Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 3 of 14)

This is the third in a series of posts considering Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story. In this post, I’ll write about five chapters of Janesville (Change in August, To the Renaissance Center, Mom, What Are You Going to Do?, When One Door of Happiness Closes, Another Opens, and The Parker Closet).

In chapters 5 through 9, Goldstein gives readers slices of life in Janesville from the summer through fall of 2008 (between when the GM plant’s closure was first announced, but before the last Tahoe rolled off the line in December).

Alyssa and Kayzia Whiteacre are trying to explain why their father is home during the day in August:

All of a sudden, even though they can sleep in a little during these lazy August days, their dad is home for breakfast….whatever is happening, it must be touchy, and if he wanted them to know, he’d have told them. So they take turns asking their mom little questions. “We’re trying to figure this out” is the kind of answer she gives. Not much help. So it is from the news and from a couple of friends that they piece together that their dad must have had a bad enough anniversary date that he’s part of the GM shift that’s already been laid off. What they deduce is correct. He was hired on May 29, 1995, handed a referral by his father. Both their dad and mom grew up in the security of GM wages, in the same way that Alyssa and Kayzia and their brother, until this summer, have been doing.”

Meanwhile, a combination of Democrats and Republicans try to keep the plant open:

In this conference room, each team member presents, in a tidy mosaic, the case they have rehearsed for why GM should continue production in Janesville. Paul [Ryan] knows [GM executive Troy] Clarke well, speaks to him on a weekly basis. Paul’s mosaic piece is a reminder to Clarke that he has fought on Capitol Hill for General Motors’ concerns about its pension costs. Tim[ Cullen]’s pitch is the compelling fact that, at Janesville, the cost of producing each vehicle is lower than at a plant making the same SUVs in Arlington, Texas—a newer plant that no one is talking about closing. Finally, the governor sums up the case: Wisconsin stands committed to preserving its relationship with General Motors. And, to fortify the seriousness of that commitment, the state and Rock County and Janesville and the local business community are honing a large package of economic incentives to induce GM to stay. General Motors is, everyone in the room knows, planning an inexpensive subcompact car model as a corporate coping mechanism in this awful recession. Wisconsin will, the governor [Jim Doyle] says, make it worthwhile for the company to trust its oldest assembly plant to manufacture its newest little car.

Most telling in this part of the book (with a chapter on a local banker and another on a community clothes & supply closet), however, is Goldstein’s account of Bob Borremans, who runs the local job center. Goldstein explains Bob’s work, in the face of thousands of impending layoffs, as he creates a resource guide:

Having long prided himself on staring down problems, though, Bob is pleased with a move he already has made: creating a guide to all the resources in town that can help people who have been thrown out of work, or who will be soon. He felt a take-charge satisfaction as he and some of the Job Center’s staff started contacting the leaders of organizations across Rock County to ask permission to include them in the new guide. Organizations that dispense help with job training, consumer credit, housing, health care, literacy, food, bouts of depression, bouts of addiction, bouts of domestic violence—two hundred far-flung, help-offering organizations in all.

Goldstein describes how Bob adds his own special touch, too:

So on page A8 of the guide was a box with the heading, “What to Do After a Layoff.” The box had fourteen bullet points, the first of which contained a crucial antidote to lost-job paralysis. “Don’t Feel Ashamed,” the heading of this first bullet point said. “Being laid off is not your fault.”

And scattered through the guide were words from Americans renowned for the challenges they confronted….from Helen Keller: “When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.”

Bob may be well-meaning, but Goldstein applies her blade at the end of chapter 8:

Bob believes, catastrophe might prove to be unbidden opportunity to help people find the work paths that would have suited them all along. Sure, people will need to retrain for this new work, but that’s his specialty, and he can help them go back to school while waiting for jobs to emerge on the far side of this recession.

If only it were so easy…

Previously: Parts 1 and 2.

Tomorrow: Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 4 of 14).

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