Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 6 of 14)

This is the sixth in a series of posts considering Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story. In this post, I’ll cover five chapters from Part Three (2010) of Janesville (The Last Days of Parker Pen, Becoming a Gypsy, Family is More Important than GM, Honor Cords, and The Day the White House Comes to Town).

What was left of Parker Pen, by that time a logo-imprinting operation run by Sanford, closed in in 2010. Goldstein recalls however, that decades earlier Parker Pen once made pens in Janesville, and played a key role in the city’s industrial life:

….members of the Parker Pen personnel department chose graduating seniors to hire by coming right into Janesville’s only high school at the time. The Parker personnel people brought along a test of dexterity and speed that it offered to any senior who wanted to try it. Most of the students who took the test were girls, because the understanding in town back then was that young men lucky enough to be offered a General Motors job would go to the assembly plant. And young women lucky enough to be chosen by Parker Pen would go to work at Arrow Park, a clean, friendly factory in which the making and assembling of pen parts required fine motor skills.

If Parker had once meant something to Janesville, then one can be sure that she once many something even to the most prominent in America:

“In May of 1945, the treaty of German surrender that ended World War II in Europe was signed with a pair of Parker 51 fountain pens belonging to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, who held up the two pens for the cameras in a V for victory.”

When GM closes in Janesville, with little prospect of comparable wages nearby, some Janesville workers take GM jobs in faraway cities:

By this winter, hundreds of Janesville GM’ers have morphed into GM’ers working far from Janesville. Their UAW contract gave them these transfer rights. Nearly two hundred are working at a General Motors plant in Kansas City—so many that people in town now joke that Kansas City has become Janesville West. Almost 140 are at a plant in Arlington, Texas—Janesville South—which is still turning out the Tahoe SUVs that Janesville had made. So far, fifty-five have transferred to Janesville East—Fort Wayne, Indiana—to assemble Chevy Silverado trucks, which are so popular that the plant is adding a third shift and is sending job offers to sixty-seven more Janesville GM’ers….

They stick with GM jobs farther away because the re-training classes they’re taking can’t get them jobs in the Janesville area:

one day, Matt and a bunch of the GM’ers learning to climb utility poles with him decide that it is time to stay after class and ask their instructor, Mike, a tough, pointed question: If they stay in school to graduate, will linemen’s jobs be waiting for them or not?

….[the re-training instructor] starts by laying out the benefits of electric power distribution. But the more he talks, the more he feels he needs to be a straight shooter with these guys who already have lost so much. The truth is, he has to admit, not many of his Blackhawk graduates got jobs last year. The outlook still isn’t great. Jobs exist in the utility field but not many of them in southern Wisconsin. He tells them they might end up in the Dakotas or Texas or somewhere in the Southwest.

Blackhawk Tech hires a motivational speaker for a graduating class in 2010, a woman who went from making jelly in a factory to making millions selling cosmetics, before using her singular experience to inspire others:

She gives a lot of motivational speeches. When she takes center stage at the Dream Center, in an elegant cream-colored suit with ruffled lapels, she aims her words straight at this morning’s unlikeliest graduates, including Barb and Kristi, who had never expected that a recession would steal their factory jobs. “There were many reactions, I’m sure, to the dire circumstances facing the economy of this community,” she tells the graduates. “Many people complained, many people cried, many people gave up. Some waited for things to go back to the way they were. . . . But there were a vital few that decided to create a new future for themselves and this area. They decided to use the economic obstacles as an economic opportunity. Those people were all of you.”

Goldstein reminds us, though, that all of you were once many more:

Blunt though she is, there is a piece of the story that the American-Dream-in-a-suit commencement speaker leaves unspoken. Many of the former factory workers who turned to Blackhawk veered off course before today. Of the laid-off workers who arrived at the college in the fall of 2008 with Barb and Kristi, nearly half left without finishing what they’d begun. Of the three hundred or so who, like Barb and Kristi, aimed for an associate’s degree—the highest degree that Blackhawk offers—just over one third will stick around to finish within a few years. And of the thirty-one laid-off workers who began to study criminal justice with Barb and Kristi? Just half are collecting diplomas today or will graduate next year. Such bumpy outcomes are not unusual at two-year colleges in general….

In fact, at Blackhawk, more of this first wave of laid-off workers finished their studies than did their classmates who hadn’t lost a job. Still, the point unspoken in the Dream Center [an auditorium] today is that, even when people desperate for a job try to retrain, as the Job Center has been encouraging, they don’t always succeed.

We hear again, in Chapter 23 (The Day the White House Comes to Town), about a visit from a federal official to Janesville’s Bob Borremans, who runs the Job Center in town, with other locals in attendance. Goldstein describes the aftermath of the meeting, from Bob’s vantage:

And Bob? After working so hard to arrange the visit, he soon feels exasperated. Montgomery [the federal official] had a goal of ensuring that each stop on his listening tour got some help from the government. For Janesville, though, it turns out that the supposed red tape cutters have no scissors. As Montgomery is leaving the government, a young man who works in the Labor Department is instructed to add Rock County to the communities for which he is to serve as a liaison. Bob presents this young man with the eleven grant ideas to which Montgomery listened at the UAW union hall. Bob asks for advice on which federal agency would be the best place to pursue each idea, expecting that the liaison can be an advocate and a conduit, shepherding these ideas to the right places to help open fresh spigots of federal money. Except no advice arrives. No money flows.

Whatever happened, by the way, to that federal official, Edward Montgomery, who left his post in 2010 with an unfulfilled goal of each auto-making community getting help?

He’s still at the job that enticed him away, serving as dean and professor of the McCourt School of Public Policy, Georgetown University.

Previously: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.

Tomorrow: Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 7 of 14).

4 thoughts on “Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 6 of 14)

  1. I worked in Janesville in the late ’60s, just across the tracks from Chevy. I still drive thru the town on occasion, as I grew up 20 miles away.

    I recall driving thru after the plant closed. Harleys, fancy boats, and campers were for sale on many front lawns. You could get a great deal on a lake house. It was not a happy town.

    That is clearly understandable, considering that GM dominated the town. Janesville was not a complete company town, but a huge amount of the workforce either cashed GM checks or were employed by by what amounted to captive subsidiaries of GM. The place that I worked for made factory automation equipment, primarily for the automotive industry. Lots of stuff from that place was simply fork-lifted across the tracks to GM. Leer made seats, pretty much exclusively for GM. Fisher Body was there, too, although an official GM subsidiary.

    There were a lot of small machine shops, plating shops, tool and die maker operations, and even saloons (I had more than a passing relationship with Cronin’s Bar, on Delavan Dr., just down the street from GM) that lived on the crumbs from GM.

    That all got trashed when Chevy closed. There is another similar story to the one under review here to be told about Rockford. Rockford once seemed to have a one-man machine shop on almost every corner. There were dozens of them. No mas…

    What really killed GM, from the workers standpoint, was the fact that GM finally figured out how to make reliable, long-lived, cars with robots. Cars that last twice as long, as modern autos do, only need to be replaced half as often. How much of Janesville’s pain can be chalked up to the development of effective rust-inhibitors for the auto industry?

    Also, there are not a lot of workers anymore in the highly automated auto factories. Robots don’t have unions, sick kids, or migraine headaches, and so are much more determinate than meat-based workers. The High School classmates of my youth that dropped out to get a high-paying factory job at Chevy screwing on lug-nuts found themselves both out of a job and having no transferable skills. It was a brutal wake-up call. The chimera of “Job-Retraining” was held out to them, but in most cases simply did not work, for a host of personal and financial reasons. Training a person who has spent decades doing assembly work, which takes one skill-set, to fix robots, which takes a completely different set of skills, is a daunting, and mostly hopeless, task.

    1. Thanks very much for your comments (so very much appreciated). Your insights on automation are spot on both in this case (GM) and with other manufacturers, including Carrier, so recently in the news. Jobs simply won’t come back (as Trump promises) in automated industries.

      Car quality plays a big role, too, as you note. My late father (who was relatively older when he had me) always carried a sense of how fragile cars were, no matter what make and model he bought. For him, it was simply obvious that cars didn’t last long, no matter how well maintained (with the rare exception, I suppose, of collectors’ antiques). I grew up inheriting his sense of things, but it’s simply not true now: one can reasonably expect about twice the life of a car from that of a generation ago. One has to catch oneself, with surprise at how durable cars (and key parts of them) now are.

      But my sense of things is nothing, to be sure, compared to the actual effect of the changes you mention on the lives of workers (many of whom may not have seen the full import of these changes at the time).

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