While the domestically-owned “Big Three” – Ford, General Motors and Chrysler – dominate popular culture and memory in the United States, almost half of all vehicles made in North America in 2018 were produced at foreign-owned plants.
Professor Timothy Minchin’s new book, America’s Other Automakers, examines the impact of the foreign-owned automotive industry on American communities through the histories of seven plants that were operated by Japanese, German and Korean companies.
Drawing on more than 90 oral history interviews and untapped archival sources on workers, managers and industry recruiters, the book addresses two key questions: Why did these companies locate where they did, and what did their arrival mean – especially in human terms – for the communities involved?
“While industrial recruitment has usually been viewed in economic terms, this was a story as much about personal connections as it was about money,” explains Minchin.
“People and governors played a key role in convincing the industry to embed itself in the small towns of the upper Midwest and the South. Location was a factor, but so was the desire of these companies to avoid unions. It influenced the industry’s gradual shift to the Deep South, a region with the lowest levels of union density in the country.”
The impact on communities, Minchin argues, raises intriguing questions about the interplay between regional and global, and the cost-benefit of the industry’s presence on the people themselves.
“Residents adjusted to the presence of foreign automakers in their communities, but not without plenty of tension along the way,” he says.
“Demand for jobs exceeded supply, ensuring that there were more losers than winners. There were major tensions over unionisation, resulting in several bitterly contested elections. Many residents also feared that their communities had become too reliant on the industry and worried about what would happen when the incentives ran out.”
While the domestic automotive industry declined in the North, Minchin argues that foreign-owned plants thrived in the South.
“These foreign-owned factories did bring economic growth to the areas they located in, and most plants expanded significantly. The South drew on a longer history of recruiting outside industry, offered lower levels of unionisation and, due to the decline of core industries such as textiles and apparel, had plenty of workers with industrial experience,” he adds. “As a result, the South has become one of the most globalised regions in the United States.”
“Ultimately, the rise of this industry is an important story with far-reaching consequences. Within forty years, the sector has grown to occupy a prominent place in American life.”
Find out more about America’s Other Automakers.