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Shipping the plant away, and the jobs that go with it

Paul Clemens, who earlier wrote "Made in Detroit," tells the story of the shutdown of the Budd plant, a General Motors stamping facility, in "Punching Out."

The 2-million-square-foot facility on Detroit's East Side was built in 1919 and closed in 2006. Edward Budd, the company's founder, was a hardworking pioneer in the automotive stamping process. He made relatively little money. Eventually, his company became a cog in GM's wheel of production.

The plant stamped out "roofs, doors, fenders, tailgates, lift-gates and body side panels for cars, trucks and sport utility vehicles." The closure was part of the near collapse of the U.S. auto industry. Earlier in the 20th century, GM peaked at 600,000 workers, shrunk to 96,000 by 2003 and has closed down more than a dozen North American assembly plants since 2000.

"Punching out," of course, is the familiar phrase for millions of industrial workers who used a time card and clock to record their coming and going to work each day.

Clemens, who has written for the New York Times, plunked himself down in the plant for part of a year "watching its massive, stories-high, million-pound press lines and equipment be sent piece by piece to Mexico and Brazil." The tear-down guys "were former roofers and plumbers, an Iraq War veteran, a Bosnian immigrant, a strip-club bouncer, a repo man, itinerant riggers -- and most poignantly -- a couple of former Budd workers."

Earlier, Jon Clark, who publishes Plant Closing News, talked to Clemens and gave him the idea for the point of the book. Clark's newsletter targets surplus equipment that becomes available for those who are considering starting new businesses and need to buy parts. "I've been called a vulture by more than one company That's OK: vultures have to eat." His publication is a kind of "ruin porn" catalog of what's available on the used plant parts market.

"People pick that stuff up," Clark said of the Budd Company presses, "and take it halfway around the world and reinstall it and put their people to work. You know, it makes you wonder what went wrong, that a plant could push parts out the door and now they can pick up the equipment and take it two thousand, three thousand miles, and run the same equipment to make the same parts and ship 'em back cheaper That oughta be a story."

It sure is. Clemens has done thorough, depressing work describing a too-typical American story these past 50 years: Workers who built up an industry now dismantling it, trying to be resilient in the face of industries coming apart in their hands.

What's next? We must hope that there will be resilience in the American economy that replaces the estimated 6 million jobs that will never return.

There is not much hope in "Punching Out," however. It may not be too dark a premise next to see the outsourcing of American journalists' work overseas. Some of this is already happening with the help of the Internet.

Then the transit will be complete. Perhaps a Chinese historian will write a history of America's decline, telling how we were left to sell insurance to each other while waiting in line at McDonalds.

The English historian Edward Gibbon did something similar when he wrote "The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire" more than 235 years ago.

Michael D. Langan, who worked at Bethlehem Steel from 1955 to 1963, recently wrote "Tapped Out: A Worker's Memoir of Bethlehem Steel's Rise and Demise in Western New York."

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Memoir Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant

By Paul Clemens

Doubleday

271 pages, $25.95

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