When I was a kid, I used to get a kick out of taking a quick run out to the barn to sit in my great-grandpa's old '34 Chevy Pickup. The standard paint job, a forest green, took all who viewed the old truck back to the depression era. Built like a tank, the truck became a symbol in my family. We all were thrilled when my uncle acquired it from the folks, and got it up and running several years ago. It still carries a farm family's legacy, even though it has seen better days since my uncle's passing last year.
My mom told me the other night that the old Chevy was fabricated in GM's 85-year-old Janesville auto plant. Unfortunately, Tuesday in Janesville the last shift of workers completed the final vehicle to run off the assembly line, and the plant closed.
WXOW-TV in Janesville notes that the first truck rolled off the Janesville line in 1923. Since then, generations of Wisconsin and Illinois auto workers have commuted to work the line. The plant was a symbol of the strength, quality, and honorable work that was produced there. Indeed, it was the single largest major manufacturer in the area, and when the last of 1,200 jobs ended yesterday, so did the idea in Janesville that if you got on at the plant, maybe where your dad or mom worked, you too would have a pretty good life; thanks to the UAW and your "other family" at the plant. Once in, one found that the "other family" were as integral to one's life as one's blood family.
Now the plant is silent. The last SUV rolled off the line Tuesday and will be donated to charity. It's a muted tribute to a plant President-Elect Barack Obama visited during the campaign. He promised to try to save the American auto industry. Unfortunately, he isn't in office soon enough to save the Janesville Assembly Plant.
Janesville saw it coming, but it was still a shock. In June, when the closing was announced, UAW leaders said they were going to try to get GM to change the decision. That's all gone now, as have the smiles on a lot of the faces of people on the street in Janesville.
The story of what has happened to the American manufacturing industries in the last 20 years is a shameful legacy of the global economic downturn. When I was growing up, part of my life was spent living in strong manufacturing towns like Newton, IA, Middle Amana, IA, and East Moline, IL. Union folks, my dad and mom taught me, were the best kind of people; to be respected for their hard work to build and live the American Dream. Management was often arrogant and aloof, and rarely respected in these towns because of actions that sold-out their neighbors. Well, they weren't neighbors, really, they just moved-in and moved-out to follow the next promotion, or more money.
When the Newton, IA, Maytag Assembly Plant was finally closed in 2007, many in the town blamed themselves. They wondered if they had done everything they could to save their jobs and their town. It was a dark time in the former home of "The Maytag Repairman." After all, "Newton" had been the name of the repairman's faithful dog, a symbol of one of the strongest manufacturing brands in the United States. Whirlpool, which acquired Maytag in 2006, never really held a commitment to Newton, as the people there were seen as a pain in the butt for their tendency to protect themselves through tough labor negotiations with the company.
Newton has begun to rebound, with a group of new "green" industry jobs taking hold in the town. A commitment from civic, business, and political leaders in the town has brought a bounce back to workers in the town. From giant wind turbines to the concrete towers that support them, Newton's manufacturing plants are stirring again, and pride has been restored to some of the workers there; although it is but a fraction of the number that worked for Maytag and its supporting suppliers. An estimated 1800 jobs have been added statewide in Iowa, not even close to offsetting the numbers of people Maytag and its suppliers once employed in Newton alone.
The budding success stories in Newton and other towns are stories that Janesville will hopefully emulate. In order for the town to survive, it will have to commit to aggressive economic development, and without much support from the states of Wisconsin or Illinois, both of which are suffering massive deficits. So far Janesville has had some success with a few new smaller plants, some in plastics, others in food services, each picking up a little bit of the slack created by the GM plant closure.
There are opportunities for new "green" jobs there, too. The stated commitment by President-Elect Barack Obama may be the best shot for this bastion of Badger and Packer pride. Always working hard, Janesville's leaders never have been people to slack off on the job.
They will need our support, though, and it is critical that as we celebrate the holidays, we remember Janesville and hundreds of other towns around the country that have seen real quality "honest work" jobs go down the tubes while Wall Street elites collect their ill-deserved holiday bonuses on the taxpayer's dime. We need to make a point of shopping in these towns, investing our business dollars and retraining program dollars in the people there, and insure that Obama and other political leaders keep their promises to the good union folk that have supported our country from the beginning. Most of all, we need to remember what caused this whole calamity in the first place--the failure of Americans to buy American and insist that American companies keep jobs here. That is the only way we can ever expect to regain the American Dream for all of our people.
This holiday, please remember Janesville, and Newton, and Middle Amana, and East Moline. These people are hurting, and we need to help our neighbors get through this. Let's say a prayer, in our own way, that things are about to get much better for all of us.