Recently I visited a new supermarket in the vicinity of where I live in Philadelphia. This supermarket is also located on the outskirts of the North Philadelphia, which is a largely Black working class community. There hasn’t been a large market in this area for quite a while, making shopping for food a bit more convenient for many people. However, my co-worker claims that the prices at this store aren’t any better than the average.
When I was in high school, I worked in a supermarket and learned that the prices and the expiration dates were better in the suburban stores. This is because there are more stores in the suburbs and the people who live in these areas have the resources to shop around.
The reason why I was interested in this store is because I worked in an auto factory across the street for twelve years. Next to the supermarket is a fast food restaurant. Both these stores are located in what used to be the parking lot for the auto factory. The former auto factory has been abandoned for about ten years.
Auto production in the U.S.A.
When this plant was open, every ten to fifteen minutes an eighteen-wheel tractor-trailer would deliver huge rolls of sheet metal. Another tractor-trailer would take away the finished auto parts. This continued twenty-four hours per day seven days per week.
This factory was over seventy-five years old and it was originally built with rail lines running through the plant. Rail cars also transported finished auto parts, as well as the scrap metal generated from the plant. The rail transport was more fuel-efficient and required fewer workers than transport by tractor-trailer.
The reason why corporations prefer transport by tractor-trailer is because auto production is overall more profitable than rail. This is why corporations teemed up with politicians to build highways. This is one of the main reasons why there is a fuel shortage in the world. This is also one of the reasons why about 40,000 people die every year in auto related accidents in the United States.
The company was obsessed with producing the maximum number of auto parts. I remember one day hurrying to the bathroom, and this took only about two minutes. When I returned to the line the leader screamed at me for leaving my post. Another time, I hesitated at my job for about three seconds. A co-worker then started to scream at me to get the line running.
Jobs in the plant were potentially dangerous. Some workers lost their lives, others lost their limbs, their hearing, or developed carpal tunnel syndrome. I was lucky not to have had any lasting injuries.
When the U.S. auto manufacturers lost about 25% of their market to their Japanese competitors, they understood that changes needed to be made. As a result, the company required us to improve quality and increase production.
It is impossible to describe in print the seemingly super-human effort the workers gave to accomplish these tasks. The company rewarded us awards and jackets for meeting these goals. Then, they closed down the plant.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the reason for the plant closure was “excess capacity.” This means that the auto industry has more production facilities than they needed. What the editors at The Inquirer didn’t understand is that this story was not exactly news.
In the year 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote a pamphlet titled: The Communist Manifesto. Almost one hundred fifty years before the closing of this factory, Marx and Engels gave the following reason for why corporations close factories:
“In these crises there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity—the epidemic of overproduction.”
In other words, when the Native Americans gathered more food than they needed they had a party and celebrated. In the so-called civilized atmosphere of capitalism, where the government argues there is, “liberty and justice for all,” corporations throw workers in the street, like used garbage, when there is “excess capacity.”
Many jobs went to China
For many of my years at this factory, I worked in the tool and die department. I completed an apprenticeship in this trade sponsored by the union and the company.
Auto dies transform flat pieces of steel into usable auto parts. Although this trade is essential to all manufacturing, tool and die making has been in decline in the U.S. for many years.
One day when I was working in that department, I came across a magazine that had an article about the trade of tool and die in Hong Kong. The article stated that in Hong Kong students had to apply for training in this trade, and if accepted, they needed to pay for that training. However, all graduates were offered jobs in the trade, and worked with the most sophisticated machinery.
This article underscored the point that much of the manufacturing in the world has been transported to China. Why did this happen?
Chinese ghost cities
The Chinese Revolution transformed China from a nation that was ravaged by imperial powers into a nation that would stand on its own. This enabled the government to make substantial investments in infrastructure and today China is leads the world in the construction of rail lines.
However, the so-called Chinese communists decided to allow for widespread capitalist development in their country. A recent story on the news program 60 Minutes took a look at the results of these policies.
Today there are several cities in China with miles and miles of skyscrapers that are completely abandoned. This is in the most populous nation in the world.
The Chinese are an extremely industrious and inventive people. The government forced many residents to leave their homes to make way for the construction of these ghost towns. Many former residents of these cities actually collected the bricks from their former homes so they might use those bricks in another location.
The problem with these ghost towns is that they have been sold to speculators as investment properties. Most Chinese, like many workers in the United States, can not afford the costs of new construction.
What do working people need and want?
Understanding these facts we might consider the question of: What do working people around the world need and want. In my opinion, this would include about eight basic goods and services including: food, clothing, housing, health care, education, transportation, communications, and exposure to cultural activities like music, art, films, theater, dance, sports, etc…
We might consider this when listening to Zhang Xin, a woman who happens to be one of China’s new billionaires. Xin, who used to work for Goldman Sachs, is in the business of profiting off of the construction of numerous luxury office buildings in China.
Understanding what working people want and need, we might also argue that these goods and services rarely, if ever, are produced in office buildings. Yet, Zhan Xin argues that while the market for useful housing has dried up, the market for office buildings continues to be healthy. In other words, one of the reasons why working people in China and the United States are not able to afford new homes, is because the price of this new housing includes the cost of almost useless office buildings.
The cause for the closing auto factories is essentially the same as the building of ghost towns in China. This is what Marx and Engels called “the disease of overproduction.” What can we do about this?
We might consider the concluding words of Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto:
“The proletarians have nothing to loose but their chains. They have a world to win.
Workingmen (and women, my addition) of all countries unite.”