Auto/Economy
3:03 pm
Tue August 30, 2011

Preserving auto workers' stories

The United Auto Workers and Michigan State University collected oral histories from about 125 workers, managers, and others connected to the Fisher Body plant in Lansing.

The plant closed in 2005 after more than 70 years of production. Fisher Body in Lansing was one of the longest operating auto factories in the U.S., according to a Lansing Car Assembly Facebook page.

An MSU labor relations professor, John Beck, headed up the project.

Beck said the oral history recordings "gave a lot of people a voice that they would not have had otherwise."

From an MSU press release:

The plant’s closing in 2005 threatened to effectively bury the workers’ experiences. But through the MSU/UAW partnership, these stories – which run the gamut from first and last days on the job, to tales of racism and sexism, to statements of pride and teamwork – are now part of a digital catalogue at MSU’s G. Robert Vincent Voice Library. The catalogue is called the Lansing Auto Town Gallery.

A team of autoworkers were trained to collect the oral histories. MSU officials say "at the time these autoworkers were part of GM’s jobs bank, meaning they were getting paid but not working in the soon-to-close plant on Verlinden Street."

Some highlights from the catalog, according to MSU:

  • Dorothy Stevens, the first woman in the plant to exercise her contractual right to transfer to a better-paying job. Stevens, who worked at the plant from 1952 to 1984, describes the unequal treatment of women that included lower pay, lack of restrooms and sexual harassment. “Girls didn’t have it so good,” Stevens said.

  • Aristides “Art” Arvanites, owner of Harry’s Bar across the street from the plant. Arvanites, a Greek immigrant, talks about catering to the autoworkers, including the family of MSU basketball legend Magic Johnson. “The people from 602 have been my best friends,” Arvanites said.

  • Jim Zubkus, who rose from plant clerk in the 1950s to become plant manager. Zubkus describes how the relationship between the rank-and-file and management improved through the years. “Back then it was us-versus-them … strikes were prominent,” Zubkus said. “Today it’s much more amicable.”