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

This is the fourth in a series of posts considering Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story. In this post, I’ll cover five chapters from Part Two (2009) of Janesville (Rock County 5.0, The Fourth Last Day, Bidding War, Sonic Speed, and What Does a Union Man Do?).

Goldstein describes the formation of Rock County 5.0 in this section of the book, and it’s generally as favorable as a pro-business conservative could hope or a progressive could scornfully dismiss. But there are parts of the discussion to please no one. Banker Mary Willmer hits upon Rock County 5.0 rather than a Janesville-based effort and it’s a revelation to others in the county:

Then, in a moment of unanticipated clarity, Mary glimpses the answer. The only way this campaign could succeed, she tells John [Beckord of Forward Janesville], “is if we get our arms around this whole county. Not Janesville, not Beloit, but the whole county and really make a bold statement.”

Goldstein’s overly subtle here, but it’s clear: Willmer’s clarity is unanticipated, perhaps for her and for anyone else in the area. The banker hits upon a county-based effort that might not have been so unanticipated elsewhere.

Later readers get a fuller explanation of the organization’s name:

By the time she speaks, the barely born, public-private, Janesville-and-Beloit-together campaign that she and Diane are leading has a name: Rock County 5.0. Five key strategies. A five-year plan to heal the economy. She sketches all this out, placing more emphasis on how critical it is than on how difficult it will be.

We’re well past five years now, and from the our time this plan doesn’t seem so revolutionary, but rather more like far too many other five-year plans, albeit with less state coercion…

Mention of Mike Vaughn, a worker at a GM-dependent Lear plant, says something about the relationship between industrial work and college studies:

At forty-one, Mike is a plainspoken man with close-cropped dark hair and an earnest manner. He had applied to General Motors right out of high school but never got the call, so he went to U-Rock for a year. Feeling unfocused, he left for a cook’s job in the Mercy Hospital kitchen. General Motors still wasn’t hiring, so eventually he followed his brother, DJ, into Lear.

It’s not the first time in the book Goldstein’s observed that UW-Rock County is a place where prospective workers who could not immediately find jobs at GM or Lear attended until something came up at one of those plants. It’s a sign that there’s not a clear divide between the two choices, at least not in the Janesville area. For some students there, the plants were the primary choice; college was a secondary one.

In 2009, in closed session (“[t]his is not a fact that the public will know right away”), Rock County offers millions – twenty million – in a bidding war with other cities (Hill, Tennessee, and Orion Township, Michigan) that have plants for which they’re fighting. GM’s condition, however, is terrible:

It is the first time the [county] supervisors have met in the ten days since General Motors disclosed that Janesville is one of three U.S. assembly plants still in the running to manufacture a next-generation subcompact car, which the company is hoping will help reverse its fortunes. GM’s fortunes have just crashed to a once unimaginable low. At 8 a.m. the day before it disclosed that Janesville is a finalist, and despite $19.4 billion in loans that the U.S. Treasury has ended up pumping into the company, General Motors filed for bankruptcy in a Manhattan court.

GM’s past strength, and 2009 weakness, no doubt makes it worse for bidders: they recall what they once had, and GM will take as much as it can get, without the slightest compunction.

Goldstein recounts that the public package to keep GM is vastly more that one county’s contribution:

When U.S. automakers decide where to manufacture new products, they have come to expect that the states and communities they are considering will present enormous dowries in the form of tax breaks and other financial gifts. So, a few days after the Rock County supervisors quadrupled their offering to General Motors, Wisconsin sends off to the company its final economic incentive package to try to land the new small car for Janesville’s assembly plant. The package adds up to $195 million: $115 million in state tax credits and energy-efficiency grants, the $20 million that Marv Wopat pushed through the county board, $15 million from the strapped Janesville city government, and $2 million from Beloit, plus private industry incentives….

There are also huge labor concessions (“[a]nd that isn’t counting concessions worth $213 million that UAW Local 95 is willing to sacrifice in exchange for retrieving jobs”) adding up to the “The biggest incentive package in Wisconsin history.”

On 6.26.2009, GM chooses to build compacts in Orion, Michigan. Astonishingly, Michigan offered (in total) five times as much as Wisconsin. (Auto workers there, for all the incentives, don’t do as well as they’d hoped: “40 percent of the workers were paid $14 an hour. Many parts were shipped from South Korea. The engines came from Mexico. And in another innovation, some parts suppliers began working right inside the Orion plant. Their average wage: $10 an hour”).

Hard to say which party was the biggest winner in the bidding war, but GM would be among anyone’s top picks.

Previously: Parts 1, 2, and 3.

Tomorrow: Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 5 of 14).

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