a living document, a means by which people can connect and know their neighbors, tell stories, tell their stories: it is the possibility of empathy, of human compassion, of justice.
As discussed by Frazier herself, the collective and connective power of the images of Local 1112 members and families imbues the exhibition with a mystical sense of unity, a spirituality. Interspersed throughout the show are images of UAW members praying together before each meeting––poignant reminders that class-conscious solidarity can come in different forms and modes but is powered by a kindness and care for fellow human beings. However, this is not to say there are any true points of departure within Frazier’s exhibition as these stories, these lives, existed both before and continue on after the exhibition. The pieces that most powerfully exemplify this intimate humanism are the images of women’s hands that bookend the beginning and end of The Last Cruze’s assembly line.
These hands belong to Francis Turnage and Marilyn Moore, both of the UAW Local 1112 Women’s Committee and the Retiree Executive Board for Ms. Moore. The image of Ms. Turnage shows her holding three bracelets: her gold ten, fifteen, and twenty-year service bracelets from General Motors. Ms. Turnage worked thirty-four years in the Lordstown paint shop.
Ms. Moore’s image has her folded hands centered in frame, with her GM company gold retirement ring positioned on her index finger. Ms. Moore worked thirty-two years at the GM Lordstown assembly plant, van plant, metal fabrication and trim shop. The two women are rendered through a stark and deeply compassionate lens. The viewer can see their hard work, their injuries, their determination and willingness to work every day even when continuing feels impossible.
The idea of standing together, finding strength in unity against the impossible, must be mentioned as both Ms. Moore and Ms. Turnage are women of color and leaders within the UWA Women’s Committee. The idea of blackness and the state of race must be mentioned as The Last Cruze effectively challenges the dominant whitewashed notions of who constitutes the American working class. The exhibition delves into the erasure of the historic, intertwined legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and American unionization. Both Ms. Moore and Ms. Turnage, alongside Ms. Pamela Brown the current Women’s Committee Chair, (pictured in another show image with her great-granddaughter) all spoke at the UAW Women’s Committee Roundtable, part of The Last Cruze’s public event series.
Hearing Ms. Moore, Ms. Turnage, and Ms. Brown speak with Frazier about the positions they held, work they accomplished, and the good they did––and continue to do for so many––was stunning; a fitting addition to The Last Cruze’s legacy of justice and unity. The three women’s stories about their experiences at GM not only impressed upon the audience the need for unions and worker protection (each woman’s job was so physically demanding the positions could be filled by two to three male workers) but also shed light on the communal good that Local 1112 brought into Lordstown and surrounding counties. Unions aren’t just for workers: under the leadership of Ms. Moore, Ms. Turnage, and Ms. Brown, the UWA Women’s Committee provides economic stability, emotional support, and material resources, to Ohio families. As Ms. Frances Turnage stated: “that’s what a union is; you’re strong because you stand together.”
As The Last Cruze is preparing to end its time at the Renaissance Society and move to Ohio’s Wexner Center for the Arts, providing the chance for a reunion of sorts to the women and men of UAW Local 1112, viewers are left with an unsettling sense of irresolution––what will happen to the folks for whom the GM deal provided no solidarity or security? However, girding this worry is a sense of resolve as The Last Cruze compels spectators to action with the knowledge that we are all in this together.
LaToya Ruby Frazier’s The Last Cruze is on view at the Renaissance Society through December 1st.
Featured Image: A black and white photograph shows UAW members and their families gathered in a circle outside the UAW Local 1112 Reuther Scandy Alli Union Hall, Lordstown, OH 2019. Photo by Mark Allen Blanchard.
Annette LePique is an arts writer, educator, and archivist. Her research interests include cinema, race, illness, and the body. She has written for Cleo Film Journal, Another Gaze Feminist Film Journal, and Dilettante Army. Annette was a 2017-2018 Research Fellow at the Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute and is completing her graduate studies at the University of Chicago. She is an active performance artist with a background in dance and music.