We meet Mike Vaughn on his final day at Lear Corp., the Janesville company that manufactured all the seats for the cars that rolled off General Motors’ neighboring assembly line. Vaughn spent 18 years at the plant, where he met his wife, Barb, and rose to shop chairman for United Auto Workers Local 95. He comes from a long line of union men. His grandfather worked at GM for 30 years and his father, 35. Together he and Barb once pulled in over six figures, but after today — April 10, 2009 — they will go from one income to none.
The Vaughns are one of three families author Amy Goldstein, in her new book, Janesville: An American Story, profiles in extraordinary detail in the years following the shuttering of what was then GM’s oldest operating assembly plant. As she notes in the book, the destinies of the Lear factory and GM’s assembly plant were inextricably linked: “In Janesville, the assembly plant had been Lear’s only client, their fortunes bound together.”
The GM plant ceased production of SUVs on Dec. 23, 2008, with roughly 1,200 workers losing their jobs two days before Christmas (a small crew continued truck production through the spring). About 800 workers at Lear lost their jobs. There would be much more collateral damage to come.
The book grew out of Goldstein’s work covering social policy for The Washington Post during the Great Recession. The Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter was writing a lot of stories on the ground-level effects of the bust, but found herself wanting to drill down even more. “I just became obsessed with understanding what was happening with people’s lives,” she says in a phone interview from Washington, D.C., where she lives and works.
Goldstein started looking for a community that would serve as a microcosm of the country’s economic woes. She wanted to focus on a locale that fit the national pattern of unemployment — where disproportionate numbers of people were losing relatively high-paying jobs and had low levels of education. She was also looking for a community with a technical college because she was interested in job retraining efforts — something that, in increasingly partisan times, has rare bipartisan support.
And Janesville had one more thing in its favor. “I thought there had to be something interesting in the fact that this was an old UAW town represented by Paul Ryan in a state governed by Scott Walker,” says Goldstein. “I figured I would find interesting dynamics.”
In one of the early scenes in the book, Goldstein describes the trip Ryan, then the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, former Gov. Jim Doyle and former state Sen. Tim Cullen (recently retired from Blue Cross Blue Shield) took to Detroit in September 2008 to try to convince GM officials to keep the Janesville plant going. Their package of tax credits, government grants and union concessions was ultimately unsuccessful. But Goldstein says Ryan continued to work behind the scenes to help his hometown and district.
Talks about the future of the Janesville GM plant continued for years. In a February 2015 meeting, Rep. Paul Ryan told the Janesville Gazette editorial board that GM made it clear to him they would not be reopening the vacant plant.
“There was a big economic development effort in the city and Rock County,” she says. “He has sometimes been asked to quietly talk with businesses the county or city is trying to recruit.”
At the same time, Ryan’s star was rising in the House, and he was becoming very focused on federal fiscal policy. “So his attention was not 100 percent back home,” says Goldstein. But Ryan saw the two as connected, adds Goldstein. “He believed that getting federal fiscal policy right is important to helping communities.”
While Goldstein’s book covers the 2011 protests in Madison over Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union efforts and subsequent unsuccessful recall campaign, the political arena is not her primary focus; her real interest — and the strength of her book — is in showing how ordinary families and individuals fared after GM pulled out, losing $28-an-hour jobs with benefits that would be nearly impossible to find again.
With a sharp decrease in family income, the laid-off workers all faced tough choices. Many enrolled at Blackhawk Technical College to be retrained for other jobs.
Mike Vaughn ends up there, deciding that his work as a union shop chairman put him in a good position to go into human relations, even if it meant he’d be on the management side.
Matt Wopat, who worked at GM for 13 years before the closing (and whose father had earlier retired after 40 years at the plant), is less focused. He eventually enrolls in Blackhawk’s electric power distribution program. Also in the program is Jerad Whiteaker, whose family Goldstein also profiles.
Whiteaker had heard there were good jobs at Alliant Energy but they would entail climbing tall utility poles. He quickly learns at Blackhwawk that he does not like climbing even the practice poles, and there are rumors that jobs at Alliant might actually be drying up. He drops out after two weeks.
Former GM workers flocked to Blackhawk Technical College for retraining, including two men profiled by Goldstein who enrolled in the electrical power distribution program. Neither graduated.
Wopat sticks it out longer, studying at night at home with his daughters, struggling with the math. But he too starts hearing the rumors about Alliant, and is constantly worrying that he and his wife will not be able to cover their expenses. He learns there are GM jobs in Indiana about to come open and, nine weeks shy of getting his diploma, he drops out of Blackhawk.
Wopat becomes a “GM gypsy,” traveling back and forth from Janesville to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he works at a GM plant and shares an apartment with another GM autoworker. That means he sees his wife and three girls only on weekends.
Wopat makes an understandable choice, but Goldstein’s descriptive storytelling reveals the heartbreak as well. Like how Wopat’s children won’t watch their favorite TV shows during the week, but record them so the family can watch together on Sunday. Or how one daughter, a junior in high school, doesn’t like to go out on weekends so she can spend all that time with her dad. It’s these kinds of details, which Goldstein recreated from countless hours of interviews with her sources, that put a human face on the larger national story of economic downturn.
Goldstein says, from the start, she “wanted to operate on two layers.”
“I wanted to have this intimate quality where you see people’s lives changing. I also wanted to have some scaffolding. To make clear that the people I was writing about were representative of a larger reality in their community.”
So she worked with economists, including Laura Dresser of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy at UW-Madison, to do a statistical analysis to see whether retraining efforts were helping the thousands of laid-off workers in southern Wisconsin in the years after GM’s departure. She focused on Blackhawk Technical College.
The findings, she says, were surprising. “Having gone back to school in many cases was not particularly helpful,” Goldstein says. It did not necessarily produce a job at the other end or better pay.
Goldstein doesn’t blame Blackhawk, whose staff worked closely with local business leaders to anticipate where job openings might be and to encourage people to go into those fields. School officials also created a lot of support services for students, including basic computer instruction, once they realized many of the former factory workers did not have these skills.
“The issue was that there still weren’t enough jobs on the other end,” says Goldstein. “That is not to say retraining itself is a bad idea.” But, she adds, “retraining can’t compensate for a lack of local jobs.”
Before GM, there was the Parker Pen Company. Founded in 1888, it produced fancy pens and supported good jobs in the city for decades until it, too, eventually left Janesville for good. Parker High School, named after the founder of Parker Pen, was built in 1967. And, by the fall of 2008, there was something called the “Parker Closet.”
It was the creation of social studies teacher Deri Wahlert, who convinced her principal to let her convert a spare storage room in the high school into a supply cabinet. As Goldstein writes, it was for kids in need, who “ducked inside, when their friends weren’t looking so that nobody else would know, to comb through donated Rubbermaid bins for toothpaste or used jeans or cans of soup.”
Wahlert sees not just the increased material needs of her students, due to plummeting incomes at home and the ongoing recession, but the accompanying emotional toll. “Last year alone, seven of her Closet kids threatened suicide — a few even attempted it,” Goldstein writes. “She notices that her Closet kids who have grown up poor, always been poor, tend to be tougher, better at coping with it. The fragile ones are new to being poor, with parents fighting about how to live without the money they used to have.”
Goldstein says one of her takeaways from her research is that “falling out of the middle class is very different from having been poor all along.”
In a striking scene from the book, one of Wahlert’s students finally cracks, sharing the troubles her parents are having making ends meet. When introduced to the Parker Closet, it’s the first time it seems to dawn on her that other families in the community were going through similar troubles.
There are so many stories in the book that Goldstein, helpfully, provides a “cast of characters” cheat sheet at the beginning. She interviews business leaders and economic development officials, union retirees who stay on as union volunteers, college administrators, and leaders of nonprofit organizations.
Goldstein’s goal was to show how the changes brought on by GM’s departure “looked from many different vantage points in town. I wanted it to be like a kaleidoscope.”
Read an excerpt of "Janesville: An American Story." Amy Goldstein will be talking about her book at Mystery to Me bookstore in Madison on April 27, 7 p.m. She will also appear April 28, 4 p.m., at UW-Madison (Sewell Social Sciences Building; room 8417), 1180 Observatory Drive.
[Editor's Note: This article was changed to reflect that Tim Cullen retired from Blue Cross Blue Shield in 2007.]