In September 2008, hopeful Wisconsin delegations traveled to Detroit to persuade General Motors to keep the Janesville plant open.
Democrats, Republicans, management and workers put together an ambitious incentive package to make the automaker look favorably on the city.
“What we didn’t know is how fast GM was going broke,” said Tim Cullen, who co-chaired the effort to save the plant. “The last thing GM cared about was a plant in Janesville. Management was worried about the whole company going under.”
Cullen is writing a book about the 25 years prior to the end of production in December 2008.
“I believe people are ready to hear the story,” he said. “We’re coming to closure about GM. We’re ready to move on.”
Almost a decade after the plant closed, Cullen is discovering details that shed new light on the facility’s final years.
He will share some of his research during a fundraising dinner sponsored by Rock County Democrats on Sunday, May 20.
His talk also will include a look at two union leaders: Walter Reuther, who is known for his pioneering leadership of the United Auto Workers, and Doris Thom, the first woman to work on the line at GM in Janesville.
The meeting will be at the UAW Local 95 Union Hall in Janesville, the first building to be named for Reuther after his death.
Cullen is former majority leader of the state Senate and former secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services.
For two years, Cullen has wanted to write about the GM plant, “which was far more fragile than Janesville ever suspected,” he said. “Most people in Janesville believed GM would always be here.”
Cullen looks at GM’s reluctance to make a long-term commitment to the city after management announced in 1984 that it was moving the production of its small pickup truck to Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Roger Smith, president of GM until 1990, did not want a new product line in Janesville, Cullen said.
But ultimately, Janesville got a new medium-duty truck line.
“A lot of credit goes to the UAW and management, who did things to make the plant more efficient to get Detroit’s attention,” Cullen said.
His book will include a chapter on Reuther, whom Cullen called “quite possibly the greatest labor leader in American history.”
Reuther established the value system at the UAW and had a vision for improving the lives of working people, Cullen explained.
Reuther also worked for civil rights.
In the 1960s, at a time of high racial tension, Reuther marched with Martin Luther King and was with him at the “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. Reuther also advised President Lyndon Johnson when Johnson created domestic programs to eliminate poverty and racial injustice.
Reuther cared about the environment, too.
He died in a plane crash in 1970 while flying to northern Michigan to host an international conference on the environment.
“Reuther is an example of what a person can do when he has the top job,” Cullen said. “That’s one way to get things done. The other way is to be like Doris Thom, who had the guts to change what was wrong.”
In the male-dominated automaking world of the 1960s, Thom was a working mom with three children when she took on the status quo to earn more money.
Before 1967, women were only allowed to push candy wagons or work on the cushion line making automobile seats at the Janesville plant.
Thom eventually won the right to work in “the pit,” where she wrestled weather stripping onto the undersides of car doors with an air gun.
She eventually moved out of the pit and into the inspection department before leaving GM in 1969.
Thom also was the first woman to sit on the executive board of the UAW Local 95. She was a founder of Blackhawk Credit Union and a founder of the National Organization for Women.
In an interview with The Gazette, Thom once said it was important for women to tell their stories because “sometimes we don’t recognize what we can do.”
Thom, 97, died in November 2017.