Janesville began turning out Chevrolets in 1923. In the assembly plant’s heyday, it had about 7,100 workers and propped up thousands of jobs at other local companies that produced supplies that the plant required. As other communities across the Midwest slid into the Rust Belt, largely starting in the 1970s, the assembly plant went on and on, buoying Janesville’s economy as its unionized workers turned out well-made sedans, pickups, and SUVs.
Back during the Great Depression, the assembly plant shut down and reopened a year later. The Great Recession was harsher. General Motors made its decision to stop production in Janesville four months after the company posted the largest annual loss in its history and a year before GM filed for bankruptcy.
For a community of 63,500 with a proud industrial past and a can-do spirit, the first reaction to this blow was neither grief nor panic. It was denial. Ryan (climbing at the time through the House GOP ranks), local business leaders, and many autoworkers themselves believed that it was simply a matter of time until GM would bestow upon Janesville another vehicle model to manufacture.
They turned out to be wrong. Roughly 9,000 jobs vanished in 2008 and 2009 in Rock County, the swath of southern Wisconsin in which Janesville is the county seat. In a cascade, the plant’s closing drove away work at its suppliers, and the combination left fewer people with enough spending money to support the shops and other small businesses in town.
By last month, when Pence visited, more than eight years had elapsed since the assembly line stopped. Lately, the U.S. auto industry has had record sales. Even in Janesville, the unemployment rate has settled back from its stratospheric level of more than 13 percent to just under 5 percent. And yet, while factory jobs have been cropping up in some parts of the U.S., Janesville is not one of them. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Rock County has nearly one-fourth fewer manufacturing jobs than it had just before the assembly plant shut down. Meanwhile, wages have sagged.
So, the vice president’s ode to Janesville as an economic role model nicely echoed the language of Donald Trump, whose promise to make America great again helped catapult him into the White House. But Pence’s praise did not hint at how recent years have reordered residents’ lives in Ryan’s hometown, at the hard choices many families have made.
For one, Pence did not hint at the circumstances that led Matt Wopat to become a “GM gypsy,” as someone who moves from plant to plant is often called. Wopat’s father, Marv, worked at the assembly plant for 40 years until retiring a few weeks ahead of his son’s layoff. With a wife and three daughters, Wopat, who himself had been at the plant for 13 years, went back to school at Blackhawk Technical College to retrain in hope of working for the local cable company. But by the time the prospects of such jobs faded and his union layoff benefits were running out, he felt he had no choice but to do something he had vowed he would never do: join a brigade of Janesville GM’ers who retrieved $28 an hour by commuting to other assembly plants hundreds of miles away—in his case, in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Wopat begins the four-and-a-half-hour drive at 8 a.m. every Monday and drives back late into the night every Friday, unless there is Saturday overtime in Fort Wayne, in which case he drives back for one day at home.