Resilient rise

Washington Post writer, Amy Goldstein, on an American industrial town's return from the brink of decline

Published 6 years ago on Jan 27, 2018 3 minutes Read

The Janesville to which Paul comes home is recognizable to him as the place where he never bothered to lock his bike as a kid. Where he was elected junior class president and, as a perk, was “Rhett,” the king of the “Gone with the Wind”-themed prom. Where, when he stops at the hardware store, he runs into guys who were the boys with whom he played varsity soccer, or their brothers or sisters or parents or kids.

The continuity in the Janesville portion of his life is so pervasive, so ingrained that it has left him ill-equipped to grasp the enormity of the change that a ringing cell phone can bring.

When he unclips the phone from his belt and answers the call, Paul is startled to hear that the voice on the other end belongs to Rick Wagoner, General Mothers’ chairman and chief executive. Paul may have faith in free markets, but with GM the largest employer in his hometown, as well as the entire 1St Congressional District of Wisconsin, he has made a point of nurturing relationships with the company’s top brass. When Rick is in D.C., Paul meets him for breakfast. Nearly every week, he talks with Troy Clarke, president of GM North America. So he certainly is not oblivious to the facts that GM has been faltering since before the recession, gasoline prices just past $4 a gallon are on the brink of anal-time high, and the Janesville Assembly Plant is churning out full-size, gas-guzzling SUVs Whose popularity has fallen off a cliff.

Paul is aware of these facts, and yet, lately, as General Motors’ fortunes have been falling and falling, his private conversations with Rick and the rest of the brass have yielded no whiff of concern that the assembly plant’s future is in peril.

So it is hard for him to absorb what Rick is telling him: Tomorrow, General Motors will announce that it is stopping production in Janesville.

For an instant, Paul is stunned.

Then, suddenly, he is furious. Straight out his kitchen windows, he can see the houses of a couple both working at GM, of a family living on wages from the seat-making factory that is the assembly plant’s largest supplier with hundreds of jobs that will surely vanish if the plant goes down.

“You know you’ll destroy this town if you do this,” Paul yells into his phone. “These are the best workers you’ve got, and this town has been loyal to you. Why don’t you shut down a plant in a big city where it won’t have that much of a devastating impact?”

And yet, even as these words, so contrary to his usual genial persona, surge from Paul, another sensation is rushing up alongside his anger: confidence that he can change the CEO’s mind. It’s simple, he realizes. If the public no longer wants to buy the gas-guzzling SUVs that Janesville is producing, then GM must give the plant’s workers another, more popular kind of vehicle to make.

The congressman starts rattling off GM models. “Give us Cavaliers,” he tells Rick. “Give us pickups.”

After he hangs up, Paul calls his congressional chief of staff-a Janesville guy, like him. First thing in the morning, Paul tells him, they will need to start working the phones to coordinate a response.

Paul has a sleepless night. Lying awake, he thinks about the GM payroll, about the economic shock. He thinks about the guys he grew up with who work down at the plant, or whose parents are still down at the plant. A gut punch.

Still, he is solid in the belief that, by pulling together-no Republicans, no Democrats, just a community fighting for its future-the city will prevail with General Motors.

‘Cause we’ve never had a plant shut down, Paul tells himself. It’s Janesville!

This is an extract from Amy Goldstein's Janesville: An American Story published by Simon & Schuster