Tuesday, December 1, 2009

End of the line . . . literally

"[T]he old hotel, without a single light, tells you that the best days around here are gone." That's the story of Janesville, Wisconsin (pop. ~60,000), a small rural town that, up until last year, depended heavily on the General Motors plant there for jobs and a livelihood.

The plant closed down one year ago and now many of the town's residents are at a loss for what to do. How will they continue to live without a steady source of income?

Photo: Danny Wilcox Frazier, for Mother Jones

I ran across this article while randomly browsing a magazine in the bookstore. I thought I'd blog about it just because it seems to be such a prevalent occurrence. We've seen so many of these types of stories - manufacturing industry leaves small town, collapsing the local economy and leaving residents in shambles.

The Janesville Assembly Plant was everything in that town--'a birthright, a job for life'--for four generations. People there never wanted to believe that the plant would close. But according to one resident, "[i]t was always in the back of my mind around here...[t]hey can take it away . . . [w]ell, they did. Now what? Can't sell my house. Main Street's boarding up. The kids around here are getting into drugs. You wonder when's the last train leaving this station? I just never believed it was going to happen."

Today, the strip club across the street from the plant is an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting place, the local food bank serves 10 percent more people than it did a year ago, and there are people in the welfare line who never thought they would be there. After the plant closed last winter, unemployment in Janesville was among the highest in Wisconsin, but lately has gone down to 11%.

Photo: Danny Wilcox Frazier, for Mother Jones

Most factory workers who were laid off draw their salary for one year, and one-half their salary for the second year, but then they're out of luck. "We took it for granted," says Nancy Nienhuis, 76, a retired factory nurse who farms on the outskirts of town. "The rumor would start, they're talking about closing the plant. No one would believe it . . . [t]he manager and the worker sat next to each other in church, you see? They went to high school together. Understand?," said another. Richard, a former plant welder, laments, "I'm 62 and I'm delivering doughnuts. What am I going to do? . . . [i]t's a discouraging thing." Another resident, 61, says, "It was the lifeblood of this town. It was the identity of this town. Now we have nothing, nothing but worry."

While the lost income is a serious consequence of the plant closing, in a way, it also sheds light on a 'grass is always greener' kind of scenario. The folks in Janesville yearn for those monotonous, dangerous factory jobs they lost. However, thinking back, one resident described it, "You're a machine." [He put bumpers on trucks - three bolts, three washers, three nuts - every minute for eight hours]. "You just went home thinking nothing except the work tomorrow and your whole life spent down in that hole. And you thinking how you're going to get out. Well, now it's gone and alls we're thinking about is wanting to have it back." Maybe this is a call for redevelopment of cleaner industry. At the risk of sounding overly optomistic, when a town suffers a loss such as this one by GM, it's an opportunity to start over, to build up from ground level using new technology that will be kinder to both the mind and the body.

For now, Janesville's largest employers are Mercy Health System and the Janesville School District. There remains some hope that the old GM plant could re-open, retrofitted to produce new, greener technology like wind, solar and electric. Yet, it is a distant hope. Earlier this year, another GM plant in Michigan beat out Janesville as the site to produce GM's new subcompact small car. However, the Wisconsin state Democrats recently announced a program that would create jobs, particularly in green retrofitting for manufacturing industries. The Wisconsin Connecting Opportunity, Research, and Entrepreneurship (C.O.R.E.) Jobs Act is a comprehensive economic development package that builds on successful job creation programs and capitalizes on state strengths. It's top priority is to "rebuild Wisconsin’s economy, and put our men and women back to work." Hopefully, residents of Janesville will benefit from this C.O.R.E. program, should it be successful. The economic recession may have had a small lump of good in it - in that it has caused policymakers to take a second look at rural areas and see what kinds of renewal are possible there that will help both the local and national economies. There may be potential for Janesville plant if demand for green technology increases. Until then, Janesville remains on standby.

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