Cities and corporations adore being on lists like “Best City to Raise a Family” or “Best Company to Work For.” But, beginning in 1988, there was a list that neither wanted its name on: the Federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification, or WARN, which provides details to communities facing impending plant closings.
The WARN law requires businesses planning a mass lay off or closing to notify the state where the layoffs will take place 60 days before the action. The idea was simple: advance notice would prohibit companies from padlocking their doors and would give states time to plan reemployment services.
Throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s, an ever-growing number of communities went on the list as the auto industry struggled with massive restructuring, trimming its workforce in half.
On June 2, 2008, Janesville, Wisconsin, found itself on the ignominious list. It began with a phone call. There was always a phone call. This time, Rick Wagoner, Chairman and CEO of General Motors at the time, placed a call to congressman Paul Ryan, who hailed from Janesville. His news was straightforward. Wagoner told Ryan that some 2,800 workers were headed to the scrap heap of unemployment and the plant would shutter by 2010.
Washington Post reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Amy Goldstein tells the saga with compassion in her award winning book, “Janesville: An American Story.”
Goldstein, who covers social policy issues for the Post, had been covering the effects of the housing crisis and the middle class recession when she decided to look at the impacts of a major plant closing.
“Most of what had been written was from a macro level. I wanted to look at it differently,” Goldstein said. “I was looking for a small city that had lost a lot of jobs and Janesville lingered in my mind. It was never in the Rust Belt and I didn’t want to write about Detroit, an old union town.”
She turned her focus to telling the story of a plant closing through the eyes of individual workers and their families, while putting the closure into the context of a dramatically changing political climate.
Initially, Goldstein spent five months identifying and talking with people in Janesville who would ultimately become the focus of her book. She would return numerous times and spend countless hours on the telephone.
“I thought it was important to not just include workers, but also people coming of age. There was a lot of teenagers caught up in the closing and families tended to keep this private,” she said. “I got to know many more residents who would not fit in the book, but the characters in the book are representative of the community.”
Goldstein delves into the post layoff lives and blues of a union official, housewives, recent and long- time UAW workers, community boosters, local and state politicians, educators, business leaders and family members.
As the author follows the individuals and families, the layoffs ramp up, supplemental benefits run out and savings are depleted. Workers enter retraining programs with great hope, but with little chance of an equivalent job.
Some, like Matt Wopat, become GM nomads — transferring to another GM plant, a four and half-hour drive away, returning home to their families on weekends.
Goldstein also tells how average folks step up. Amy Venuti, a high school teacher, helps manage a “closet” where teenagers who can’t afford new clothes and toiletries go to when in need. Social worker Ann Forbeck helps starts Project 16:49, a program for the burgeoning number of homeless teenagers.
Goldstein is especially good at telling the dramatic story of two women, Kristi and Barb, who take classes at the local technical college to work as jail guards.
They’re decent jobs, but the pay is less than one-half of a GM job. For a time their future looks bright, but soon Barb can no longer handle the job and leaves. Her best friend Kristi begins an affair with a prisoner and when she is discovered, commits suicide.
But there are slivers of hope. The Whitaker’s twin daughters, Alyssa and Kayzia, step up by taking two and three after-school jobs to earn extra money for the family.
In one emotional scene, the twins take their mother shopping using their hardearned money to splurge on things like meat, which had disappeared from the family’s dinner menu.
Working with a local university to conduct a survey of worker attitudes, Goldstein confirms one of her worst suspicions: federal job training programs are ineffective.
Goldstein writes, “Job retraining, it turned out, was not a path to more work or better pay in an around Janesville.”
“I also learned just how personal leaving work is. People are losing sleep; there are strains on the family,” she said. “The laid off workers take it personally even if it is not about them.”
Another observation Goldstein makes is, “falling out of the middle class is harder than being poor all along.”
Eight years after the Janesville closing, the unemployment rate has dropped to 4 percent, but the author cautions that does not tell the whole story. “Wages haven’t come back,” she said.
The Goldstein event is the inaugural program in a lecture series exploring historical and contemporary topics relating to the auto industry, according to one of the event’s organizers John Beck, an MSU professor and chairperson of Lansing’s Motor Cities National Heritage Area.
The Lecture Series is co-sponsored by the Motor Cities and MSU’s Our Daily Work/ Our Daily Lives.
The City Pulse Book Club selection for April is “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63,” by Taylor Branch. The book is the first of a threepart series on the Civil Rights Movement.
Upcoming books include “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” by Joan Didion (May) and “Bobby Kennedy,” by Chris Matthews (June).
Goldstein Appearances March 26 12:15 p.m. MSU Museum Auditorium
409 W Circle Dr. East Lansing, MI 48824 and March 26 7 p.m. R.E. Olds Transportation Museum 240 Museum Dr. Lansing, MI 48933 Free Books will be for sale