In The News
Obama speaks for Janesville even as he wins nomination
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
On June 3, minutes after General Motors announced that it would close its Janesville production plant by 2010 or earlier – and a few hours before wire services confirmed who had won the Democratic Party’s nomination for president -- Barack Obama expressed his sympathy and shared pain for the thousands of displaced workers -- and his anger at the economic policies that helped cause such displacements.
“For eight long years,” Obama said in his statement of sympathy, “we’ve had an energy policy that funds both sides in the war on terror without promoting fuel efficiency or helping make our auto companies more competitive.”
The timing of the GM announcement underlined his message, though locking up the presidential nomination inadvertently threw the closings out of their natural top spot in media headlines that day.
But many saw a poetic readjustment -- the Janesville closing as a consequence of bad policy on the same day of victory for an agent of change.
The closing of the truck and SUV plant in Janesville was not unexpected by community leaders or the United Auto Workers. But the abrupt and even dismissive manner was unsettling for a community that had enjoyed a century relationship with the automaker.
Some 2,600 families are affected by the impending job losses in Wisconsin, and that’s not even counting the multitude of suppliers and merchants who may have to close up shop because of the GM’s refusal to see the handwriting on the wall.
Unions and economists had been warning for years that the high profit from each truck or SUV was a balloon waiting to be deflated, puncturing the hard-working employees who had given concession upon concession to keep the Janesville plant going. By 2008 oil had become global ping-pong – and the same economics are likely to drag down Ford and Chrysler employees as well.
Now the spike in gasoline prices has reached astronomical proportions and
turned the slide in SUV sales into a freefall, leading to the closing not just of the Janesville plant, but of three others (Ohio, Canada and Mexico).
The hubris of GM management that allowed them to ignore the warning signs had now blended into a Molotov cocktail of corporate stubbornness and government failure to address mileage efficiency, alternate fuels, outsourcing for cheap labor, fading benefits for the middle class, excessive CEO pay and injurious corporate tax breaks.
All those realities along with pain for the community were reflected in the statements of Obama and Gov. Jim Doyle, who recalled how Obama had been invited by GM to visit the plant a few months ago when ”it was clear that this plant was the pride of GM.”
The state had also lent considerable support to help the company, Doyle noted: "So many people here have put their hearts into building trucks at the Janesville assembly plant, and now they are left with a cold decision that casts them aside. We all feel it in our guts.”
“My heart goes out to the workers and families affected by the closing of these GM plants,” said Obama, but he was not about to let the political villains escape on the day he clinched the Democratic delegate count over Hillary Clinton.
“Unlike John McCain, I’m not in this race to extend the failed Bush economic policies,” he said in his statement. “I’m in this race to end them. I’ve proposed investing $150 billion over ten years in green energy and creating up to five million new green jobs.”
“We’ll finally provide domestic automakers with the funding they need to retool their factories and make fuel-efficient and alternative fuel cars. And we’ll invest in efforts to make sure that the cars of the future are made where they always have been -- in the United States.”
Janesville and union leaders, in the middle of their sadness and disappointment, took the positive view that there was enough diversity of industry, and proven talent, to keep Janesville economically viable and even vital to Wisconsin’s growth. But GM executives insisted they were not part of that; even with their new product lines they had no intention of reopening a plant that had been heavily restructured in the 21st century.
Wisconsin’s congressional leaders quickly went to work for Janesville. Sen. Kohl immediately secured a commitment from the Department of Labor to provide a rapid response team to provide job training and transitional assistance. Despite GM’s resistance he joined Sen. Feingold and Rep. Paul Ryan in urging the company to retool the plant to manufacture a different line.