AWF18: Janesville: Amy Goldstein

AWF18: Janesville: Amy Goldstein

‘One of Barack Obama’s top reads of 2017, Janesville: An American Story, traces the lives of workers and their families, and the response of public and private sectors in the wake of General Motors’ decision to close its Wisconsin assembly plant in 2008.’

AWF18 5 Janesville

Illustrated notes copyright Tara Black

Full text by Elizabeth Heritage

A big crowd gathered in the main Aotea Centre theatre to hear Toby Manhire interview US writer Amy Goldstein. She is a Washington Post journalist and has written a book about the effects of the GFC on the town of Janesville in Wisconsin. (Manhire joked that, for those who don’t know, the Washington Post is like The Spinoff but with a print version too.) The two had a good rapport and Goldstein was a pleasure to listen to: knowledgeable, articulate, and interesting.

In June 2008, the closure of the General Motors plant in Janesville was announced. This was a significant blow for the town, where the plant was a major employer. Goldstein started researching the town in 2011, and published her book, which has been very well received, last year. It shows the domino effects of the plant closure through the stories of several Janesville families. Some workers became ‘GM gypsies’ who took work at plants a long way away, and had to live apart from their families during the working week.

Goldstein said she was motivated to write this book because, rather than a macro-economic story, she wanted to portray a ‘ground-level view of what happens when good work goes away’. She avoided focussing on the rust belt because she ‘wanted to write about place where economic trauma was new’. After the plant closure, a lot of middle-class workers became working class. ‘The American Dream is meant to have upward trajectory – people were shell-shocked.’ A lot of folk felt humiliated: those who are used to being self-reliant find it very difficult to accept help. In the Whittaker family, not only both parents but also their teenage children are working multiple part-time jobs. The children took their mother grocery shopping late Saturday night so no one would see them slip her some cash. ‘My reporter’s ear went, oh that’s good.’

IMG_20180518_165120053_LLAfter losing their jobs, many workers turned to education. Goldstein noted that there tends to be political consensus that retraining is what you’re meant to do when you become unemployed. However, she did some research on the local technical college and found that, several years after the plant closure, people who had not gone back to school were more likely to be working, and had suffered less of drop in pay.

Goldstein referred to the people in her book as ‘characters’, but they are all real people, and their real names are used in the book. It is based on hours and hours of interviews, as well as Goldstein’s observations from her time in Janesville.

Next month it will be the ten-year anniversary of the announcement of the closure of the Janesville GM plant. After being ‘in standby’ for many years, it permanently closed in 2015. It has now been sold and is being demolished. The former workers have just been offered the chance to own a brick. By the time Goldstein told us that, near the end of the session, we were so taken up in her storytelling that we all groaned. I will definitely be buying the book.

Illustrations with notes by Tara Black, full piece by Elizabeth Heritage

Janesville: An American Story
Published by Simon & Schuster
ISBN 9781501102264


Book Review: Janesville, by Amy Goldstein

Available in bookshops nationwide

cv_janesville.jpgJerad Whiteaker had worked at the General Motors manufacturing plant in Janesville, Wisconsin, for thirteen years when its closure was announced in 2008. Each of the stations he worked along the assembly line had bored him to no end, but he had stuck at it, as no other jobs in town could match the $28 an hour.

Now with the plant closure, he and so many others have been severed from a secure wage and have some confronting choices ahead of them. The repercussions ripple outwards, paying no heed to people’s circumstance, affecting a myriad of lives in different ways. Deri Wahlert, the local social studies teacher, realises that it is not just the ‘GMers’ who face the impacts, but the small shops that will no longer have customers, the freight yards transporting goods, as well as the construction workers and carpet layers – as people won’t be able to afford homes.

Janesville, by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Amy Goldstein of the Washington Post, is an impressive and engaging feat of reporting, which extends far beyond the immediate aftermath of the town’s loss of its major employer into the years of struggle beyond, as people rally, tread water and attempt to avoid the fall in various ways.

We meet a cast of characters – former GMers, bankers, politicians (including Paul Ryan), educators and so on – and we warm to them, hoping that their efforts prove fruitful. This is a social history, an emotional history – an archive of responses, a meticulous work of lived-experience testimonies. Here the domestic sphere, which is straining under pressure from much larger forces, is political. With the number of individual threads compromised, there is to be a dramatic rift in the urban fabric.

There is a narrative of hope, which from the reader’s safe distance becomes an increasingly empty echo as we move through the book towards 2013. First the town has hope that GM might be lured back, that the manufacturing line might just be a pause. But in spite of ‘the enormous dowries in the form of tax breaks’ that are offered, the closure is final. Janesville, like many places around the world, has entered a post-industry era, and the town must shift (or sink) with the times.

There is ample grant money available for former factory workers to retrain. Bob Borreman, who runs the Rock County Job Centre, is optimistic at first, thinking that perhaps the ‘catastrophe might prove to be unbidden opportunity to help people find the work paths that would have suited them all along.’ Barb Vaughn, who worked at Lear Corp, the factory that made seats for GM vehicles, faces a reinvention of self, and retrains as correctional officer, aware that she will need to ‘shed old factory habits… and pick up new ways’.

Yet a few years down the track, people are coming out of training with no jobs, or with jobs that offer less than half their former pay. Matt Wopat began retraining as a linesman, but realising the slim chances of securing employment in his new field, takes a GM factory job some four hours away, joining the ‘GM gypsies’, whose family lives now occur as the commute allows.

There is continued cross-party agreement on money being funnelled into job training. Politicians, business leaders and the public peddle in hope: ‘The premise is that this recession would be like the past recessions and that jobs would come back at the pace they have before’. But it becomes increasingly obvious that there are no jobs to go into and that the unschooled are more likely to find work, and better paying work at that. There are homeless teenagers; the suicide rate has doubled. In Jerad’s home his daughters, who have after-school jobs, need to pay for the groceries. Any way you look at it, the standard of living has declined and working poverty is on the rise.

In a global economy, it is a complex task indeed to rebuild a prosperous city. The gradual accretion and diversification of businesses, their suppliers and networks, the housing and amenity that this then allows for – all of this takes time. Janesville is a moving and cautionary account of what happens when global forces, sunset industries and human energies coincide.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

by Amy Goldstein
Published by Simon & Schuster