City's days as auto town are numbered

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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

It’s hard to believe that Janesville won’t be an auto town after 2010.

Think about it.

Janesville without General Motors. Janesville without the thousands of jobs that “the plant” has provided. Janesville without a powerful United Auto Workers, the supplier plants and the other businesses that sprouted and survived because of GM.

This community’s identity has been tied to General Motors and vehicle manufacturing for nearly 90 years. That’s four generations that haven’t known Janesville as anything but a city that hummed and mostly prospered because of the autos and trucks that rolled off the assembly lines on the south side.

Fathers worked at the plant and took home good wages and enjoyed generous benefits that made their families comfortable. Then their sons—and eventually their daughters, in some cases—followed them into General Motors and reaped the rewards that some of the best manufacturing jobs in the country provided. It happened for decades.

There was a time when it was almost a birthright in Janesville to be offered at job at General Motors. GM essentially took all comers in the 1950s and 1960s and even recruited workers for the plant.

That’s hard to believe now. Jobs haven’t been nearly as plentiful at GM of late. The attrition started around 1980 from a peak of more than 7,000. The last big blow before today came just more than a month ago, when GM announced it was eliminating the second shift in July. That will trim the work force to 1,700 or so.

And now this.

Janesville has always taken great pride in its heritage as an auto town. The local plant and its workers have a reputation of building quality vehicles, from the sedans to the light trucks to the Cavaliers and then the big SUVs. People here drove the vehicles that were made in Janesville, and we sent them out to the rest of the country with the knowledge that they would do Janesville proud. And they always did.

That auto town pride extended to the housing stock, where the good pay afforded this community block after block of nice family homes, and to the manicured lawns and the beautiful parks for which this city became known. All, to some degree, were there because of GM and the prosperity it pumped into the local economy.

Not everything associated with GM was positive for Janesville, however. This has always been a blue-collar place, and our education level lagged because young people didn’t need to earn degrees to earn good wages. The image of a working-class place without much character, culture or class spread, but it wasn’t wholly unwarranted.

So now it’s time for Janesville to begin forging a new identity. The city has seen growth and increased diversity in recent years because of local entrepreneurs and the expansion of Mercy Health System and now Dean Health System and St. Mary’s. The potential is promising.

But even after the GM plant is shuttered or converted to other uses, even when Janesville is no longer officially an auto town, the legacy will remain all around us. And it’s a legacy of which we can always be proud.

Scott W. Angus is editor of The Janesville Gazette and vice president of news for Bliss Communications. His e-mail is sangus@gazettextra.com.

Last updated: 9:41 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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