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Former Janesville GM plant tour guide Bob Geisler looks back at the closure of the Janesville GM plant in this 2013 video.

Janesville's General Motors closed doors in 2008 as the world watched

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Marcia Nelesen
Monday, August 24, 2015

The image ran in newspapers around the world.

It was Dec. 23, 2008, and Janesville resident Billy Bob Grahn stood in front of the General Motors plant here, waving an American flag.

The plant's closing in the heart of the nation would come to symbolize, for some, the weakening of unions and the decline of a strong middle class.

President Barack Obama spoke at the plant in February 2008 before he was elected president. Rep. Paul Ryan frequently mentioned the hometown plant when he campaigned unsuccessfully for vice president in 2012. The accuracy of a statement he made about its closing became political and media fodder for weeks.

A documentary titled “As Goes Janesville” aired nationally in 2012, sometimes to protests that it was partisan.

The national attention on the symbiotic relation between Janesville and General Motors isn't over. The city and the plant are the focus of a book a Washington Post reporter is writing.

As an auto town, Janesville was well-known in many quarters simply because of the plant. Its workers made important contributions to GM over the years.

But city residents have had a long love-hate relationship with the plant.

GM came to Janesville in 1918 when it bought Janesville Machine Co. Employment peaked at 7,100 in 1978.

The good pay and union-protected jobs helped the city prosper. Plant workers were known for their generosity to the less fortunate in the community.

But some residents resented the jobs they perceived were available only if a relative or friend worked at GM. They claimed the high pay skewed rents for everyone, and that the city suffered from a blue-collar, all-you-can-eat mentality.

Some former GM workers have recently asked residents in correspondence to the local newspaper: “How do you like it now?”

Strikes and slowdowns occurred throughout the plant's history. Many had national relevance, including one in 1938 that rocked management and gave a secure foothold to the United Auto Workers union.

City officials worried the city's one-trick pony would be its downfall if the plant closed, and rumors constantly swirled about its demise.

In 1986, some 1,800 jobs were lost, and 1,200 workers accepted transfers to Fort Wayne, Indiana, splitting families who were forced to decide between job security or staying here and hoping for the best.

In 2004, the city cobbled together $15 million to build a limited-access road to the Interstate to support the plant's just-in-time manufacturing philosophy—all with no assurance from GM that it would stay in town.

In February 2008, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama made a presidential campaign stop in Janesville. He stood before employees and said, “I believe that if our government is there to support you and give you the assistance you need to retool and make this transition, that this plant will be here for another 100 years.”

The plant closed later that year, two days before Christmas and before Obama was inaugurated. Over the next five years, the city would lose 2,300 good-paying jobs with benefits, many of which had been filled by workers with high school diplomas.

Its closing heralded an uncertain future for Janesville.

National media descended, and writers sometimes portrayed the city in a negative light.

A writer from Mother Jones magazine used a rainstorm to paint a grim picture of a decaying Janesville.

“I am of the opinion that some of those negative articles—in particular the Mother Jones one—was not about us,” John Beckord of Forward Janesville said later. “It was about an agenda they had for their audience.

“The research and the information they collected was very selectively put together in such a way to really write a story that was written before they got here.”

Less than four years later, Ryan spoke at the Republican National Convention and accused Obama of failing to save the Janesville plant.

In fall 2012, “As Goes Janesville,” a documentary about GM's closing and its aftermath, aired nationally. Filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein addressed GM's departure but also delved into the roiling political debate over Republican Gov. Scott Walker's battle with unions. Walker was facing a recall election at the time, and thousands of people protested on Madison's Capitol Square.

Janesville has not rolled up its sidewalks.

But it struggles to attract businesses with similar good-paying jobs, and it is hampered by a state aid formula that ignores GM's closing and the subsequent loss of community wealth.

The city council, desperate to diversify the city's industrial base, in 2012 approved millions of dollars in incentives to entice a medical isotope plant here. The plant has yet to break ground.

Auto workers continue to travel from Janesville to GM plants in far-flung communities. One worker, Mike Hanley, was featured in a People magazine article in October 2010, titled “How Far Will a Man Go for a Job?” Hanley's answer involved making 1,026-mile round trips from Janesville to the GM plant in Kansas. Some traveled even farther away to Texas.

The GM/Janesville story will get the national spotlight at least one more time.

Amy Goldstein, a Washington Post reporter, is finishing a book with the working title “Janesville, An American Story.” It will be published by Simon & Schuster.

Goldstein spent months here, traveling back and forth from Washington, D.C., over nearly four years. She already wrote a piece examining the effectiveness of job training, using Blackhawk Technical College as her lens. She wrote another when Ryan joined the 2012 GOP presidential ticket, delving into the candidate's views and his hometown.

“My basic question is, when jobs go away, what happens then?” Goldstein said recently.

When she began the project in mid-2011, “Journalists who had been writing about the Great Recession were focused on the political debate—what government should do about the economy and the banking industry,” she said.

“I didn't see enough writing about what this big economic change was doing to ordinary people in this country. And it was a story I wanted to tell.”

She chose Janesville as her focus for many reasons.

Janesville had lost a lot of jobs, not only GM jobs but also those in industries that supported GM. The jobs that were lost—good-paying positions that didn't require a lot of education—mirrored those disappearing around the country. And more men lost jobs than women, which was also a national phenomenon.

Goldstein wanted to explore a place that wasn't used to hard times. Granted, Janesville had experienced ups and downs with the auto company, “but it had always found ways to come back,” Goldstein said.

“The experience of losing the thousands of jobs that disappeared in 2008 and 2009 in Janesville was something very new.”

The age of the General Motors plant here intrigued her, as well.

“It meant families had been around for generations and had expectations of what work in town looked like,” she said. “People had roots in Janesville. So, the idea that you just find a job somewhere else, that was not what people wanted to do.”

Goldstein said she is impressed by how hard people have worked to cope with the job losses and their effects.

“The community was not just taking this lying down,” she said. “It's a very philanthropic community.

“It would be more interesting to tell the story of a community trying hard to recover,” she decided.

Janesville residents have been generous in helping her, Goldstein said.

“You can't do work like this if people aren't willing to talk to you,” she said. “I am very grateful people are willing to trust me with their experiences.”

Today, Janesville continues to pick up the pieces left by GM, including the fate of the 200 acres of corroding, industrial no-man's land left in the city's gut. The contract with the union has kept the plant on standby at least until it ends this year.

Many residents were excited when a former city official suggested that half of the property be used for a new Rock County 4-H Fairgrounds. However, the scope of pollution at the site is still undetermined.

Billy Bob Grahn, the Janesville resident who stood in front of the GM plant on that devastating day seven years ago, said he was shocked to receive calls from journalists from Texas, Boston, New York and even Germany and Japan—all wondering why he waved that flag.

Grahn had never worked at GM. He is the founder and director of the nonprofit Red Road House for recovering addicts. He is also a Rock County supervisor and a member of the county's human services board.

“I don't know why; it just hit me that morning,” Grahn recalled recently.

“I just wanted to say 'thank you' to GM and the employees—mainly the employees,” he said.

“People forget about how much the employees supported so many nonprofits and so many cities in Rock County,” Grahn said. “It was endless.”

The saddest consequence has been the fracture of families whose members have followed auto jobs, he said.

“A lot of them lost their jobs, and you can pretty much set your watch to the drug and alcohol abuse and the breakup of the family,” he said.

Is Janesville on the other side?

Grahn said things are better.

His clients, who have sketchy work histories, once again can find entry-level jobs and are not competing against GM employees with 20 years of experience.

But other workers are scattered across the country, and those high-paying jobs have not come back.

After the 2008 photo was taken, Grahn received a call from Germany wondering why an American Indian was making a stand against GM.

“They thought it was cool … this one lone guy standing up, the David and Goliath thing,” he said with a laugh.

“I didn't know it was going to start an international incident.

“On the other hand, I keep wanting people to understand—everybody who used to complain about the General Motors workers, 'Oh, they get too much damned money, blah, blah, blah—but they did so much good down there.

“That was all I was doing, was just saying 'thanks.'”

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