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L.A. is blase abou the Big Three

Los Angeles' love affair with the car doesn't include Detroit's offerings.

April 01, 2009|TIM RUTTEN

Given that Los Angeles is the modern city most shaped by the automobile, it's remarkable that the impending economic implosion of at least two of the nation's Big Three carmakers has had so little local resonance.

After all, Wilshire -- our city's signature east-west thoroughfare -- was the first great processional urban boulevard designed to accommodate the automobile. Less than 20 years after Henry Ford's first Model T rolled out of his Detroit factory in 1908, Los Angeles had 430,000 registered cars, one for every three residents. At the time, it was the world's highest per capita rate of automobile ownership.

Los Angeles initially had been a public-transit town, and, contrary to popular mythology, it was the Red Car trolleys and not the automobile that first encouraged our suburban sprawl, because the lines were extended to link the real estate developments of the civic oligarchs. By the late 1930s, though, there were 1 million private cars on the road, and traffic had become such a problem that road construction became a major city priority.

Los Angeles' appetite for American cars was such that in the postwar years, major car manufacturing plants were located in Pico Rivera and Van Nuys, and Firestone and Goodyear tire facilities were operating southeast of downtown. The high-wage, good-benefit jobs those factories provided helped fill the suburbs of the east San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys.

But it didn't last. Ford's Model T made the masses mobile, but in Los Angeles, those masses fell out of love with Detroit. It's been a long time since the Big Three's cars dominated our local market. You can take a minute to check for yourself by looking around the next time you're stuck in a traffic jam.

We're hardly alone in that. This week, the website Politico took a look at West Executive Drive, where White House staffers park, and found that out of 23 cars, only five were American -- a Dodge Grand Caravan, two Ford Escapes, a Jeep Cherokee and a Cadillac. The rest were BMWs, Mercedes, Hondas, Toyotas, Saabs, Audis, Volkswagens and a Volvo. (Both President Obama and his press secretary drive Ford Escape hybrids.)

As our indifference -- one might even say distaste -- for Detroit's physical product has grown, so has our apathy toward the people who create it. Ford's genius in perfecting the assembly line -- the basic technology that made the 20th century auto industry possible -- resided in his insight that human beings, flexible and dexterous, made superb interchangeable parts. Men, however, are not cogs, and the democratic self-assertion of the United Auto Workers is testament to that fact.

It's a further testament to our historical amnesia that we no longer recall the autoworkers' long struggle for a just share in the profits Ford and the other Detroit plutocrats extracted from their labor. Many of the heroic workers who waged that early struggle for economic justice were immigrant Catholics inspired by Msgr. John Ryan's classic work on the living wage, a book that compared the employers' right to impose the terms of employment to the "contract" between a highwayman and his victim. The UAW's first president was a Baptist minister, Homer Martin, a champion of racial equality as well as workers' rights. In their book on the UAW, Irving Howe and B.J. Widick wrote that he "spoke with otherworldly fervor; his language was colored by Biblical phrases; no other man could pierce to the hearts of Southern-born workers as he could."

Today, the gains of their descendants seem to the rest of us to be an impediment to the "hard work" that needs to be done. It makes no difference that wages on Detroit's assembly lines are no higher than those paid by the foreign carmakers who consciously located their factories in the Southern scab belt. Now, the men and women who labored all their lives on the Big Three's lines are being asked to forfeit the decent retirement and healthcare promised them by the companies their sweat made profitable for decade after decade.

GM's ousted chief executive, Rick Wagoner, takes with him an exit package worth more than $24 million. Neither he nor anybody else in his family ever will want for anything, let alone the prescription drugs to maintain a decent standard of health in old age.

It's been a long time since we here in Los Angeles had friends and neighbors dependent on the UAW's contracts with the Big Three. Many of us no longer care much about Detroit or its products. Somehow, the fact that we don't care more about the disparity between Wagoner's fate and that of his workers says something about the people we've become -- something that does us no credit.

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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