Roger Bybee does a lot of writing about labor and union issues, and he's done several stories for us on those and related topics. This week, he conveys to us the story of the dissolution of the auto industry in Janesville and the demise it portends for the future of that city.
The Janesville story is not an isolated case in these economically challenging times - there are plenty of historically prosperous cities dealing with a rough patch right now. Nor are stories of wounded communities anything new. They always accompany times of dislocation, such as we're experiencing, when changing technology and the sunset of manufacturing herald a new world order.
I've been there before. I started out life in a Western Pennsylvania town, Donora, hard on the Monongahela River about 20 miles south of Pittsburgh. The population of Donora today is about 5,250, down 6.9% since 2000, and consisting mostly of folks who've been there too long to go anywhere else. The median age is 42.2 years, versus 38 for the state as a whole. The median household income is $38,170; for all Pennsylvania households it's $50,713.
In 1948 Donora had 14,000 people, many of whom worked at the U.S. Steel wire plant or the zinc works, where the wire was coated with zinc (galvanized) to keep it from rusting. The plants closed in the mid-'50s, and by 1970 the population was down to 9,000. The jobs never came back.
I'm not saying Janesville is Donora waiting to happen. What took place in Donora happened in scores of small cities up and down the river. Janesville still sits amid relative prosperity. But it won't be an easy task to replace all those well-paying auto jobs, and there is a lot of work to be done before the work returns.