‘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.’
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.’
After 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