UAW – GM Contract Talks. Another trip down Memory Lane. A story from the other side of the lens.

Another auto negotiation was looking too familiar, same posturing faces and rhetoric. I believe it was Mark Twain who said, “ familiarity breed’s contempt.” There was no question.

The country was coming off the recession of the late 70’s. The UAW had picked GM as their target. It was mid September 1984; the negotiations now on a marathon course, the clock was ticking. Strike threats loomed, demands abound; this is the best offer, take it or leave it, and I was trapped in a pressroom waiting for a routine photo op that included the same UAW or GM spokespeople. Really???? I kept pressing the PR staff to give me an opportunity for something different. At the time, it was easier to make pictures of the President of the United States than the Chairman of GM.

After 19 hours of bargaining a PR spokesperson said that’s it for the night. Negotiations broke down. I had been holding on to an earlier briefing of routine headshots waiting for something better. Some media rolled up their sleeping bags, no joke, others pressed for a comment; the only statement after a long day was good night!

Einstein said “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Doing something different perhaps would create a different result; I decided to take a different route on my way back to the office. Dreading another headshot, as I turned onto an expressway ramp it was as if someone threw a bucket of water onto my face. I’ve seen this before hundreds of times, but resonated.

"General Motors and Fisher Building 1984  By: Joe Polimeni"
General Motors and Fisher Building 1984 By: Joe Polimeni

The neon “General Motors” sign glowing in the night sky; executive floors pillared.  A smoke stack and water tower in the foreground. I couldn’t stop or back up, far too dangerous.  So I did the next dangerous and crazy thing, I drove around and got back onto the ramp. Now, on a two-lane ramp in the middle of the night, rear lights blinking, not worried if someone doesn’t see me and plows into the rear of my car, I’m praying the cops don’t come and chase me off the ramp.

Had to work quick — if a car passed, the ramp shakes; a truck makes it feel like a mild earthquake. Fortunately that hour has little traffic. No tripod -“car-roof pod.” Lying on top of the roof, feeling it slightly cave, I compose and focus.  Hoping nothing moved as I carefully crawled off, I make several exposures with the self-timer. One second, two seconds, 10 seconds.

There’s nothing like the feeling when taking film out of the fixer, pulling it off the reel and looking at what you have. It was exactly what I had hoped.  Nothing moved, sharp as a tack and perfect exposures. I wasn’t going to win any prizes, but it was different and different was a beautiful thing.

The picture garnished a fair amount of play the following day. True to form, my boss called. Instead of a “thataboy,” he said he would have kicked my ass if I sent another stupid headshot. Believe me that was the best ”thataboy” I had in a while.

Joe Polimeni

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