Writing the People’s History

On Wednesday, American historian Howard Zinn died at the age of 87. Professor Zinn, a World War II bombardier who used his GI bill to attend NYU and graduate school at Columbia University, was most well-known for authoring several books that provided an alternative perspective on American history with emphasis on issues such as civil rights, civil liberties and the atrocities of war. In evaluating history, Professor Zinn raised critical questions about fairness, equity and distributive justice.

Scholars and journalists are already collecting important narratives of the recent economic crisis. After receiving $9 billion in federal aid in March 2008 and several billion in the succeeding months, in June of last year, General Motors (GM), an icon in American economic history, filed for bankruptcy. In mid-June, while bankruptcy counsel, creditors and the U.S. government orchestrated dispositions of underperforming assets and divisions at GM, the New York Times Magazine published an article examining the impact of the disappearing manufacturing industry on America’s middle class. The article followed the stories of several plant employees who had realized dreams of home ownership, secondary education for their children and an occasional vacation through well-paying jobs at automobile manufacturing companies. The article described one young father’s experience at GM in the years leading up to the credit crisis, the last straw on a high pile of issues that fueled GM’s bankruptcy.

Powell gradually settled in at Pontiac Assembly and was soon piling on as much overtime as he could. In a good week, he worked four 12-hour days and a 16-hour day. Overtime was especially abundant between the beginning of November and Christmas, when hunting season caused rampant absenteeism at the plant. Within two years, he was making $18 an hour, and he and his wife soon saved up enough to put 3 percent down on their $150,000 three-bedroom house in Southfield.

The lack of opportunity, education and training for non-manufacturing jobs presents an ominous albatross in Flint, Detroit, Southfield, Pontiac and other communities in Michigan and throughout the country. Strategies for addressing unemployment and underemployment in the U.S. will have to consider how to address quickly the shifting nature of America’s competitive advantages in the global economy.

In memory of Professor Zinn, we are bequeathed the responsibility of capturing and recording the story of General Motors and the American manufacturing industry as well as the narratives of the Powell family and others.

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1 Response

  1. George Conk says:

    I was a graduate student of Howard Zinn 1969 – 1970. His star student at the time was Peter Irons, who went on to play a leading role in the efforts to obtain compensation for Japanese-Americans interned in World War II, and to publish the unauthorized series of transcripts and recordings of landmark Supreme Court arguments marketed as May It Please the Court.

    After he got out of jail for refusing to cooperate with the draft Peter wrote a history of the UAW local in Anderson, Indiana. So a people’s history of GM and the UAW was certainly on Howard’s radar.