Today, Sara Bhatia returns to Bacon with an in-depth report on Janesville: An American Story. Trying to understand what’s going on in our country right now? This book helps.

From Sara:  

Janesville is a proud union town, with a long history of Democratic politics.  On political maps, it’s a blue dot surrounded by a sea of red. A rust belt city whose jobs have dried up, it is precisely the kind of community attracted to the populist messages – from both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump – of the 2016 election.

I picked up Janesville: An American Story, by veteran Washington Post reporter Amy Goldstein, in an effort to understand the broader socio-economic trends of the 2016 presidential election. This is not a book about politics – indeed its narrative ends in 2013. And yet it has many lessons for anyone interested in the social dislocation of the middle class in the American rust belt, the rise of populism, and the election of Donald Trump.

Janesville, Wisconsin was once the model of a quintessential company town, which flourished for nearly a century alongside the expanding fortunes of its largest employer, General Motors.

Janesville was the home of GM’s oldest operating automotive plant, founded in 1923 to manufacture Chevrolets. In 2008, the Janesville plant became a victim of the Great Recession, and rolled out its final SUV before closing its doors permanently two days before Christmas, a victim of General Motors’ declining sales, the troubled economy, and spiking gas prices. Today, the county seat of 64,000 is a city of blue-collar workers fallen on hard economic times.

Janesville also happens to be the hometown of House Speaker and 2012 Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan. I am fascinated by the implicit contrast between the blue collar, middle class, union population of Janesville and its favorite son, the epitome of a conservative Republican establishment elite. This tension between blue collar workers and the intellectual elite forms a fascinating subtext for the book.

But Goldstein’s real focus is on the people of Janesville, and the devastating impact of the plant closing on the community. Janesville is an oral history in the tradition Studs Terkel’s classic Working. Goldstein allows her story to develop slowly, dipping in and out of the lives of her subjects over six years, beginning in 2008. Janesville is a sad tale of the wreckage left in the wake of the decline of the American manufacturing sector.

For decades, GM formed the economic and social core of Janesville. At its peak, General Motors employed 7,100 workers in the Janesville plant. The city’s rhythms followed the factory’s lead – the radio stations programmed news bulletins timed to coincide with factory shift changes, grocery prices rose with factory raises, and the company spearheaded generous philanthropic campaigns for the county, organizing massive annual gift drives for the less fortunate and serving as a symbol of civic pride as a sponsor of an elaborate 4th of July parade.

Generations of families found good work at the GM plant. Jobs on the factory floor paid a generous $28 an hour, plus overtime. Workers received health care and other benefits. After thirty years, GM employees retired with pensions. In a community like Janesville, no one was more than a degree or two of separation from the GM plant. The success of General Motors spawned auxiliary industries in town, providing “just-in-time” production of car seats and other auto accessories, used in the vehicles built in the GM plant. When the Janesville GM plant closed, those factories did too. And of course the success at GM trickled down to nearly everyone in the community – shop owners, day care businesses, carpet layers, and construction workers all relied on customers with a good GE paycheck to pay for their services. When the GM jobs left, those businesses suffered as well.

After a series of phased layoffs, GM closed its doors in December, 2008.

By February, 2009, Rock County’s unemployment rate was at 13.4%.

Photo by Anthony Wahl

Janesville works best on the granular level – Goldstein introduces her readers to individuals and families affected by the GM plant closing. Their stories are intimate and personal, and Goldstein’s telling is almost voyeuristic. And yet I wish Goldstein had relied more heavily on the voices of her subjects – the book has more of a re-enacted or a made for TV movie quality than a true oral history, and I was left longing for the purity of the subjects’ unedited accounts.

Nevertheless, Goldstein engages with nearly twenty subjects, most from the blue collar middle class, and her empathy shines through. Readers meet Janesville residents including:

  •      Matt Wopat, a second-generation GMer, who drops out of his job retraining program and reluctantly accepts a transfer to GM’s Fort Wayne plant, becoming one of more than 100 “GM gypsies,” commuting home on weekends;
  •      Twins Alyssa and Kayzia, whose father is laid off from the plant; within a year, the teens are helping support their family by using their own meager part-time paychecks from the mall movie theater to pay for the family groceries as their father churns from one low-paying job to the next;
  •      Kristi Beyer, laid off from her job at nearby Lear Corp., where for 13 years she had manufactured car seats, who enrolled in a local technical college to earn a degree which would eventually land her a job as a prison guard, making half what she had earned on the production line;
  •      Mike Vaughn, the son and grandson of proud labor leaders at the GM plant who can scarcely bear to tell his father he is abandoning the union to learn HR skills with the hopes of becoming management;
  •      Mary Willmer, a local bank president, who spearheads “Rock County 5.0,” an ambitious and optimistic effort to raise funds from the business community to spur economic development; and
  •      Deri Wahlert, a high school teacher, who sets up a closet at the school to discreetly distribute pantry goods, clothing, school supplies, and toiletries to students whose parents are unemployed. Within 5 years, she is assisting 200 students.

There’s a heartbreaking chapter depicting the earnest effort of union leaders, local politicians, and the business community to put together an economic incentive package to persuade GM to keep the factory open. After much sacrifice and debate, Rock County offers GM a staggering $195 million in tax credits and grants, not to mention $213 million in labor concessions from the union. Janesville loses its bid to Orion Township, Michigan, and discovers that what had seemed a very generous package from Janesville was dwarfed by an astonishing $1 billion offer in public money from Michigan. The reader later learns that the Orion union has agreed to a deal in which starting wages would be slashed in half. Some parts would be shipped from South Korea, and others from Mexico. In Goldstein’s words, “This was the price of victory.”

Spoiler alert- Janesville is not a story with happy endings. None of the profiled Janesville workers finds a new, high paying manufacturing job in town. A few successfully train for other careers and find personal satisfaction off the factory floor, but with significant economic sacrifice. Matt Wopat, the “GM gypsy,” continues his commute to Indiana for years, unwilling to give up the reliable General Motors wages. Rock County fails to retain GM, attract new meaningful industry, or spark downtown revitalization. Unemployment stabilizes below 5%, but many of the unemployed are now underemployed, at poorly paying service and retail jobs.

The most disheartening aspect of the book is the sense of inevitability, as readers watch hard working families losing their grip on the middle class. There is a pervasive sense of a social contract being shredded, as families that for generations had relied on good manufacturing jobs feel betrayed and abandoned, and scramble for the best among various bad alternatives. It is clear that the GM factory plays not just an economic role in Janesville, but a cultural one – generations of families are employed there, and a career spent on the line is a source of pride for retirees.

Janesville overflows with themes and big ideas: the limitations (but also remarkable persistence) of civic pride and cheerful Midwestern can-do spirit, the risks of a paternalistic corporate economy, the challenges of overdependence on a single industry, the interdependence of business and social welfare programs in a small town, the modern incompatibility of corporate profits and good union wages. In Goldstein’s telling, the federal government, with its well-intentioned bailout of the auto industry, seems impossibly distant, unsympathetic, and ineffective. Even well-intentioned state and local initiatives to jumpstart the economy or offer job retraining feel feeble and insufficient.

Hometown favorite son and House Speaker Paul Ryan comes across as increasingly distant and ineffectual. In the opening chapters, as a young Congressman, Ryan is depicted in a sympathetic light, working hard behind the scenes to persuade General Motors to keep the Janesville plant open. Yet as the book progresses and Ryan’s national career takes off, his engagement in hometown issues seems ever more remote. Yet even so, Ryan easily won re-election last year by a margin of 2:1, and even earned 57% of the vote in Democratic Rock County. But the ground may be shifting. Two weeks ago, a Democratic challenger emerged, announcing he will take on Ryan in 2018. He is a union steelworker. And this week Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn announced plans to open a plant in southeastern Wisconsin – perhaps not coincidentally in House Leader Ryan’s congressional district – which will provide at least 3,000 new manufacturing jobs, offering much needed hope and financial security to the community.

Ultimately, this was not quite the book I had hoped for. Janesville did succeed in painting an affecting, human portrait of the impact of a manufacturing plant closing. Goldstein’s subjects feel real and sympathetic. Her community profile puts meat on the bones for my understanding of the people of rust belt towns.

But the book could have been so much more. A better overlay of national events, trends, and context would have elevated the story. Most importantly, if I were the publisher, I would have held the book – which was released in April, 2017 – to allow Goldstein to write a robust final section regarding Janesville’s residents and the 2016 election. There’s a brief epilogue, which notes, surprisingly, that even though Wisconsin flipped for Trump in the presidential election, Rock County, a historical bastion of Democratic labor votes, voted for Hillary Clinton by a margin of 10%. Why? Everything in this book suggested to me that these embattled blue collar workers who had lost hold of good paying jobs and were questioning access to the American dream were precisely the voters who would have cast their votes for Donald Trump. We are left seeking a nuanced explanation. Perhaps Goldstein felt her book stood alone as a sociological profile at a moment of economic strain. But in the post-2016 context, Goldstein’s failure to connect Janesville’s subjects’ personal experiences with their political voice ultimately made the book a disappointment.

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Sara and her handsome boys

For Sara’s most recent prior post at Bacon, on “The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter,” click here.

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Top photo credit:  (“Two days before Christmas of 2008, a resident of Janesville waves a flag outside of the General Motors assembly plant in solidarity with the laid-off workers leaving the plant on its final day in operation.”)

“Last vehicle” banner photo:

Photo of closed plant by Anthony Wahl:

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