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Jerad 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