Blog: Simon WarburtonMississippi fervour spices up Detroit

Simon Warburton | 15 January 2013

It's not often I get mistaken for a German, but I was today by one taxi driver taking me to meet TRW in a Detroit restaurant.

The cabbie's comment left me momentarily speechless, but when I muttered something about being British, he turned the situation around triumphantly with: "Ah, Britain, a true friend of America." Sound fellow.

Talking of Germany, I was at a fiercely early briefing this morning at the Cobo Center, by German automotive industry association, VDA, whose president, Matthias Wissmann, gave a tub-thumpingly robust assessment of his country's performance to the backdrop of the rumbling 'people movers' passing inches outside the huge panoramic windows overlooking the Detroit River and Canada.

The speech included the startling assertion that Germany produced 5.5m vehicles last year to Italy's meagre "below 500,000" total, which neatly sums up the yawning chasm appearing to widen ever more between north and south Europe.

I had a succession of supplier interviews following that and then an unsuccessful wild goose chase trying to track down Michigan governor, Rick Snyder, who was on some sort of regal walkabout in the show proper. He's due back tomorrow, so will resume battle.

A quick trot across the road - after positively Bahamian temperatures at the weekend Detroit has returned to its marrow-chilling norm - to see the UAW organise a highly unusual press conference in which several Mississippi pastors, a Senator, the US coloured people advancement body [NAACP] and the actor, Danny Glover, all gather to push for union recognition in their state.

Nowhere apart from the US have I ever encountered religion entwined so closely with public life. Americans are unabashed to wear their faith on their sleeves and if that means the worlds of politics and organised labour are caught up in the maelstrom, so be it.

Add to that cocktail, the powerful history of Mississippi in the struggle for civil rights and it made for one of the most unusual press conferences I have ever attended.

"Mississippi is a right to work state," Glover told me. "That does not mean people have the right to organise and the right to vote on a union." Needless to say, there are two sides to a story and tomorrow should yield more detail.

Back to the show proper and interviews with Michelin North America president, Pete Selleck, whose company has now sponsored the gargantuan media centre for 25 years.

Step aside claustrophobic, steamy confines of the Paris motor show press office, Michelin's meeja centre is an aircraft hangar of air-conditioned enormity, a vast space into which thousands of the world's hacks are decanted daily and where, despite the vastness of it, somewhere to park your laptop is still at a premium.

The day was finished off with an absorbing interview with UAW president, Bob King, whose impassioned defence of union rights provided quite a contrast to the glitz and glamour of what was on the show floor.

There was also a lively demo outside by workers, although they really only perked up in the bone-chilling cold when the cameras turned on them, protesting against, well, I couldn't quite tell, but there were some great George Bush masks on display.

I'm guessing they weren't cheerleaders for the great capitalist model being played out inside the cosy, warm Cobo. 



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I'm starting to get a small idea of the scale of things here in China, but really, I'm only scratching the surface of this vast country....

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