Fittingly dressed in black, the final production SUV reached the end of the line at the Janesville General Motors assembly plant at 7:07 this morning, leaving thousands of workers, retirees and—most likely—a local industry in its wake.
But the progression down the line was anything but a death march, as workers exchanged holiday greetings, best wishes and slaps on the back.
It was a mix of cheers and tears, pride and sadness.
"It was nice reminiscing as we walked the final job down the line," said Andy Richardson, president of United Auto Workers Local 95. "It's something I'll never forget."
Neither will the workers who had a hand in producing the final Tahoe.
GM announced in June that it would end SUV production in Janesville by 2010 at the latest. In October, GM said the SUV line would shut down today. About 50 workers will remain in the plant until spring to produce medium-duty trucks under a contract with Isuzu.
Production of SUVs started promptly at 5:48 a.m., with only about 50 of the big SUVs sitting on the lengthy assembly line. At 6:12, the line stopped for a few minutes because of a problem with one of the leading SUVs.
"That just shows the dedication these people have," said Tierney Grutza, who was responsible for shepherding a reporter and photographer through the plant. "They're building quality right up to the end."
Stan Addie, a GM employee of 23 years, had the honor of firing up the fully loaded Tahoe when it reached his point on the line.
"It started perfect," Addie said. "That's how they all are down here."
Addie and other employees said this morning's end of SUV production was a sad moment.
"But I think we're going to get a new product because we've got such a great workforce," Addie said. "But who knows."
Only a few hundred of the plant's 1,150 hourly employees actually worked on the line this morning. For others, their jobs ended days earlier when the final Tahoe passed their stations. Still, they hung around en masse.
As the Tahoe made its way down the line, trim workers added their final touches and posed for photos. With nothing left to do, they packed up their tools and joined the growing procession to the end of the line, where nearly 1,000 people would later gather to see the truck off the line.
Workers battled several emotions. As they performed their final jobs, they did so with pride and smiles for their coworkers' cameras.
But as the truck moved on, sadness and tears often took over.
"It's like losing a family member; it's sad," said Mike Feirn, a UAW benefits rep with more than 23 years of service to GM.
"It was all of us working together, doing the same things, union and management," Feirn said. "All these people who work here, this isn't their fault.
"Everybody here worked hard, but it's a sign of the times in the auto industry. We don't have to feel like we're the only ones this is happening to."
UAW Local 95 Shop Chairman John Dohner Jr. agreed.
"This workforce, this membership has been let down," he said. "They've done all the right things, but the economy has run away from the product.
"It's a real sad day."
Line worker Jim Babcock shared the sadness and the uncertainty for the future of his fellow workers shortly after installing the rear bumper on the final Tahoe.
"GM has treated us pretty good, and we can only hope for another product," said Babcock, who has 23 years at the plant. "A lot of people around here depend on the plant, and I hope GM's upper management can realize that we deserve another product."
Fellow line workers Jerry Tilley and Tim Opheim were equally sad, equally hopeful.
"I saw the first one come down the line at Fort Wayne and now the last one here at Janesville," Tilley said shortly after installing the Tahoe's battery.
"I hoped this day would never come," Opheim said. "You'd like to think we have a future, but it doesn't look too bright right now.
"Hopefully, there will be a turnaround and things will change."
Plant Manager Gary Malkus expressed his sadness and pride when the remaining employees gathered around the Tahoe for a group photo.
Malkus said he was on the phone this morning with GM's top management in Detroit.
"I expressed to them how proud I was, and I described all of you as dedicated and professional," he said. "These last few months, you have really done Janesville proud … and the performance we've had, the dedication you all have had and the hard work has really reverberated to the top of the company.
"They asked me to express to you their appreciation for everything you've done recently and for what this whole organization has done for the last 90 years.
"It's a sad day, but my heart's bursting with appreciation for everything you've done."
Last updated: 11:04 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012