The Rapidian

Local manufacturing workers react to Austin Bunn's "RUST"

Video interviews with Gary Albrecht formerly of Rowe International, Marty Green of GM and Al Berry of Michigan Works! following the first performance of "RUST" by Austin Bunn.

Gary Albrecht talks about how some manufacturing workers just wanted a direct bridge between working in the assembly plant and retirement.

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What happens to people when economies shrink?

My interest in economy and its impact on people started early in my career. I worked with felons re-entering society from prison, juvenile sex offenders, the mentally ill, working poor and the unemployed, and I was witness to the severe impact economic change had on these niche groups. Trends such as unemployment rates, plant closings and public funding cuts often created devastating circumstances for those with the least amount of resources, the least heard voices, and the most obvious need. As a result of this experience, I am inspired to tell the more personal story of how changes in the economy change the face of our community.

If you have an idea for how a person or a group of people have been impacted by a shrinking economy, please email me at [email protected].

"It was a good run," said Marty Green, former employee of the General Motors Metal Fabrication plant in Wyoming, Mich. Marty sums up much of the sentiment radiating from "RUST." Namely, that the era of Michigan-as-titan-of-industry—of sweaty, hard-working, hard-playing autoworkers assembling cars bolt by bolt is now gone. It was a simpler era where the American Dream could be mainlined right out of high school. All you needed was a proclivity for trades, a willingness to get dirty and work hard, and maybe have family working at the plant to get you in. Austin Bunn's "RUST," playing till Oct. 8 at Actors' Theatre (160 Fountain NE), seems to give the passing of that era a name, an era that is being replaced by something different: a smaller, advanced workforce capitalizing on mechanized assembly and off-shore markets.

Marty and Gary Albrecht were both featured in my prior article on the closing of the GM Metal Fabrication Plant. In interviews of Marty and Gary following the opening night of "RUST," they accept and even embrace the change in their lives caused by massive job losses in the manufacturing industry. Al Berry of Michigan Works!, instrumental in the retraining of displaced manufacturing workers, was also interviewed. He spoke to opportunities that await many former autoworkers. Gary makes it a point to say that the plant closings and loss in manufacturing jobs in Michigan is not a tragedy; to call it a tragedy dilutes the word and is disrespectful of the real tragedies we all face. Instead, Gary, Marty and even Austin in the play seem to give into the idea that plant closings layoffs, and changing careers is the stuff of life. And it is precisely this stuff we must accept, shrug our shoulders and move on to the next adventure that awaits us.

"It was a good run," said Marty Green.

I let this era go begrudgingly. I do not wish to continue an outdated mode of manufacturing, but my own sentiment attaches me to this era. My father worked at GM for many years and later went on to work at die-casting companies throughout the Midwest. In high school, he would bring me to the plant early on Saturday mornings. I would try to do homework while he was in meetings but would eventually find myself wandering the floor of the plant. I drove forklifts, played with metal shards punctured by the dies and would fall asleep in front of giant aluminum melting furnaces. I knew nothing of the business but was perpetually amazed at the sheer industry of it all. In the back conference rooms, ash trays filled over, and schematics and quality slogans covered the walls. My father's hands were filled with scars—burns from hot metal. He was proud of how well he took care of his boots, which do not last long in the harsh conditions of the plant. His secret: mink oil.

My father passed away unexpectedly several years ago in a motor cycle accident. He was a manufacturing guy through and through, and mercifully he did not have to witness the most recent turbulence in the manufacturing industry. Undoubtedly, it would have been difficult for him to bare, though I doubt he would have been surprised. He predicted the auto industry collapse decades before it happened and talked about it openly. He recognized and accepted the rusting of the industry years ago, much like Gary and Marty accept it now. It seems everyone in the industry saw it coming for years. Maybe it is that foresight and acceptance by people in the industry that can be an example to us. I see this rusty downsizing of the manufacturing-dominence era for Michigan as an opportunity to mourn the loss of a prosperous window in time, to come together and be witness to the very hard lessons this story has to offer, and to move forward to build a new vision of Grand Rapids.

Al Berry worked with Rowe International and GM Metal Fabrication Plant employees and talks about his memories of Gary Albrecht inspiring half the factory to go back for retraining.


All videos shot and edited by Joel Van Kuiken

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Jeremy -- I love the honesty and personal story here and I'm just so honored by your reporting and interviews. I consider the fact that RUST was the first play Marty had seen *ever* a big win. These fellows you interview were essential guides for me through the writing process. I just feel lucky to have met them.