It could be said Janesville is still grieving the loss of an economic engine that sustained it for 85 years.
The thousands of people who turned out to get bricks salvaged from the vanished General Motors plant suggests strong emotional attachments to the structure that was wiped off the city’s face this year.
Tim Cullen, the former state senator who worked on the state task force that tried to save the plant, suggests that grieving process might be near its final stage: acceptance.
Cullen has written a book about the plant, tited “Disassembled,” that delves into why GM pulled out.
He also examines the plant’s central role in raising generations of workers into the middle class. Along the way, he takes a look at two GM workers, the late Doris Thom and John Scott Jr.
Many will recognize Thom as the woman who kicked her way through the plant’s glass ceiling and Scott as the third black man hired to work there. Cullen tells how both endured their fellow Janesvillians’ ignorance-based attitudes and acts. He sees them as symbols and heroes of changes in the city and American society over the past six decades.
Cullen is in a good position to speak on those topics.
His grandfather and father worked at the plant, and he paid for college by working there several summers. He has been on the inside of Janesville’s circles of power and an avid fan of his hometown for much of his life. He wrote the bill that paid for the $7 million Avalon Road interchange on Interstate 90 when GM made it clear in the 1980s that it wanted better access to the plant.
“This was a typical example of the power relationship between GM and Janesville, its elected officials and Wisconsin state government. GM held the power, and we always tried to meet their needs,” Cullen writes.
GM management never forged close ties to Janesville, Cullen says. A good example: GM officials were told not to attend the 2004 ribbon-cutting for the Reuther Way GM access road, another multimillion-dollar gift from state taxpayers.
“They did not want to answer the question about whether this new road would lead to some new signal about GM’s future in Janesville,” Cullen writes.
As Cullen puts it, “GM dated Janesville for a long time but never married.”
The bad news came in June 2008: GM planned to close the plant by 2010. Months later, workers were told their last day would be that December.
Gov. Jim Doyle appointed Cullen in 2008 to co-chair a task force to save the plant. It didn’t go well. State and local governments and businesses came up with a $200 million incentive package as they tried to get GM to consider making its new product, the Chevrolet Spark, in Janesville.
Janesville was competing with a Michigan town for the same prize. The Wisconsin group met with GM officials in Detroit, who told them they would have a chance to counter the Michigan offer, but GM never called back, Cullen writes.
“We were not supposed to win,” Cullen believes.
Cullen said in hindsight, Janesville didn’t have a chance. Gas prices rose, leading to sinking sales of the Janesville-made Suburbans and other large SUVs. GM was over capacity and needed to consolidate. Although GM officials said Janesville was a more efficient plant, Arlington, Texas was attractive for many reasons, including Texas’ greater political clout, which included the fact that George W. Bush was still president at the end of 2008, and he was going to retire in his home state, Cullen writes.
And GM had bigger problems. The week company officials met with the Janesville delegation in September 2008, the GM CEO was in Washington, D.C., to beg for a massive bailout, Cullen writes.
GM had long failed to take steps to reduce its bloated administrative structure, Cullen says. GM declared bankruptcy and got a bailout under the next president, Barack Obama.
Cullen refers to candidate Obama’s speech at the Janesville plant earlier in 2008, when he didn’t promise to save the plant. Cullen includes the full text of Obama’s speech in the book’s appendix, a great reference for those who want to argue this point.
Political power was key for the Janesville GM plant in the 1980s, when the 1st Congressional District’s representative was Les Aspin, who as chairman of the Armed Services Committee had power over GM’s defense contracts, Cullen says.
Whenever he met with GM officials in Washington, Aspin asked how the Janesville plant was doing, says Cullen, who was Aspin’s district ombudsman early in his career.
Aspin’s power likely combined with key moves by the United Auto Workers Local 95 and got GM to move the medium-duty truck line to Janesville in 1989 and the SUV line in 1991, Cullen says.
Local 95 Shop Committee Chairman Jim Lee is a hero in the book. He led the membership to accept work-rule changes unique in the corporation that resulted in “huge” savings for GM, Cullen writes.
And Lee did this knowing it probably would lead to him losing his leadership post, which he did, Cullen said.
In 2008, Rep. Paul Ryan was the local congressman and a member of the save-the-plant task force who spoke to GM officials in Detroit, Cullen says.
But Ryan at that point had not ascended to a leadership role in the House. He didn’t have the clout of Michigan’s Rep. John Dingell, the longest-serving House member in history, Cullen points out.
The stories of Thom and Scott give Cullen a chance to criticize his hometown for its backward attitudes in decades past. Cullen says Janesville has come a long way, but it has more to do when it comes to the rights of women and people of color.
Cullen has lessons for his hometown and recommendations for any city that pins its hopes on one company whose headquarters is out of state. He chastises his fellow Janesvillians, including the unnamed prominent citizen who expressed his thoughts about black people to City Manager Phil Deaton in the 1970s: “We don’t want them here!”
Describing the variety of local efforts to make Janesville a better place, Cullen concludes something that was said often in the 1990s and early 2000s: “Today, Janesville is a wonderful place to live and raise a family.”
But he notes that the wages today are not in the same league as those of GM workers in decades past, and he worries about growing poverty.
Cullen might have another book in him, but this one often reads like a man bequeathing his final thoughts to the city he has loved for so long.
Note: Cullen will donate profits from the book to the Janesville Multicultural Teachers Opportunity Fund, which he started in 2008 to grant scholarships to Janesville graduates of color who agree to get a teaching degree and apply for jobs with the Janesville School District. The author of this article is married to Edna Feldman-Schultz, a retired teacher who serves on the fund’s board.