Saturday, November 24, 2018

Janesville: An American Story

Amy Goldstein, Janesville: An American Story (NY: Simon & Shuster, 2017), 297 pages, $27.00

In Janesville, Wisconsin December 23, 2008 the General Motors Plant closed right after the last Chevy Tahoe rolled off the assembly line. The closing left everyone in fear in a town of 63,000 about three fourths of the way between Chicago and Madison. In Janesville, the book, author Amy Goldstein writes a narrative account of the personal losses resulting from a strictly economic decision made by absentee managers.

The book begins earlier in June 2008 when the announcement comes for the plant to be closed. Narrative continues with year by year events through 2013 followed by a brief epilogue. Material includes personal interviews of people and families affected by the shut down. Goldstein lists these people at the beginning as a “Cast of Characters” that she followed and interviewed over five years. The cast of characters has 14 family members from three families and eleven other people.

Goldstein divides the material into fifty-five generally short chapters with six yearly breaks – 2008, 2009, and so on - to help readers keep track of time. All three families relied on jobs in manufacturing from GM and from Lear Corporation, an auto parts supplier making car seats for GM. The Lear plant would close shortly, April of 2009. One family, the Vaughns, had both spouses lose jobs at Lear. The other families, the Whiteakers and the Wopats, had one spouse lose a job at GM, which provided their primary support.

Two of the eleven other people in the story, Kristi Beyer and Sue Olmstead, lost manufacturing jobs from plant closures; Beyer worked at Lear, Olmstead lost a job at another Janesville auto parts supplier. The remaining nine people Goldstein followed include their Congressman Paul Ryan, a state senator, three educators, two business women, the director of Rock County job center and a journalist now doing a radio show.

The unemployed Vaughns go back to school at Blackhawk Technical College. Mike studies HR and Barb studies law enforcement. They find jobs in their new fields at lower pay.

The unemployed Jerald Whiteaker takes a $4,000 buyout rather than continue in layoff since he knows he does not want to leave Janesville. He takes a succession of low paid jobs that prevent him from supporting his family. His two daughters get jobs and his wife works part time. They get by, barely.

The unemployed Matt Wopat takes unemployment and SUB benefits for a while before deciding to return to school in a Blackhawk degree program. He does not plan to leave Janesville but retains his UAW negotiated option to work at his Janesville wage of $28 an hour at another GM plant. After a short stint in school he does not see much return from his Blackhawk efforts and so decides to leave for a job at GM’s Fort Wayne, Indiana plant. He commutes back to Janesville on weekends.

The unemployed Kristi Beyer attends classes in law enforcement at Blackhawk with Barb Vaughn. After two years they finish and both take jobs at the county jail at much lower wages of $16.47 an hour.

The stories of coping by the laid off move along interspersed with stories of Janesville and Wisconsin politics and efforts by others to provide charitable services or otherwise cope with the dulling effect of a regional recession and 13.4 percent local unemployment.

Goldstein describes efforts to cope with details of charity efforts, describing a new food bank called ECHO (Everyone Cooperating to Help Others) and an enterprising high school teacher who stockpiles food in a closet to donate to needy students not too embarrassed to ask for it. A charity health clinic operated before the GM shutdown, but now overwhelmed, it has to turn away patients.

A social worker at the Janesville Schools, Ann Forbeck, works as a homeless student liaison with a mission to help homeless students in a system with four hundred homeless kids. Homeless shelters, it turns out, do not admit teenagers and no one over 15 is eligible for foster care. Goldstein follows Forbeck through her extensive fund raising efforts to provide for teenagers, her many refusals, and an incident of a brother and sister dumped out of car abandoned by a mother who shouts “I can’t keep these kids” before driving off. Finally after several years delay we learn she co-founds a group that provides temporary shelter for homeless teens.

The Rock County supervisors devised an incentive package to keep GM in Janesville with $152 million of state and local incentives, additional UAW give backs of $213 million and some private incentives. Goldstein reported it as the largest incentive subsidy offered in Wisconsin history; it was barely half of Michigan giveaways.

A local banker, Mary Willmer, and a wealthy local women, Diane Hendricks, also promote luring business investment with tax breaks. They approached the Janesville City Council to help bring a start up tech company with a $25 million government grant and 125 jobs. There is opposition but only 1 vote against $9 million of incentives from the declining coffers of Janesville. There would be many delays.

These were the years of Governor Scott Walker’s cuts in school budgets and attacks on unions. Goldstein reviews the protest that included some from Janesville that join the throngs on the Wisconsin capital steps. A later chapter covers the Walker recall vote. Janesville Local 95 of UAW works for the governors recall, but mostly with help by those older and retired since only 438 remain as UAW members out of more than 7,000 from a decade before. Mary Willmer and Diane Hendricks support Walker with $510,000 in contributions in the winning campaign, but Janesville votes for recall, although only 53 to 46 percent.

Goldstein gives periodic reports on Paul Ryan, but these reports only add depressing details to a disheartening story; Ryan has no help for Janesville. He offers his personal “American Idea” for an approach to poverty: people who need help should not look to government like the case of FDR’s New Deal or LBJ’s Great Society. Instead they should turn to the generosity of their own community, which he thinks the dedicated people of Janesville are doing so well. He sounded like Herbert Hoover in the great depression, but there are few signs of anger from the victims in her stories. She also reports on repeated efforts of the director of the Rock Country Job Center, Bob Borremans, to get Congressman Ryan to visit the Center, but he never came.

The book reads easily in a direct journalistic style and readers can follow along and wonder what they might do in the same situation. For the most part, Goldstein does not offer judgments and refrains from moralizing opinions or conclusions. Readers will have to do that. There are detailed source notes and a bibliography that lists 15 related books that take a look at other disruptions brought by corporate America’s unilateral decisions. Two of them, George Packer’s book, The Unwinding, and Steven Greenhouse’s book, The Big Squeeze, are reviewed on this site.

I wish though she had asked more questions. Could the Wopats admit the $28 dollar wage and the option to move to Fort Wayne be appreciated as part of an UAW negotiated contract? It would have been worse without the UAW. What happened to house and real estate values? When a primary employer picks up and leaves house prices take a tumble. Did Matt Wopat commute to Fort Wayne because he could not afford to move, or was it just a choice? Would they continue to vote for Paul Ryan, and why?

No one in the book questioned what continues in the United States as the absolute right of corporations to move and destroy local job and housing markets, or to demand tax subsidies and special favors to stay, or to come, to a place like Janesville. If companies move and the CEO, its management, board of directors, and stockholders make profitable gains, while wage earners confront even bigger losses, no one compares gains and losses. Everyone accepts the glorious workings of the free market, even the victims; just ask Paul Ryan.

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