Janesville25.6°

GM has long, rich history in Janesville

Print Print
Mike DuPre'
June 3, 2008
— From the beginning, General Motors skated on thin ice in Janesville.

Formed through the forced marriage of Samson Tractor of California and Janesville Machine Co., GM’s Samson Tractor Division and 3,000 workers made their first tractor here May 1, 1919.


Samson went belly-up three years later, and GM wanted to leave Janesville. Joseph A. Craig, former general manager of Janesville Machine, convinced GM to stay in Janesville because the city had kept its promises to the corporation and built a new high school, paved streets and constructed houses for workers.


In a sign of things to come for Janesville, GM and the American auto industry, one of the first things GM did to augment Samson Tractor was to move truck production here from Flint, Mich., in 1920.


The tug of war for vehicle production and manufacturing jobs was on.


Since GM’s coming to Janesville, the city has been a microcosm of the U.S. auto industry: corporations formed by gobbling up smaller companies, corporations’ reaping huge profits on the backs of unrepresented workers and the coming of age of organized labor.


Then came a united effort to make guns and bombs to win a world war, big cars and fat profits for decades, the oil price shocks of the 1970s and economic malaise of the ’80s, the responsive but temporary turn to small cars, heightened and honed competition among plants for vehicles and jobs, the tsunami of sport-utility vehicle popularity.


Through it all, Janesville’s GM plant was a survivor—until today and the announcement that GM’s oldest assembly plant will close at the end of 2010, nearly 92 years after it opened.


Love affair with Chevrolet

On Valentine’s Day 1923—a year after nearly leaving Janesville—the local factory made its first Chevrolet car, starting a love affair with Chevy that persists to the present.


A month later, construction started on what would become a separate GM operation—Fisher Body—in a neighboring plant separated by only a wall from the original Samson building.


Janesville was making its place in the world. Internationally renowned cellist Pablo Cassals performed at Congregational Church.


In May 1930, production hit almost 700 cars a day, but temporary layoffs struck a month later. The Great Depression started in Janesville.


Production seesawed until both GM factories closed in September 1932. On the brighter side, Croake Brewery started renovation in anticipation of the end of Prohibition.


Work resumed at GM late in 1933 with much lower employment levels. But merchants reported the best holiday sales in years, an indication that confidence was returning to the city.


GM employment in Janesville grew to 3,400 by 1937, but the workers were neither happy nor organized. A new union was forming to take their collective concerns to the corporation. Janesville workers would become a cornerstone of the new United Auto Workers.


The moment of truth and courage was 1 p.m. Jan. 5, 1937.


“Finally at 1 o’clock, my partner (was) Coley Simmons, and I told him to go up and throw the switch on the line, and I said: ‘Don’t let anybody stop ya,’” John Wesley “Wes” Van Horn recounted four decades later.


Van Horn was president of the new United Auto Workers Local 95 at Fisher Body. He led what was a new tactic—the sit-down strike—at the Janesville plant, the fourth such GM factory struck in eight days.


GM settled the strike with a national contract a month later. The American labor movement had finally flexed its muscles, one of which was Local 95.


“Keep ’Em Firing”

When the United States entered World War II, production of vehicles other than those for the military halted, and auto plants turned to making war machines and material.


GM’s Oldsmobile Division took over both of Janesville’s GM operations and started cranking out artillery shells: 16 million shells in three years. Women started working next to older and draft-exempt men. Their motto was: “Keep ’Em Firing.”


Three months after the war ended, it was back to business as usual: The UAW struck GM plants nationwide over working conditions and a raise to replace lost war overtime.


The same year, 1946, Gilman Engineering moved into a new building. Last week, Gilman, now a division of a German corporation, announced it would essentially leave Janesville.


In 1947, more than 100 members of UAW Local 121, representing Chevy workers, started a blood bank for Janesville.


In 1949, 2,650 GM employees made 150,000 cars and trucks here, a record. They earned $8.65 million.


The 1950s and ’60s were the heydays for the American auto industry, GM and Janesville. Gasoline was cheap. Cars were big, sleek and designed to break down in a few years.


Janesville autoworkers grew their bank accounts, pensions and families.


In 1953, both Chevy and Fisher Body added second shifts in Janesville. Fisher Body provided the bodies that Chevy workers put on 144,000 cars and 33,850 trucks. Total employment was 3,700.


Employment and plant size in Janesville expanded through the ’50s and ’60s, although a recession in 1960-61 forced temporary layoffs here. National and local strikes stopped work temporarily, but they resulted in better wages and working conditions.


GM’s 100 millionth vehicle

In April 1967, GM makes its 100 millionth vehicle—total for the corporation—in Janesville. The blue two-door Chevrolet Caprice is enshrined at Flint, Mich., birthplace of GM and the first city Janesville competed with for jobs.


Janesville has made 6 million of the 100 million vehicles.


In 1969, Chevrolet and Fisher joined to form General Motors Assembly Division, sparking a strike to get the higher wages of the two divisions. Local 95 remains as Janesville’s sole UAW local.


Some 5,800 local GM employees made 198,300 cars and 71,704 pickup trucks in 1971.


Janesville was living the high life. The Janesville Mall opened in September 1973, but the Arab Oil Embargo started a month later. GM began a series of layoffs on its car line, and on Jan. 3, 1974: Gasoline prices jumped 7 cents a gallon to 50 cents for regular.


The oil embargo and a national recession forced the layoff of Janesville’s second shifts in January 1975, but workers returned to their jobs July 7. Base pay for assemblers was $6.46 an hour.


When 1977 ended, GM in Janesville was at its peak: 7,100 jobs, 274,286 cars produced, 114,681 trucks, $128.5 million total annual payroll.


Except for the 1930s, the ’80s were the most turbulent for GM in Janesville. Stagflation—rising inflation in a recession—put the country in a tailspin. Vehicle sales fell through the floor. GM started the decade with layoffs here and across the country.


But GM moved large car production from Janesville and started making what were then subcompact J-cars—the Chevrolet Cavalier, for instance—in Janesville. But after the plant was retooled, GM’s previous announcements were unmet: Fewer workers than predicted returned later than expected to their jobs.


Gut punch

In 1984, GM gut-punched the city. The pickup line and its 1,800 jobs would move to a new plant in Fort Wayne, Ind. Meanwhile, the J–car line was competing with plants in Leeds, Mo., and Lordstown, Ohio, for production.


By 1987, subcompact production seemed like it would turn into a losing proposition.


The loss of the pickup line spurred local plant management, Local 95, the city, county and state into action. GM employees revised work rules, and governments bent over backwards to help GM—all to lure new GM vehicles to Janesville.


The eventual result of the combined, concerted efforts was the moving of medium-duty truck and full-size sport-utility production from plants in Michigan. But a second shift for medium-duty production did not materialize as anticipated, and fewer workers were needed for SUV assembly.


One of the many ironies of today’s announcement is that while Janesville’s plant will close, the last of the J-car plants, Lordstown, continues to make small cars. And one of the last new plants that GM built in the United States—Fort Wayne, Ind.—was started by transferred Janesville workers.


When Janesville landed full-size SUV production, the city’s outlook was better than rosy.


In 1992, the factory was not only the sole GM plant making big SUVs, it was the only such plant in the world. Chevy and GMC Suburbans were unique in their size and capabilities.


As 1993 dawned, 3,300 people were making big SUVs here; 800 were producing medium-duty trucks, and Isuzu and GM had announced they would make small medium-duty trucks in a joint venture with 50 people.


But SUVs soared in popularity. Competitors jumped into the market, and GM expanded its large SUV capacity to plants in Texas and Mexico.


The 1990s were much like the ’50s and ’60s: SUV sales grew; laid-off workers transferred into, not out of, the Janesville plant, but employment did not approach its previous high-water mark.


The decade ended with the announcement that GM’s next generation of SUVs would be made in Janesville, an announcement echoed in late 2005.


But that echo rings hollow with today’s announcement.


The handwriting on the wall first appeared with the move in 2002 of medium-duty truck production and 800 jobs—to Flint as a turn of the ironic circle.


BY THE NUMBERS

3,450


The Janesville GM plant’s hourly employment in 2006.


2,500


The plant’s hourly employment in late 2006 after more than 900 employees left under an early retirement/buyout program.


2,400


The plant’s hourly employment in early 2008 after workers were laid off to accommodate a slowdown in the plant’s assembly line from 52 jobs per vehicle to 44.


1,800


The hourly workforce that’s expected in July 2008 after 600 employees leave under the automaker’s most recent attrition program.



Print Print