Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Amy Goldstein spent several years in Janesville, documenting the fallout from GM's departure in 2008. This excerpt from her new book focuses on Mike Vaughn, whose family is one of three Goldstein profiles. See our interview with Goldstein here.
The backpack slung over his shoulder is light as Mike Vaughn walks out of Blackhawk’s classroom building and crosses the asphalt expanse toward his Chevy pickup. It is mid-May, and Mike isn’t toting any books tonight. Just an attendance slip he needs to turn in to the Workforce Development agency that has paid for all his classes, and a few sheets of notes he’d brought along in case he wanted to study just before his final exam. Mike has always gotten to his classes and his exams a half hour early, as he did for shifts in his factory days. Now, as he walks toward his white truck, it is near 9 p.m., and the exam for his business law course, his last final exam, is over.
By this night, 26 months have gone by since Mike took the brief, nostalgic glance back at the empty factory floor at Lear Corp., Janesville’s largest supplier to General Motors, manufacturing the seats for every vehicle that came out of the assembly plant. Mike was shop chairman for United Auto Workers Local 95, a responsibility that made him the third generation of his family to have been a leader in the local.
Over time, he has stayed in touch less and less with the 800 union brothers and sisters he represented at Lear, easing each round through their layoffs as best he could. Just a few friends and people he runs into now and then around town. It’s not that Mike doesn’t think about the times and the people of his past. But those times are gone, and no point dwelling on them.
His father, Dave, the middle generation of the union Vaughns, is still active in the union. Nearly a decade after he retired from General Motors, he is still volunteering as vice president of UAW Local 95, as he was when Mike broke the news that he was going into human resources, putting himself on the management side. The local’s membership has shriveled, the number of units whose workers it represents dwindled from 16 companies to five, given the suppliers that closed along with GM. And the workers who remain cannot claim paid “release time” from their jobs to help run the union — as Mike did at Lear and Dave before him at General Motors — which is why the local’s officers these days are retirees like Dave.
While his father is helping to lead what remains of the union, Mike has found that it’s best to stay focused on what lies ahead. On this Wednesday night, what is immediately ahead is his graduation on Saturday at the Dream Center, just like his wife Barb’s a year ago. So, with graduation three days away, Mike is walking to his truck with pride and fear.
The pride is easy to understand. Mike is excited that he did it — 23 courses in all, pulling 21 As, an A-minus, and one B. Like Barb before him, he will be wearing with his cap and gown a golden sash and honor cord. He will tell a Janesville Gazette reporter: “I got decked out. At 43, I’m proud of my accomplishments.”
The fear that runs alongside is because Mike cannot avoid the sense that a moment of truth has arrived. When he handed in his exam a few minutes ago, he completed a gamble, to which he has devoted two years of his life, that the Job Center’s retraining gospel was worth believing. Certainly, the gospel has been spread wide. Last year, when he started at Blackhawk, 543 other out-of-a-job factory workers in Rock County — and about 100,000 nationwide at a cost to U.S. taxpayers of $575 million — got the kind of Trade Adjustment training subsidies that Mike helped to negotiate for Lear’s workers as it was shutting down. Nationally, nearly half the trainees who got this help last year, and about one-third this year in which he is graduating, will not quickly find a job.
Two months ago, Mike began to apply for jobs. Dozens of jobs. He figured that his résumé might get noticed, with his near-perfect grades and his decade on the union side of human resources work, including five years as the shop chairman of an 800-person factory. He would get noticed, he figured, because of the contracts that he negotiated, the grievances he handled, the employee contract language he interpreted, the Kronos workforce management system that he already knows how to use. Union side or management side, he figured, the work is similar, and companies would surely notice that he had been doing it for years.
Mike is surprised that all he has gotten are rejection letters, when he has heard anything at all. Company after company telling him that they are looking for someone with a bachelor’s degree and three to five years’ experience in human resources management. He understands that companies can afford to be choosy when so many people want these scarce human resources jobs, want any job. Yet Mike can’t help but be nervous that, three days before graduation, he hasn’t gotten a single callback.
Proud as he is of his accomplishments, his mind-set is not helped by the fact that, in March, for reasons unfathomable to him, his unemployment checks stopped arriving. His unemployment benefits were supposed to keep flowing as long as he was in school. He knows other out-of-a-job workers who were laid off earlier than him and are going to be in school longer than he will and are still collecting their unemployment. But try though he has, he cannot persuade anyone in the Wisconsin agency that handles unemployment insurance that the status someone assigned to him — “exhausted time period for benefits”—must be a mistake. He and Barb have been dipping lately into their small savings, because trying to live on her $10.30 an hour, from her new job helping a developmentally disabled client, isn’t the same as living on her $10.30 an hour plus his unemployment checks.
So finding a job as soon as he graduates is a matter of urgency to Mike — such urgency that he has even started to apply for laborer’s jobs, just in case the human resources management plan in which he has invested these two years of his life does not pan out. He has started to stare hard at the question of how far he is willing to commute each day if a job were to come along. Is Madison too far? Rockford, Illinois? Further away? As Mike walks toward his truck, his last exam just behind him, his graduation just ahead, a large question jostles in his mind: “What’s next?”
This pride-fear combination will linger inside Mike for precisely two more weeks. Two Wednesdays from now, he will go for an interview at Seneca Foods Corporation, a vegetable processing plant in Janesville that happens to have an entry-level position in its human resources department. That Friday, he will get a call to come in on Monday for a preemployment physical. On Tuesday, he will be told that he can start work the next day. And so, on June 1, Mike will not be thinking much about the fact that he has to work the overnight shift, or that he will be dealing with workers and interpreting labor contract language from the corporate side and not the union side, or that he and Barb will, between them, be earning just over half the money they had made at Lear.
Mike will be thanking his lucky stars that, after 28 months without a job, he is starting a new career.
Amy Goldstein will be talking about her book at Mystery to Me bookstore in Madison on April 27. She will also appear April 28 at UW-Madison (Sewell Social Sciences Building; room 8417), 1180 Observatory Drive.