Mitt Romney Slammed for Joke Referencing Plant Closure… in 1954

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has come in for some criticism for awkwardly relating what he characterized as a “humorous” story involving his father, former American Motors CEO and later Michigan governor, George Romney. In 1954 George Romney became head of the newly merged (from Hudson and Nash) American Motors Corp., following the sudden death of his corporate mentor and patron, George W. Mason. One of the first things Romney did was to close the money-losing Hudson assembly plant in Detroit and consolidate all Hudson and Nash assembly in Nash’s Kenosha facility, which put about 4,300 Michiganders out of work. The story that Mitt Romney related had to do with his father’s campaign for governor in 1962, eight years later. The senior Romney was in a parade and apparently the high school marching band in front of his parade car didn’t know how to play The Victors, the fight song of the University of Michigan. Instead they kept trying to play On Wisconsin, much to the chagrin of Romney’s campaign staff, who didn’t want Michigan voters reminded of the plant closing. Though it’s clear to me from the context that Mitt Romney found humor in the parade incident, not in the plant closing, Democrats have seized on his remark, saying to it betrays a callous attitude towards working people.

Obama campaign spokesperson Lis Smith said:

“The only things more out of touch than Mitt Romney’s ‘joke’ about his dad closing a factory are his policies that would give massive tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires and allow insurance companies to discriminate against individuals with pre-existing conditions. He continues to be callous about the struggles that ordinary Americas face and his policies would make it harder-not easier-for anyone but the very wealthy to succeed.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow said it

“was no laughing matter when our jobs are exported to other states or other countries. Outsourcing has had a devastating impact on the middle class. Americans deserve leaders who understand the challenges working families face. It’s no laughing matter when jobs are shipped away.”

Sara Wallenfang of the the AFL-CIO, said:

“Mitt Romney made light of his father’s decision to close a Michigan auto factory. Does he take current Michigan jobs any more seriously?”

Plant closures and outsourcing are issues that Michigan workers have been facing in the last two decades as the domestic auto industry has declined, so it’s not surprising that Democrats tried to amplify Romney’s gaffe, but is it really a good idea to make political hay over a factory that closed in 1954? If Smith, Stabenow and Wallenfang were in George Romney’s position, they probably would also have closed the Detroit Hudson plant. That is, if they had AMC’s survival at heart. Yes, 4,300 Detroiters lost their jobs, well, most of them, some transferred to Kenosha or other AMC facilities, but the factory was doomed. The Hudson plant that George Romney closed had a break even point of about 65,000 units. In 1954 that factory was on track to make less than 30,000 cars, producing only 13,373 in the first five months of 1954. It was an old, inefficient factory and while some Hudson facilities were acquired by other automakers like Cadillac, the Detroit Hudson plant was torn down by the early 1960s. By closing that plant, Romney made AMC a more viable company. A company that continued to employ thousands of people in Michigan into the 1980s, when Chrysler bought American Motors from Renault. There are many current Chrysler employees in Michigan who have jobs today in part due to George Romney’s decisions as head of American Motors.

I can understand Mitt Romney’s political opponents teeing off on his gaffes. He is indeed very wealthy and not the most glib speaker off the cuff, but the notion of tying George Romney’s closing of the Detroit Hudson plant in 1954 to the outsourcing and offshoring of manufacturing jobs that goes on today is a bit of a stretch. If that plant closure in the 1950s does resonate today, it’s because the auto industry still faces the problem of worldwide overcapacity and money-losing factories, not because a few thousand Michiganders lost their jobs before I was born.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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  • Shaker Shaker on Mar 30, 2012

    If Mitt hadn't publicly stated that he was against the auto bailouts, his "gaffe" would likely have not been news. What the media (and the "left") has pounced on is that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. George Romney did what was necessary, from an executive's standpoint, but he probably had some feelings for the furloughed workers that he never communicated to his son; thus Mitt's cavalier attitude about the plight of the middle class. Or, George Romney *was* a pr!ck, and "like father, like son". Well, I guess that Jeep lovers should consider G.R. as a minor deity. Edit: Here's hoping that my co-workers and I hit the Mega Millions drawing tonight - then maybe I would be able to sympathize with Mitt's world view a bit more.

    • See 1 previous
    • Shaker Shaker on Mar 31, 2012

      @geeber One side benefit of the big jump in oil prices (and thus shipping rates) is that the transplants are bringing manufacturing back closer to their market. I think that the reason (besides the "jump-start" of generous tax subsidies) that they can offer competitive wages and benefits is because the unions have historically fought to increase the relevance and value of the middle-class worker. That said, the over-powerful, overreaching union has done its part to hurt the corporations that are the lifeblood of the existence of their members; a form of slow suicide. If unions wish to survive, they need to go back to their roots - fighting injustices - not necessarily to every individual worker - but to the collective workforce, and they need to partner with industry to do what's best (collectively) for their membership, even if it means flexible work and wage policies to keep their members "in the loop" with inevitable business cycles. They can also become a clearinghouse for ideas that would increase productivity without onerous corporate "policies" that aren't the optimal solution, and cannot be challenged. They can administer benefits, and tailor them to the needs of the members, relieving the company of these costs and responsibilities. They can provide a "value-added" function that members would gladly pay for, rather than a rigid, unyielding behemoth that must drain money from members (and competitiveness from their employer) to support itself.

  • Campisi Campisi on Mar 30, 2012

    This struck me mainly as a pretense to talk about a time in AMC's history. Disregarding politics, Mr. Schreiber strikes me as a class act and his well-written and interesting articles serve as a pleasant bright spot in TTAC's content.

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