“Janesville: An American Story”

by Amy Goldstein

Published April 2017, Simon & Schuster, 369 pages

Hardcover $27, softcover $10, ebook edition $12

In a nutshell: In an all too familiar refrain, a Midwestern town struggles to find itself after losing its major employer.

Who’s it for? General audiences; those involved in economic or workforce development.

Author’s quote: “ … Janesville has been left to rely to a considerable extent on its own resources. Fortunately, those resources include more generosity and ingenuity – and less bitterness – than in many communities that have been economically injured. Still, over time some people prosper. Some grieve. Some get by.”

For those of us who may have blocked out the details of the economic collapse of 2008-10,  “Janesville” is a reminder of the effects a plant closing can have on a community. Author Any Goldstein spent a good part of three years following the human impact of a General Motors car assembly facility that closed its doors in Janesville, Wisc. in June 2008.

As far back as the early 1900s, Janesville centered its economy and identity on manufacturing. For generations, Janesville families believed that their incomes and livelihoods would be guaranteed … just like it was for their parents and grandparents.

When doom and gloom reports about GM’s financial situation began to dominate the news, the people of Janesville continued to believe that they were immune. Once GM actually closed the plant, a wide range of Janesville’s residents – from plant workers to younger residents – weighed in with their firsthand accounts. The most noteworthy is Janesville’s native son, current Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who was caught by surprise when he was given only 24 hours notice that the plant was going to be shut down.

After the plant finishes its final run of SUVs, the local workforce development agency and community college form a plan to retrain laid off workers. What jobs the displaced workers are training for remains a mystery. Goldstein follows two women who decide to study for law enforcement careers that lead to divergent paths. Some of the former assembly line workers hear that a regional utility company may be hiring lineman and enroll in classes to hopefully gain the needed skills. Some of the long time “GMers” lacking basic computer skills begin classes, but opt out of the retraining when they learn that class assignments have to be keyboarded rather than handwritten.

Some of Janesville’s GM employees transferred to other GM facilities in Indiana and Ohio. To retain their $28 hourly wages, they become “GM gypsies,” leaving Janesville at 3 a.m. Monday to work a full week out of town, returning home early Saturday morning.

Economic developers and community leaders try to stay upbeat, working to lure high tech companies into town. We get to know the displaced workers, their families, and others (teachers, non-profit organizations, volunteers) behind the scenes doing the yeoman’s work to hold everyone together.

For many of us, hearing the story of Janesville echoes the economic downturns that Michigan has suffered since the 1970s. This knowledge makes it a bit surprising to understand how unprepared Janesville was when GM began its downward spiral in 2008, but no less painful to read.

Ultimately, Janesville ends up being the same as it never was. Many former GM employees continue to struggle with the transition. Retraining efforts have mixed results. Civic leader are minimally successful with the recruitment of a Dollar General warehouse facility. The local UAW union which once dominated the town is reduced to ashes. In the end it is Janesville’s spirit that is barely enough to keep the town intact, which the book so articulately captures.

Chris Wendel is a business services consultant with Northern Initiatives, a community development financial institution based in Marquette, Mich. Northern Initiatives provides money and know-how to businesses throughout Michigan. Wendel lives and works in Traverse City and can be reached at cwendel@northerninitiatives.org.