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What happens after a major employer completely shuts down and lays off more than a thousand workers?
That’s what Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post journalist Amy Goldstein wanted to find out. To get answers, she embedded in Janesville, Wisconsin—House Speaker Paul Ryan’s hometown—where General Motors shuttered its iconic assembly plant two days before Christmas in 2008, during the depths of the Great Recession. Overall, more than 4,000 workers lost their jobs at GM and its suppliers.
In Janesville, Goldstein spoke with the laid-off workers, social safety-net providers, teachers, union reps, business leaders, elected officials, and community decision-makers to learn how a community copes when good jobs leave town en masse.
The result is Goldstein’s first book, Janesville: An American Story (Simon & Schuster; April 18, 2017; $27; 9781501102233), which has been praised by Watergate-breaking investigative journalist Bob Woodward as “Brilliant, probing, and disturbing. A gripping story of psychological defeat and resilience.” E.J. Dionne raved: "If you want to know why 2016 happened, read this book."
On Monday, May 1, Community Advocates Public Policy Institute and Boswell Book Company will welcome Goldstein to Boswell to discuss Janesville. The event will begin at 7 p.m. at Boswell, 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee, where books will be available for sale. The event is free and open to the public.
To preview her visit, Goldstein answered a few of our questions about why she focused on Janesville and what we can learn from that community’s experience. Here’s what she had to say:
CA-PPI: Why Janesville? How did Janesville get on your radar?
Goldstein: I first heard about Janesville when I was looking in early 2009 for a setting for a Washington Post story about the strain on nonprofit safety-net services during the Great Recession. Someone mentioned that Janesville, a place I had never heard of, had just lost a large, old General Motors plant. At the time, the closing was recent and, with GM workers getting SUB [Supplemental Unemployment Benefits] pay, the economic pain hadn’t begun to seep in. But when I began thinking of a larger project, exploring what really happens to people and to a community when work vanishes, Janesville lingered in my mind.
CA-PPI: When General Motors was deciding where to manufacture a new subcompact car, Wisconsin leaders tried to persuade the company to choose the Janesville Assembly Plant by offering the biggest economic incentive package in the state’s history. But Michigan offered more to try to keep the Orion Assembly Plant open – and succeeded. How common is this?
Goldstein: As part of my research for the book, I explored this question of state and local economic incentives to help coax companies to locate in a certain place. And looking at other U.S. automobile plants that were built – or substantially rebuilt – around approximately the time that GM was deciding where to manufacture the Sonic, all of them involved even bigger incentive packages than Wisconsin had offered. It has become a norm. Even so, Michigan’s offer stands out. Its governor was highly motivated. At the time, Michigan had the nation’s highest employment rate, and that rate would have climbed if the Orion plant had closed.
CA-PPI: You dive into the work of Blackhawk Technical College, which retrained a lot of displaced workers. How did that go?
Goldstein: Job retraining is a popular idea – one of the few economic policies on which Democrats and Republicans tend to agree. I did not know it when I first arrived, but Blackhawk, a small school within Wisconsin’s system of technical colleges, did a lot of things right for the dislocated workers who swamped the campus the first few years after the assembly plant closed. College administrators and instructors met with local businesses to try to figure out which fields were most likely to have waiting jobs. The school began computer boot camps and taught study skills to former factory workers who were nervous about becoming students and worried about their futures.
Hard as the college tried, these students’ success was very mixed. Overall, they were less likely over a few years to have steady work than laid-off people in the area who hadn’t retrained, and they had larger income drops compared with their earnings before the Great Recession.
CA-PPI: You follow the GM Gypsies – General Motors workers who live in Janesville and commute each week to an assembly plant in Indiana. What is life like for them, and what is the culture at that plant?
Goldstein: Janesville’s laid-off GM workers had an option not available to others in UAW Local 95 who had worked for supplier companies: the possibility of transferring to General Motors plants in other states. It was a hard decision, because few Janesville families wanted to move and it thus often meant workers spent their work life far from their families. Still, transfers offered a way to retrieve GM wages. The Fort Wayne Assembly Plant drew workers from 25 GM facilities in 11 states under one roof. The worker on whom I focus in the book is clear that he stays in Fort Wayne during the week, but it’s not his home. He keeps his watch on Janesville time.
CA-PPI: What are lessons from Janesville for other communities recovering from the loss of a major employer?
Goldstein: I wanted my book to be a close-up of what happens in one community when a lot of work goes away. I also wanted it to be a metaphor for the many communities that lost various kinds of work during what was the nation’s worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. I discovered that Janesville is quite a resilient place, with lots of philanthropy. Families have worked hard to reinvent their livelihoods as best they can. Community leaders have been trying to rebuild the local economy. Even with such determination, recovering from this kind of economic blow is hard, and, though a few businesses are arriving, there is little expectation that a new employer will ever bring thousands of jobs at $28-an-hour.
Want to ask Amy Goldstein some questions about Janesville? Join us on Monday, May 1, at 7 p.m. at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee. Community Advocates Public Policy Institute and Boswell Book Company are co-sponsoring her appearance. The event is free and open to the public, but to RSVP, email email@example.com. See you there!
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