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GM Workers Prepare for Janesville Shutdown

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The Big-3 automakers are pushing hard for federal bailout money and prospects don't look good. The negotiations are unlikely to change the immediate fate of the General Motors plant in Janesville, Wisconsin. On December 23, it's scheduled to close and hundreds of workers will have to find new jobs or settle into early retirement.

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: History of Janesville Plant Closings

The fryer pops and snaps at a sports bar in Janesville, just down the road from the GM plant. The jukebox plays pop songs from the 1980s. It's a bright and clean bar that's attracted a good lunch crowd, some young professionals, dressed for work, and other locals. I talk my way into a seat at a table with a group of current and former G-M workers.

GROUP: First we need to ask her what sort of car she drives…check they lot for Illinois plates. Laugh.

They're skilled tradesmen, mostly at or near retirement age, who make clear that mid-afternoon bar trips are not regular for them. They are here, drinking beer and diet cokes, to toast their former boss.
 
DARYL: You don't want to give the impression that anybody that talks to the press was sitting in a bar like we are right here. Cause what do you suppose the guy that reads that thinks? He gets that typical idea that, well you know what, factory rats…He's a factory rat, where did he spend most of his time, the Overtime Tap. And now he's going to go back and build a Suburban for me.

That's Daryl, a middle aged guy in a bright orange cap. He, and most of the guys in the group, didn't want me to use their full names. Some of them are still at GM now, hanging on until the very end. Others took retirement packages. And then there's Bob. He's by far the youngest man in the group. He was laid off back in the summer.

HILL: And so, what have you been doing between now and June.
BOB: Going back to school, had a kid. So I have two kids now.
HILL: What are you going to school for?
BOB: Computer animation.
HILL: Wow. Is that part exciting at all?
BOB: Oh yeah, it's a blessing in disguise you know. Something you always wanted to do, to get an opportunity to go back to it.
HILL: But you seem sad?
BOB: Well it is sad, you know. Even though these guys are a bunch of jerks, you get used to them you know. Laugh. It's just sad. It's the people you know. And then you see other people struggling worse than you and it makes you even sadder. And then what's really sad is the people that are still in denial. You know, the people who say 'they never said the plant was closing,' so you feel bad for everybody else. But, I'm going to be fine.

When the factory closes in December, it'll be the end of work for about 1,200 people. That's down from more than 5,500 people GM employed here in Janesville back in 1995. There's some chance, or at least some hope, that the factory will be re-tooled to build something else. But that won't happen anytime soon and there aren't a lot of options for new jobs in the area, without some sort of retraining.

HILL: Did you consider a transfer?
BOB: If I was single, I might have. But there's no way I'm going to do it now. You know, my wife's family is around the area. I've already transferred once. So I decided I'm not going to keep doing that. And—where are you going to transfer to. Laugh. Where? Why would I transfer somewhere and then get stranded. I'm not going to do that. So we're just going to dig down here and tough it out. But, I don't know. What do you do? What do you do?
 
Bob puts on his coat and gets up to leave. Some of the guys hug him and wish him the best.

ambi: (conversation) nice to see you again

Almost everyone at this table is openly frustrated with GM the way it managed its business. They feel like the company didn't pay attention to good ideas, didn't pay enough attention to the U.S. market, or to this factory, and all of their work.

BILL: They don't know how to use us.

That's Bill. He's been with General Motors for almost three decades. He says one of his very first GM meetings, all those years ago, was about teamwork and communication.

BILL: And I thought wow this is great, timing is just right for me to get in here. And the old boys in the back of the crowd were mumbling and grumbling and saying oh, this BS again. And I thought, 'We'll that's a pitiful attitude.'

And here's the punch line.

BILL: We'll about a year ago, they had the last meeting I've been to like that, there were several in between, and they said: We have a program. We're going to develop our teamwork and communication. And I told them the same thing those old boys told me 28 years ago. BS. They haven't a clue what teamwork is. I think sadly, the only reason GM is still here, what's left of it, is cause it was so huge to start with.
HILL: Do you think it'll still exist 15 years from now?
BILL: If I had a crystal ball, I'd tell you that. But I don't even know if I'm going to be here 15 years from now. So. I don't know. I hope so. It should be. But that doesn't mean that it's going to be.
HILL: Is it still a company you believe in? Or products you believe in?
BILL: The products are incredible, I think. But the perception of the products in the public is a problem. GM let it go so long and told the public what they wanted instead of listening to them, which is communication, that they dug themselves a huge hole.

GM's hole is going to be tough to climb out of. The auto maker reported $2.5 billion in losses in the third quarter. And warned that it may run out of the cash it needs to operate by 2009.

Whatever's next for GM, the Janesville shutdown marks the end of an era for Tim. He's a third generation auto worker. Both his grandparents worked here, his dad too. He started at the plant in the '70s as a college student.

TIM: I started on the line in a lead booth. I worked in the grinding booth. I had jobs that were dangerous. I worked in the body shop where the vapors, on hot days, fumes from galvanized metal would call nosebleeds. And the sparks would burn my shirts you know.

And he plans to work until they kick him out. He's hoping he may get to help close up the plant.

TIM: I've always been excited and proud to work for General Motors, even when I worked on the line.

Tim's pride in his work, in the job he did for GM, is shared by the rest of the men at the table. They worked hard to get what they have and to keep what they earned. Stand on the concrete for a day they say, just try doing the job that we have done.

They're worried about their pensions, their benefits, and what's next for GM. They're frustrated and a little sad but they're planning to hunker down and do what it takes to get by.

I'm Adriene Hill, Chicago Public Radio.

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