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Through the years: Chronicling the history of GM in Janesville

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Gazette Staff
December 22, 2008
— Samsons to Suburbans. Tractors to trucks.

Both are fitting headlines for the nearly 90 years of production in the General Motors plant on Janesville’s south side.


But the history of the products and the people who produced them runs much deeper.


1910s

In a quirky turn of events, Joseph A. Craig brought GM’s Samson Tractor to Janesville in 1918 and merged it with Janesville Machine Co., a maker of farm implements and employer of 300 workers.


Janesville made its first Model M tractor on May 1, 1919, in a one-story factory that GM built in what was then the suburb of Spring Brook.


In 18 months, Janesville’s population jumped from 14,000 to 20,000 as people moved here to work on and in the tractor factory, which employed almost 3,000 people in 1919.


1920s

Samson Tractor had a major impact on Janesville.


Women first were able to vote in Janesville in 1919, and the Samson plant provided a framework for local women’s first great political, social and educational impact: helping the vote to approve borrowing almost $1 million for a new high school on Main Street. City business leaders, predominantly men, were loathe to raise taxes, but Craig convinced the city that Janesville had to improve its schools, streets and housing to attract the new and growing GM.


Since its infancy in Janesville, GM has brought boom and bust baggage to the city.


When the Samson plant was being built in 1918-1919, the city’s population exploded, but a farm depression that started in 1920 forced Samson to curtail production and lay off more than 1,000 workers.


By the fall of 1921, tractor production in Janesville was at a standstill because of the national farm depression. Shortly thereafter, Chevrolet announced plans to take over the Samson factory and complement it with a Fisher Body plant.


Samson moved to South Franklin Street, where it stored and distributed tractor parts until 1934.


In 1922, the Gazette noted the boom/bust cycle:


“Throughout the summer, there were rumors of changes and additions, but Janesville has learned a lesson, and so when General Motors officially announced the coming of the Chevrolet assembly plant and the branch of the Fisher Body Corp. … there was no excitement and no fictitious boom as had followed the arrival of Samson.”


Janesville’s first Chevy rolled off the line on Feb. 14, 1923, and less than a month later, assembly work started at Fisher Body, which supplied the bodies that Chevy workers put on a chassis. By the end of the year, the two operations combined to turn out 45,800 automobiles, employ 1,500 people and pay $1.75 million in wages.


On April 1, 1926, Chevrolet set a production quota of 380 cars a day or 10,000 a month for the Janesville plant. That turned out to be an April Fool’s joke, as four weeks later the company upped the quota to 435.


In 1928, local workers built 125,000 Chevys with new six-cylinder engines, and employment topped 2,600.


Four months later, the local plant produced its 500,000th car.


Though it had experience with an automobile boom/bust, Janesville was riding high as the 1920s waned because its twin GM operations—Chevrolet and Fisher Body—were expanding and setting records along with the juggernaut U.S. economy and the soaring stock market.


But the mother of all busts was just around the corner.


On Sept. 3, 1929, GM stock closed at $71.75 a share. On Nov. 1—two days after the Black Tuesday stock market crash—GM closed at $48 a share on its way to a year-end close of $40.50.


Gone were the money and confidence to buy cars and almost everything else.


1930s

The Great Depression rolled into Rock County in the early 1930s, and by the end of 1934, almost 10,000 residents out of a county population of 74,000 depended in whole or in part on government relief. Nearly 2,000 Janesville residents out of a population of 24,000 were on the dole.


The local GM plants—Chevrolet and Fisher Body—employed 3,000 workers at their height. But the factories were shut down frequently—the longest layoff being more than a year in 1932-33—and regularly operated with reduced workforces.


After a decade where not much happened on the labor front, America’s rank-and-file resurrected the union movement, and Janesville autoworkers played a key role in forcing GM to recognize the United Auto Workers.


Local autoworkers started the decade by building about 450 cars a day, a level that peaked at 700 before dropping to 200 by the fall of 1931.


Layoffs followed the production cuts, and in 1933, about 200 laid-off Janesville autoworkers assembled four cars on a demonstration assembly line at The World’s Fair in Chicago. They were paid $7 a day, and each got a new uniform and tie each day. Meal and lodging costs came out of their own pockets.


Two months later, 30,000 people attended a parade, dance and other festivities to celebrate the reopening of the Chevrolet and Fisher Body plants in Janesville. Local employment grew to 700—a fraction of the plants’ peak payroll—but consumer confidence was returning as local merchants reported their best holiday sales in three years.


The merchants’ gauge of local consumer confidence was well grounded, as the plants’ payroll grew to nearly 3,000 people in 1934. Workers built 115,310 Chevys of the car and truck variety.


The economy and GM continued to recover into 1936, when workers produced 140,000 vehicles. By 1938, however, a general recession had clipped production totals from the plants’ 2,500 workers to fewer than 84,000 vehicles.


Noteworthy in 1938 was GM’s launch of its supplemental unemployment benefit plan for workers. It allowed employees to receive 60 percent of their normal pay minus other compensation and/or wages during layoffs.


Disruptions in the U.S. auto industry were indeed coming, but not because of slow domestic sales.


1940s

Whether it was on the front lines or the production lines, Janesville joined the rest of the United States in hurling itself into World War II.


The local Chevrolet and Fisher Body plants shifted to the control of GM’s Oldsmobile Division, and women workers—renowned as Rosie the Riveter—and older men cranked out about 16 million artillery shells in three years. Their motto: “Keep ’Em Firing.”


Local autoworkers weren’t alone in their war production efforts. Parker Pen workers made fuses. Janesville Cotton Mills manufactured bandages. Gilman Engineering made machines to make war machines. Hough Shade employees turned out curtains to dim windows in air raids. Even Ossit Church Furniture workers made special seats for air-testing chambers.


In 1940, the year before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, annual production at the Chevrolet and Fisher Body plants hit 124,398 vehicles, the highest annual output since 1936. Also in 1940—three years after the sit-down strikes—workers in Janesville joined their national brethren in voting to establish the United Auto Workers of the Congress of Industrial Organizations as the union for GM workers.


Shortly after Pearl Harbor and as a result of uncertainties over factories’ war roles, the Janesville plant ended automobile production. Several hundred of the plant’s 2,000 workers were laid off.


By August 1942, full-scale production of artillery shells was under way at the Oldsmobile plants in Janesville. Most of the shells were 105mm howitzer rounds, but the combined plant also made 90mm, 3-inch armor piercing, 3-inch solid shot and 4.7 inch high-explosive anti-aircraft shells.


The plants’ employment was at least at pre-war highs of 3,000.


“Most of us can’t get into the actual fighting for one reason or another,” a World War I veteran working at the plant told the Gazette. “But we’ve got an important job to do here—and believe me, we’re doing it.”


War contracts were canceled in August 1945, and the Janesville GM plants returned to Chevrolet and Fisher Body control.


Three months later, UAW Locals 95 and 121 struck the plants here as part of a nationwide strike over working conditions and a wage increase to replace lost war overtime. The strike ended after 125 days when autoworkers received an 182-cent per hour raise and settled several local issues


The first product out the door was a truck because the conversion to cars, which was under way when the strike began, was not complete. The first post-war car—a four-door Chevy sedan—came off the line six weeks later.


By the end of the decade—1949 to be exact—about 2,650 local GM workers built about 150,000 vehicles, a new high, and earned about $8.65 million in wages.


1950s

Janesville experienced tremendous growth in business, housing, population and its general sense of community.


And GM’s twin operations in Janesville had a hand in all, as the decade opened with local production of the rounded 1951 Chevy and closed with the sleek, finned model of 1959.


GM’s Fisher Body plant added a second shift in 1953, followed soon after by the Chevrolet division. Employment between the two plants grew to 3,700, and Chevy production jumped accordingly. Truck assemblies also increased, bringing the two plants’ total production to nearly 178,000 vehicles.


A year later, the Chevy plant produced its 3 millionth vehicle as Chevy and Fisher Body employment reached the 4,000 mark. Workers continued to be hired, and the local payroll swelled to 4,600 in 1955 and 4,900 by 1957, when 2,200 employees collected paychecks from Chevy and 2,700 from Fisher Body.


A national UAW strike in 1958 shut down operations in Janesville as workers were upset with GM’s refusal of a contract patterned after those reached with Ford and Chrysler that gave workers pay increases of 24 to 30 cents an hour. After just one day, the national strike was settled, but workers in Janesville remained on strike for 15 more days until they ratified a local contract.


The decade closed with the 1958 death of Joseph Craig, who convinced GM to bring Samson Tractor to Janesville in 1918, and a 1959 parts shortage that forced a seven-week cessation in production of the 1960 Chevrolets.


1960s

The decade that would become known for war and protest started off on a good note for local workers at Chevrolet and Fisher Body: A pay raise lifted most hourly wages to between $2.40 and $2.46.


In early 1961, slumping car sales forced the layoffs of 1,250 of Chevrolet’s 2,100 assemblers and all 2,500 production workers at the Fisher Body plant. The remaining 850 Chevy employees continued to work on the pickup truck line. The auto recession would continue through February and March, as workers faced shortened workweeks and layoffs.


As GM and the UAW were wrapping up talks on a new three-year contract in September 1961, Local 95 in Janesville launched a wildcat strike over 171 unresolved grievances related to overloading. The unauthorized strike shut down Local 95’s Fisher Body plant and its body-dependent neighbor, the Chevrolet plant represented by Local 121.


The wildcat strike lasted one day, but two days later both locals went on strike—joining some 91 other locals—over grievances and other local issues. The many local strikes hung up national negotiations, and it was not until Sept. 20, 1961, that the national contract and the Local 121 agreements were settled. The Local 95 negotiations proved more difficult and weren’t settled until Sept. 23.


Back at full strength, Janesville’s Chevrolet plant added a second shift and 300 jobs for its pickup truck line in 1963. Total employment between the two plants stood at 4,800.


In September 1964, all 4,800 workers walked off their jobs in Janesville as part of a national strike against GM over unresolved grievances, production standards and working conditions. The strike lasted more than one month.


Between 1965 and the end of 1968, GM hit several milestones in Janesville.


Hourly and salaried employment skyrocketed from 5,700 to nearly 7,000, and Janesville workers turned out GM’s 100 millionth vehicle: a blue, two-door Chevrolet Caprice that was whisked away for enshrinement in Flint, Mich. At the festivities, it was noted that Janesville had built 6 million of GM’s 100 million cars, trucks and vans.


In late ’68, GM announced a reorganization that put Janesville’s Chevrolet and Fisher Body plants under the new GM Assembly Division, ending the operation’s separate managements and eventually their separate facilities and UAW locals.


After the consolidation, the hourly workers in Janesville joined workers at five other newly formed GMAD plants in April 1969 to strike the company. Local 95 members wanted to be paid what was the highest of two different pay scales for Chevy and Fisher Body workers. Most demands were met, and they returned to work three weeks later with a new contract.


1970s

Still mired in the Vietnam War, the United States opened the decade by ripping itself apart because of it. Economic prosperity boosted Janesville, a community that struggled to hang on to its small-town identity.


Establishing an identity seemed to be the theme at GMAD, which went through the decade in fits and starts thanks in large part to a series of UAW strikes against GM.


Local workers walked off their jobs five times in the 1970s, sometimes as part of national strikes.


Work issues aside, local GMAD employees also suffered through an energy recession and struggling auto sales that caused on-and-off layoffs from January through March 1974 and again in January 1975.


The decade did include its share of highlights, including the production of the plant’s 7 millionth vehicle: a two-door Chevy Caprice painted sandalwood with a brown vinyl top.


UAW Local 95 dedicated its new meeting and office building, Walter P. Reuther Memorial Hall at 1795 Lafayette St. UAW President Leonard Woodcock was on hand to celebrate the occasion and to criticize GM for having outdated working conditions and a management that was unwilling to listen or change.


1980s

The decade was clearly one of transition for Janesville autoworkers.


Some six weeks into 1980, the first of the decade’s many layoffs hit the plant in Janesville.


The harbingers of hard times already had come. The energy crises of the mid- and late-1970s had dissuaded much of the public from buying full-sized cars such as the Chevrolet Impalas and Caprices made in Janesville. As car sales fell, layoffs in Janesville became more frequent and longer.


In July 1980, GM announced that starting in 1981, it would change production on the Janesville car line from big gas-guzzlers to small, fuel-efficient, front-wheel-drive J-cars.


Market-related layoffs on both the car and truck line continued into 1981. Then in October, the car line was taken down to start retooling for what would be Chevrolet Cavaliers and Cadillac Cimarrons. Both shifts were supposed to return to work in six months. But it would be 18 months before the second shift returned to the car line, and 1982 dawned with the indefinite layoff of the truck line.


The second shift on the car line was back on the job in June 1983, a year late, and hope glimmered again. But trouble was waiting in the wings for the local GM plant.


In August 1984, GM delivered the news that many had anticipated: The pickup truck line—1,800 jobs and 1,250 people—were headed to a new plant to be built near Fort Wayne, Ind., and no product was scheduled for that line in Janesville after the 1986 model year.


Local and state leaders sprang into action to convince GM to schedule a product for the truck line. The product Janesville people targeted was the medium-duty truck, which was made in Pontiac, Mich.


In September 1986, Local 95 members voted to change their contract: to cut the number of job classifications that often led to inefficiencies from 90 to three and to experiment with four-10s, the 10-hour-a-day, four-day work week.


Two months later, GM announced the short-term production of commercial pickups for Janesville. Four months later, the automaker announced medium-duty trucks would be made in Janesville starting in 1989. The 1,800 jobs originally announced, the same number as on the regular pickup line, shrank to about 800 because the market didn’t materialize as GM thought it would, but the Janesville plant still had two lines running.


Local plant leaders—management and labor—then turned their full attention to securing a more stable product than subcompact cars. That announcement came two years—in February 1989—after the medium-duty announcement: The Janesville plant would make GM’s next generation of full-size sport-utility vehicles, Chevrolet and GMC Suburbans and slightly smaller trucks, Blazers and Jimmys, that are now known as Tahoes and Yukons.


Though the GM plant wound up the decade with 1,400 fewer jobs than at the start—a drop from 7,100 to 5,700—management and labor worked together to make it more competitive and have a much better chance for long-term survival.


1990s

For the most part, the local GM plant steamrolled its way through the 1990s, thanks in large part to the groundwork laid the previous decade.


The major speed bump, however, was 1996, when Local 95 struck the prosperous plant in Janesville over what it said were local issues, primarily the number of workers needed to staff the busy full-size sport utility line.


In 1990, the plant built its last Chevy Cavalier and started to retool for production of Chevy and GMC Suburbans, Chevy Blazers and GMC Jimmys. The plant’s 3,400 workers on the Cavalier-turned-Suburban line were laid off, while 1,500 employees continued to build nearly 18 medium-duty trucks an hour.


Lear Seating Corp. and Midland Steel, both new suppliers to the medium-duty line, located in Janesville.


In 1991, about 500 workers returned to the Suburban line while slow sales forced layoffs on the medium-duty line.


A year later, the plant’s Suburban line finally reached its production goal of 44 jobs per hour. But it was 10 months later and with 500 more workers than GM originally intended.


With the hot-selling SUVs—at times backordered up to six months—the Janesville plant was able to pick up 600 new workers in 1994. The source of those workers, however, became a sticking point between Local 95 and the automaker, which wanted to fill the jobs with transfers laid off at other GM plants. Local 95 wanted the jobs filled by new hires in order to protect the seniority of its existing members.


Another production boost, this one in 1995, resulted in the hiring of 500 more employees, most of them new hires rather than transfers.


The good times kept rolling through 1996, thanks in large part to the success of the popular and pricey vehicles made in Janesville.


In October, Local 95 struck the plant over what it said was a need for more workers. Industry analysts, however, saw the strike as one of national importance: a shot from the national UAW directly at GM’s pocketbook as the two sides negotiated a national contract.


All strikes were ended and contracts ratified in seven days. In Janesville, GM agreed to hire up to 350 more workers, most of them new hires.


The 1996 strike was the first at the Janesville plant since a one-day walkout in March 1977.


GM announced in 1997 that the Janesville plant would build the next generation of full-size sport utility vehicles—the GMT800 series—starting in 1999. The automaker balanced the good news with the bad: the medium-duty line and its 1,200 jobs would be moved to Flint, Mich.


After years of planning, the first GMT800 came off the line on Nov. 22, 1999.


As the decade ended, the Janesville plant was assured of many years of work—at least through 2005—on the SUV line.


2000s

The new generation of big SUVs received rave reviews in the automotive press, and consumers agreed: Sales continued to skyrocket.


In December 2003, Local 95 ratified a local contract, and the Gazette reported that the local would build get a new product assignment, one that would likely ensure work at the Janesville plant through 2012.


In early 2004, GM validated the Gazette’s report when it announced it would invest $175 million to retool the plant for new truck production. Officials wouldn’t confirm that the product would be the next generation of SUVs or lay out a timetable.


Conventional wisdom, however, suggested that the plant’s 3,600 hourly workers would start building the GMT900 series in 2005 or 2006 and production would run for six or seven years.


As the plant was gearing up for the new product in 2005, speculation about the local plant’s future surfaced—once again—when GM said that it wanted to close some assembly and component plants and eliminate 25,000 jobs.


In August 2005, the local plant built its 16th millionth vehicle since GM started making vehicles here in 1923. At the time, the Janesville plant’s total production trailed only that of a plant in Lansing, Mich., which had produced 20 million vehicles since 1897.


Janesville dodged GM’s reduction bullet in November as the automaker announced specific plans to close 12 plants and cut 30,000 jobs by 2008. Local union officials said the Janesville plant was spared because it was building a profitable vehicle, its workers had made concessions to help save money and the automaker was spending millions of dollars to retool the plant for a new line of SUVs.


But sales of the big trucks started their fall in 2004, and periodic production stoppages peppered the local plant’s agenda in 2005.


The next year dawned with the debut of the new Suburbans, Tahoes, Yukon XLs and Yukons, but sales continued to fall, and Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes” paid a visit to Janesville to talk to local workers about the automaker’s future.


Also in 2006, GM unveiled a special attrition program designed to boost its bottom line and cut expenses, namely employees. More than 900 Janesville workers—a quarter of the local hourly work force—participated in the program in one form or another.


The elimination of overtime Fridays at the plant started in 2006 and continued into 2007, as sluggish sales forced weeks-long production cuts in Janesville.


In September 2007, Local 95 members joined their national brethren in a strike over the lack of a national contract. The strike, which was widely seen as symbolic, ended 40 hours later with a deal that included a product commitment for Janesville, a new national two-tier wage system and a trust fund to pay health care costs of retirees and their dependents.


Local 95 was well represented at the national bargaining table, as John Dohner Jr., the GM shop chair In Janesville, was part of the top UAW bargaining committee.


In December, GM announced that Janesville’s line rate would drop in March 2008 from 52 jobs per hour to 44. The year closed with the expectation of another special attrition program to help GM cut costs.


This year started with plans for layoffs, assembly line slowdowns, a special attrition program and other production cuts, the biggest of which takes place Tuesday when GM ends production in Janesville.




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