In the 1980s, the Center for New Work proposed a radically different industrial future
By Eva Rosenfeld
In 1980, two years after General Motors began shuttering its auto plants in Flint, Richard Gull watched a special broadcast on Ann Arbor’s public television station titled “Culture After the Elimination of Labor.” It was a ten-part series developed by Frithjof Bergmann to publicize “new work,” an idea developed in his 1977 book On Being Free. Bergmann, a charismatic University of Michigan philosophy professor sometimes described as “Moses with an Austrian accent,” believed that technological developments ought to lighten humanity’s workload, but that became impossible in a job system that linked wages to survival, making work an end in itself.
If we allowed technology to save work as intended, Bergmann argued, society could reconfigure work entirely. Individuals, supported by their employers and local councils, could devote newfound “job-free time” to personally meaningful “pursuits.” In turn, they would meet their community’s needs, making one another less dependent on cycles of wage labor and consumerism. If a substantial portion of the working population could devote themselves for months at a time to carefully chosen activities, like furniture-making, tree-planting, or caring for the sick and aged, then social life would be utterly transformed. “The daily seeing of what good it did to them—and of whether they were good for others—would create the different cultural climate,” Bergmann wrote. That was freedom.
On Being Free had inspired Gull, a philosophy professor at the university’s Flint campus, to study the philosophy of work. He had begun travelling to Ann Arbor to take Bergmann’s classes. Bergmann suggested his vision had promise in Flint, where joblessness and poverty had soared as General Motors offshored and automated production. Gull arranged for him to give a talk in Flint. Eventually they decided to propose a “new work” schedule at General Motors: workers would spend six months of each year in the auto plants, the remainder pursuing personal callings.
In 1994, Bergmann and Gull co-founded the Center for New Work in the downstairs of a large 1920s house on Flint’s north side, donated by St. Michael’s Catholic Church. Gull was “adjunct to Frithjof,” he says, “because he was this great speaker and thinker with the accent and the beard.” Flint Mayor James A. Sharp agreed that the city was a “good testing ground” for the program. “If it meets the needs of the workers in Flint, it will probably work in other cities,” he said in 1985.
New Work did not solve the problems of workers in other Rust Belt cities; that much has been shown by the wave of workers who, throughout the pandemic, have struggled again to reinvigorate the labor movement and rethink the structure of work. Nor did it work for Flint. Today, the story of Flint most often told is one of economic decline, white flight, and government neglect, culminating in a lethal water crisis which continues today. But for a few years, “New Work” proposed a different story of the city, one that made its workers pioneers of a transformed industrial future.
Throughout the 1980s, Bergmann drove up from Ann Arbor in an old Saab to meet Gull for meetings at the Center. They took up a range of activities geared toward changing the culture of work, lobbying sympathetic workers, labor leaders, management, and women’s groups. With a group of teachers, they developed a curriculum, piloted in four Flint public high schools over the 1986-1987 school year, that urged students to consider how automation would transform the availability and nature of jobs. They made TV and radio programs. In an initiative that prefigures present-day Green New Deal proposals, they helped form an affordable housing coalition that retrained workers to build low-cost, sustainable homes. A few were built on Flint’s north side.
In January, 1984, union members at a GM Buick plant voted against accepting a shorter work week that would have made room for 1,700 laid-off workers to be rehired. The vote was widely interpreted as evidence that workers were unwilling to make sacrifices for the collective. After conducting interviews with workers, Gull wrote an op-ed in the Flint Journal, attributed to both himself and Bergmann. He argued that the specifics of the vote made it a no-win scenario that would either compromise job security and the union’s leverage, or “shift responsibility for layoffs unjustifiably onto workers.” The op-ed also implicitly boosted New Work’s solution: splitting work in half “instead of splitting Flint,” as Bergmann put it.
“One of the reasons for writing that, strategically, was to get us in good with the union,” Gull said. “‘Hey, we understand your problems. We’re not just dumbass philosophers.’ And I think it worked.” The UAW secured a grant for the Center’s work. One member, Dan Davis, followed up in a letter to the editor, writing, “My God, GM public relations doesn’t control the news media after all. Our side is being told.”
The problems of GM workers went back farther than 1987. Workers began discreetly organizing a union during the Great Depression as wages dropped, workers were hired and fired at-will, and workplace hazards and deaths increased, all while the company itself became the country’s most profitable automaker. In 1936 and ‘37, over a hundred thousand workers occupied the Fisher Body Plant No. 1 for forty-four days—a novel tactic which, bolstered by supportive leadership in state and federal office, led to the national formation of the United Auto Workers union.
But in the decades after the victorious 1936-37 Flint sit-down strike, the labor movement had few wins. In the 1940s, GM began moving plants to suburbs and rural areas. The practice continued for decades and catalyzed white flight, slashing the city’s tax base and setting the stage for catastrophe when GM began closing plants altogether in the late 1970s.
After being laid off for the second time in 1987, auto worker Francine Cleaves feared the limbo of permanent unemployment. “I don’t want to see people like myself, who were—who thought they were—the so-called middle class, who really wound up finding out that all we really had going for us was a job, and that all it took to take that away from us was a pink slip, and along with the pink slip goes the standard of living. Along with the pink slip goes the American dream.”
Flint had, after all, depended on GM throughout the mid-century for relative wealth and cultural prestige. This arrangement had its upsides, but also deposited the city’s fate into the privately owned hands of a corporate giant. The mass layoffs of the 1980s shook many workers’ faith in “Papa GM.”
In this context, New Work appealed to some workers as a measure of independence. Claude Griffiths, a GM line worker, bought a cheap, blighted commercial building and opened a yoga studio, where the Center taped some segments of “The Future of Work” for the local PBS station. “What kind of occupation or profession will give you the greatest amount of freedom? That’s what most of us seek,” Griffiths said on the program. “We want to have some kind of feeling of self-worth by doing something that seems to be an expression of ourselves.”
Griffith’s enthusiasm was shared by several older workers who had successfully lobbied to share their jobs and salary in 1982 at the GM Spark Plug plant, rotating in and out by season as they approached retirement. For the most part, though, auto workers who supported the Center were like Cleave: less gung-ho about New Work principles, but willing to try unconventional approaches to secure support for workers.
The union had its own responses, including a paid educational leave program. But dissent was rising, both against management and in the ranks of the local UAW. This would come to a head in 1989 with the formation of the New Directions Movement, a faction of workers who felt the union was stuck in a rut of piecemeal negotiations. They wanted to organize outside of the company—in local politics for instance—to loosen GM’s economic stronghold on the city.
Some cynical UAW members were attracted to the extreme response New Work seemed to offer. Others were driven to alternative visions out of hopefulness. Stan Marshall, a UAW leader who eventually became its Vice President, fit into the second category. “We’re going to see some very innovative and very structural changes in this society for the good, probably by the late 1990s. I don’t know how we could possibly avoid it,” he said.
But the six-month rotation plan proposed by the Center also required the cooperation of management. Bergmann insisted that corporations would benefit from his plan, since workers would “find a sort of uplift between the times in which they work,” reducing absenteeism, medical costs, and burnout, and increasing productivity. Executives joined in meetings, and negotiations with GM’s Willow Run plant continued for a year. Gull said he had trouble judging the firmness of any agreement. Looking back, “management did kind of bullshit in many ways, you know, just wanting to look progressive,” he said. He grew skeptical—of management’s hedging, of Bergmann’s credibility, of the worthwhileness of the six-months plan itself.
Gull had come to see the six-months proposal as one among many possible ways of reconfiguring work. “Whether CNW’s particular version of the future ever came into existence was much less important than that an alternative entered public discourse,” he wrote several years later. To this end, he wanted to join scholarly conversations about work, creating another source of tension with Bergmann, who criticized academic life. At a conference Bergmann organized in Ann Arbor in March, 1988, Gull presented an alternate theory of work to a crowd of graduate students. In the car ride back up to Flint, Gull says, Bergmann told him, “I don’t care if you have ideas of your own.”
Later that year, the Willow Run plant declined their proposal. Within a few years, both men ceased their projects in Flint, and Gull went back to “just being a philosopher.” In 1994, he said, “[I knew] this was going to turn into a gigantic failure, that [GM management was] just gonna jack us off, bullshit all the way, and I saw that a year before Frithjof did.”
In the early 1990s, during the Center for New Work’s dissolution, sociologist Steven Dandaneau returned to his hometown of Flint to write his doctoral dissertation on local responses to deindustrialization. The circumstances he observed were so much richer and stranger than what he’d seen as a child that it felt like growing up again. “If you would have invented that as a literary conceit, no one would believe you,” he said of the Center for New Work. “It challenged my ability to understand anything.” Gull seemed so rational, both he and Bergmann so educated. And Dandaneau was confronting a contradiction, “between the apparently reasonable and the extraordinarily unreasonable nature of things.”
This unreasonableness seemed to run through every aspect of Flint’s decline. The obvious problems, unemployment and poverty, were unreasonable. The unwillingness from all directions to recognize the forces behind those problems was unreasonable. Imagining a world where everyone was free to realize their own chosen projects was reasonable, but it was unreasonable to imagine this as if though the capitalist labor market didn’t exist or was incidental to the problems workers faced.
Dandenau criticized the ideology of the Center for New Work in his dissertation-turned-book, writing that it ignored the reality of deindustrialization—including the profiteering calculus behind shipping whole industries abroad—and pinned the city’s decline “on the citizens themselves for not being willing to adapt to technological change.” He viewed it as an analytic failure, and even perverse, to tell unemployed people, “Instead of being unemployed and destitute because of the social relations in which you live, now what you have really is job-free time. Aren’t you grateful for that? Isn’t that a wonderful thing?”
In fact, Bergmann’s commitment may have been less to the advantages of “job-free time” than to imaginativeness itself. He criticized the popular idea of fighting to decrease the work week—which traced back to the original demands of the sit-down strikers—as “a very unimaginative way of going about the problem.” He told Gull that his ideas about work were “not cheerful enough” and liked to say that “the left blew it” because they failed to provide an attractive vision of the future “that we could aim for, for which it would make sense to exert ourselves, let alone to struggle. One by one, like lights, the visions have gone out.”
Gull suggests that Bergmann, with his artistic sensibility and penchant for speeches, might have made a greater impact disseminating his ideas through fiction. People had always criticized New Work for being utopian, but Gull continued to believe that utopian ideas, injected when the political circumstances were unsettled enough to absorb them, could stir change. On the other hand, he wondered if their problem was instead that they weren’t dystopian enough. Bergmann viewed himself, ironically, as a realist about the future of work, informing workers and especially students that the futures they had imagined for themselves would soon be automated away, and that they’d better adapt their self-educations accordingly. But he hadn’t foreseen the horrors of globalization, the rise of fascist politics, the scale of tragic human outcomes wrought by deindustrialization.
After Bergmann left Flint, he travelled, trying to install New Work programs in South Africa, India, British Columbia, and Detroit. His ideas have stuck best in Germany. This fact is a testament to the inseparability of utopian thinking and material conditions, since Germany’s relative wealth and national policies supporting welfare and shorter hours likely make it easier for people to rethink their work lives and counteract their own “poverty of desire” (a Frithjofism of later writings and interviews).
Though Gull left New Work behind in the ‘90s, its core ideas became most real to him in retirement. Facing the seclusion of the pandemic, in old age, living alone, he was pulled through by writing, thinking about films (the passion of his later life), and generally having a productive solitude. “Six months, six months” became useful to him as metaphor for a fruitful old age that turns up new callings—something everyone should have, he believes, but few do, even as old age is getting longer. Yet another problem of work that needs rethinking. ■
Eva Rosenfeld is a writer and artist from Michigan.
Cover image: Fisher Body Plant #21, which was decommissioned by General Motors in 1982. Photo by Patrick Klida.
Belt Magazine is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. To support more independent writing and journalism made by and for the Rust Belt and greater Midwest, make a donation to Belt Magazine, or become a member starting at just $5 a month.