Motor City Blues Part I: The Myth of Union Detroit

In recent weeks the once proud city of Detroit has been subject to a barrage of embarrassing media reports. The state takeover of the city’s finances and Kwame “The Hip-Hop Mayor” Kilpatrick’s prison sentence have played out on the national stage, bringing bad PR to a city desperately trying to improve its brand. In reality the city has been embarrassing itself for quite some time. This three part blog series seeks to lay out the history behind the epic failure that is Detroit. The final piece will offer a plan for the city’s future.

Right to Work legislation brought labor issues into the political spotlight last year when Michigan Labor Unions swarmed state airwaves prior to the election. They made several interesting claims concerning the history of Michigan’s unions. Specifically the ads played off the public’s acceptance of a great American myth; the mythic role labor unions played in shaping the middle class.

The nation’s collective consciousness has long been taken by the idea that the post-war years were great times for America, a time when middle class workers were on the rise and industrial cities were booming. Detroit boosters in particular tend to speak of the era in a nostalgic fashion.

Union propagandists will tell you the United Auto Workers union (UAW) created Michigan’s middle class, ushering in high wages and prosperity. Even many conservatives, while attacking modern unions, will acknowledge the positive influence they had “back in the day.” It is usually said that until the 1967 race riot Detroit was thriving.

These notions are, however, quite ridiculous.

Historical investigation shows the narrative of Detroit’s decline to be radically different from that described in the media. Here’s the short of it.

Detroit, like many places in the Midwest is known primarily as an industrial city. Unlike Cleveland or St. Louis however Detroit is synonymous with an entire industry. The Auto industry almost single handedly built the city we see withering before us today.

At the turn of the 20th century Detroit was a midsized industrial center with 285,000 citizens. In 1903 the founding of Ford Motor Company launched a new era in the city’s history, and by 1926 Detroit had grown to cover the nearly 140 sq. miles it occupies today. By 1930 the city contained nearly 1.6 million people making the Motor City the nation’s fourth largest.

Growth slowed in the 30’s, however, and made only a slight recovery in the 40’s due to massive military production. In the 1950 census Detroit would reach its population peak of 1.849 million. However, from the 1950’s on Detroit began a steep population decline from which it has yet to recover.

That’s right, people were fleeing Detroit in the 50’s and early 60’s. Why would some 250,000 people leave this idyllic union city years before the image changing 1967 riot? The answer is simply that Detroit was already a city on an economic and social decline coming out of the Second World War.

Social unrest had been taking hold in the city for some time. Once fashionable neighborhoods like Brush Park became rundown and poor. In 1943 Detroit was witness to a massive race riot; one that is often forgotten despite being far larger in scope than the infamous 1967 riot.

The seeds of Detroit’s failure were sown in the 30’s and 40’s. Auto unions gained power between 1937-1941, an event which was immediately followed by World War II. In the late 1940’s American factories dominated the world market as most of the foreign industrial powers had been destroyed in the war.

As soon as foreign manufacturing recovered in the 50’s one sees that American industry immediately began to lose ground. The pace quickened in the 1970’s and finally culminating in the auto bailouts of 2009.

Why did this happen? Simply because the restrictions placed on auto manufacturers made American cars uncompetetive in the world market. Indeed the unions did succeed in securing record high salaries for their members, but only at the cost of destroying the American manufacturing sector.

The truth is that Detroit’s success, its wealth, people, and grand architecture all existed before the Unions ever came to power and it is actually astonishing to see how quickly they affected the city’s industrial base. 

Just looking at the dates when most of Detroit’s residential, industrial, and commercial structures were built reveal that the vast majority of the city’s buildings date from before the Great Depression. This should be a small surprise given that 85% of the city’s growth came before 1930. This was possible because men like Henry Ford were already paying record high wages to auto workers in 1914, and in doing so provided Detroit with one of the highest homeownership rates in the nation.

Again, all of this occured before the union takeovers. 

At the end of the day the UAW needs to confront this fact. Detroit’s population in 1940 at the beginning of union dominance was 1.623 million. Today the population stands at 700,000. Apart from growth resulting from the World War during the 1940’s one finds that Detroit has spiraled downward since it became a union city.

It would be unfair however to say the city’s sad state lays entirely at the feet of the UAW. There were many institutional and political problems which exacerbated the city’s ills. These will be discussed in the following post.