Those old glory days will NEVER come our way again, truly the sad end of
an era. No one had, or wanted to have, the vision to look dowd the road.
End of the Line
GM guaranteed the people of Janesville, Wisconsin, a good wage for a
hard job. Those were the days.
By Charlie LeDuff and Danny Wilcox Frazier | September/October 2009 Issue
DRIVING THROUGH JANESVILLE, WISCONSIN , IN A DOWNPOUR, looking past
the wipers and through windows fogged up with cigarette smoke, Main
Street  appears to be melting away. The rain falls hard and makes a
lonesome going-away sound like a river sucking downstream. And the old
hotel, without a single light, tells you that the best days around here
are gone. I always smoke when I go to funerals. I work in Detroit .
And when I look out the windshield or into people's eyes here, I see a
little Detroit in the making.
A sleepy place of 60,483 souls—if the welcome sign on the east side of
town is still to be believed—Janesville lies off Interstate 90 between
the electric lights of Chicago  and the sedate streets of Madison. It
is one of those Middle-Western places that outsiders pay no mind. It is
where the farm  meets the factory, where the soil collides with the
smokestack. Except the last GM  truck rolled off the line December
23, 2008. Merry Christmas Janesville. Happy New Year.
The Janesville Assembly Plant was everything here, they say. It was a
birthright. It was a job for life and it was that way for four
generations. This was one of General Motors' oldest factories—opened in
1919. This was one of its biggest—almost 5 million square feet. Nobody
in town dared drive anything but a Chevy  or a GMC. Back then GM was
the largest industrial corporation in the world, the largest carmaker,
the very symbol of American power. Ike's man at the Pentagon—a former GM
exec himself—famously said, "What was good for our country was good for
General Motors, and vice versa." Kennedy, Johnson, Obama, they all
campaigned here. People here can tell you of their grandparents who came
from places like Norway and Poland and Alabama to build tractors and
even ammunition during the Big War. Then came the Impalas and the
Camaros. In the end they were cranking out big machines like the
Suburban and the Tahoe, those high-strung, gas-guzzling hounds of the
American Good Times.
Today, some $50 billion in bailouts  later, GM is on life support
and there is a sinking feeling that the country is going down with it.
Those grandchildren are considering moving to Texas or Tennessee or
Vegas. Who is to blame? Detroit? Wall Street ? Management? Labor?
NAFTA ? Does it matter? Come to Janesville and see what we've
For years, the people here heard rumors that the plant was on its way
out. But no one ever believed it, really. Something always came along to
save it. Gas prices went down or cheap Chinese money floated in.
Janesville was too big to ignore. Too big to close.
And then they closed it.
The local UAW  union hall is quiet now. A photograph from a 1925
company picnic hangs there. The whole town is assembled near the
factory, the women in petticoats, the children in patent leather, the
men in woolen bowlers. The caption reads, "Were you there Charlie?"
Todd Brien's name still hangs in the wall cabinet—Recording Secretary,
it reads. But that is just a leftover like a coin in a cushion. Brien,
41, moved to Arlington, Texas, to take a temp job in a GM plant down
there in April. He left his family up here. He is one of the lucky ones.
Most of the other 2,700 still employed after rounds of downsizing had no
factory to go to. But now, what with the bankruptcy of GM, he's
temporarily laid off from Texas, and back in Janesville to gather his
family and head south.
"It was always in the back of my mind around here...They can take it
away," Brien says. "Well, they did. Now what? Can't sell my house. Main
Street's boarding up. The kids around here are getting into drugs. You
wonder when's the last train leaving this station? I just never believed
it was going to happen." Today, freight trains leaving from Janesville's
loading docks take auctioned bits and pieces of the plant to faraway
places: welding robots, milling machines, chop saws, drill presses, pipe
threaders, drafting tables, salt and pepper shakers.
Janesville is still a nice place. They still cut the grass along the
riverbank. The churches are still full on Sunday. The farmers still get
up before dawn. But there are the little telltale signs, the details,
the darkening clouds.
The strip club across the street from the plant is now an Alcoholics
Anonymous joint. There are too many people in the welfare line who never
would have imagined themselves there. Dim prospects and empty buildings.
A motel where the neon "Vacancy" sign never seems to say "No Vacancy."
The owner is Pragnesh Patel. He is 36, looks a dozen years older. He
left a good job near Ahmedabad, India, as a supervisor in a television
factory, he says. He came to try his luck in America. He got a job in a
little factory in Janesville that makes electronic components for GM. He
also bought the motel just up the hill from the assembly plant. Now with
the plant closed, he's down to three shifts a week at the components
factory and having to make $2,500 monthly payments on his motel on
Highway 51. He charges 45 bucks a night and today it's mostly the
crackheads and the down-at-their-heels who come in for a crash landing.
Welcome to America, except Patel has to raise his children amid this
decay. "I'm trying, really trying to survive," he says. "I don't know
anymore. I mean, I'm an American. I cast my lot here. But I have to tell
you, on many days, I regret that I ever came."
There is a bar on the factory grounds that has become a funeral parlor.
Yes, a bar on the factory grounds, not 500 feet from the time clock!
Genius! It has been here since at least the Depression if the yellowed
receipt from 1937 is to be believed. Five cases of beer for 8 dollars
and 30 cents.
And in some way, that bar on the factory grounds might explain what
happened here. "We used to have a drive-through window," says one of the
former UAW workers gathered at Zoxx 411 Club and drinking a long, cool
glass of liquor at three in the afternoon. He is about 50, about the age
when a man begins to understand his own obsolescence. "Used to put two
or three down and go back to work. Now those were the days, yes-siree."
You feel sorry for that autoworker until you hear he draws nearly
three-quarters of his old salary for the first year of his layoff and
half his salary for the second year of his layoff —plus benefits.
"It don't make sense to work," says the autoworker, buying one for the
If he finds a job, he says, they'll take his big check away.
"There ain't no job around here for $21 an hour," the autoworker says.
"I might as well drink."
A taxpayer-funded wake. Good for him. Except you get the feeling that
it's not good for a man to drink all day. Two years comes faster than a
A little Detroit in the making, except Detroit has General Motors and
Ford and Chrysler. Detroit is an industry town. Janesville had only
General Motors. Janesville was a company town. You didn't have to go to
college—but you might be able to send your kid there—because there was
always GM. GM—Gimme Mine. GM—Grandma Moo, the golden cow. Now GM has
Gone Missing. GM has Gone to Mexico .
"We took it for granted," says Nancy Nienhuis, 76, a retired factory
nurse who farms on the outskirts of town. She did everything at that
plant a nurse could do: tended to amputations, heart attacks, shotgun
wounds inflicted by a jilted lover, even performed an exorcism of
spiders from a crazy man's stomach. Whatever it took to keep those lines
"The rumor would start, they're talking about closing the plant. No one
would believe it. Then you saw the Toyota dealership open on the east
side of town and still they didn't believe it. The manager and the
worker sat next to each other in church, you see? They went to high
school together. Understand? The good worker got no recognition over the
bad worker. Nobody made waves about a guy drunk or out fishing on the
clock. In the end, the last few years, management rode them pretty good.
But by then it was a little too late."
Richard, a former welder at the plant, puts a pastry box in Nurse
Nancy's car. Richard begins to weep. He looks over his shoulder, wipes
his nose on his sleeve and says, "I don't want my wife to see this. I'm
62 and I'm delivering doughnuts. What am I going to do?'"
Desperation comes in subtler ways than a grown man crying. The winner of
the cakewalk at the local fair got not a cake—but a single, solitary
cupcake. Parents don't come to the PTA as much anymore. A lot of kids
will have left by the beginning of the school year, the superintendent
says. Unemployment here is near 15 percent. The police blotter is a mix
of Mayberry and Big City: Truancy, Truancy, Shots Fired at 2 p.m., Dog
Barking, Burglary at 5 p.m., Burglary at 6 p.m.
At 7 p.m. they fry fish at the VFW hall. Beers 2 bucks. Two-piece plate
of cod $6.95. Charlie Larson runs the place. You can see the factory
from Charlie's parking lot, the Rock River running lazily beside it.
Charlie tried the factory in 1966. His father got him in, but he was
drafted into the jungles of Nam in 1967. "It's a discouraging thing,"
Charlie, 61, says of the plant closing down, smoothing a plastic
tablecloth. "It was the lifeblood of this town. It was the identity of
this town. Now we have nothing, nothing but worry. Aw, there's going to
be hell to pay when those unemployment checks stop coming."
Blame the factory worker if you must. Blame the union man who asked too
much and waited too long to give some back. Blame the guy for drinking
at lunch or cutting out early. But factory work is a 9-to-5 sort of
dying. The monotony, the accidents. "You're a machine," says Marv Wopat.
He put bumpers on trucks. A six-foot man stooping in a four-foot hole,
lining up a four-foot bumper. Three bolts, three washers, three nuts.
One every minute over an eight-hour shift. Wopat, 62, has bad shoulders,
bad knees, bad memories. "You got nightmares," he says. "You missed a
vehicle or you couldn't get the bolt on. You just went home thinking
nothing except the work tomorrow and your whole life spent down in that
hole. And you thinking how you're going to get out. Well, now it's gone
and alls we're thinking about is wanting to have it back."
And maybe they will have it back. The recession is loosening its grip,
some say. Some towns will rebound. Some plants will retrofit. Wind ,
solar, electric—that's the future, Washington says. But you get a
pain-in-the-throat feeling that it is not the future. Not really. At
least not as good a future as the past. There's no 28 bucks an hour for
life in that future. No two-car garage. No bennies. No boat on Lake
Michigan. Because in the new world they can build that windmill, or a
solar panel , or an electric battery in India, where the minimum pay
is less than $3 a day. Just ask Patel, the motel owner living at the
edge of a dead factory in Janesville, Wisconsin. "You cannot compete
with poverty unless you are poor."
Source URL: http://motherjones.com/politics/2009/09/end-factory-line
Service Guarantees Citizenship