Kevin Corkhill readily admits that he has no idea what to do with the rest of his life. At age fifty he feels disconcertingly adrift, not knowing whether to attempt another career, move to another state, or return to college. He has been unemployed for more than a year, ever since General Motors closed the giant assembly plant where he had worked for thirteen years, causing him huge worries about how he, his wife and eight-year-old son would get by. Overnight, Corkhill went from being a highly valued ‘absentee relief man’ at the G.M. plant where he was expert at doing more than twenty different jobs so he could fill in for workers who didn’t show up, to being a largely invisible nobody, sitting at home day after lonesome day, with no job except washing the dishes. ‘I feel like a dinosaur,’ Corkhill says. ‘I’m only fifty years old, but I really don’t see a place for me.’
Corkhill is just under six feet tall and stocky, with serious, deep-set eyes and a heavy grey-black beard that hides much of his face. He’s gone from a physically punishing job at G.M. to a physically inert life at home, and as a result he’s put on fifteen pounds since leaving his job. His mind is anything but inert, however; with his unending free time, he questions and requestions everything. Why did his job disappear along with those of 2,400 other G.M. workers? What has happened to his once-thriving hometown, Janesville, Wisconsin? What does the future hold for General Motors, that now-teetering industrial colossus?
General Motors shuttered its Janesville plant on December 23, 2008. Since then, many of the laid-off workers have sought to reinvent themselves – to reboot their lives, some say – as they struggle to find a niche for themselves in what many economists dryly call ‘Post-Industrial America’. Many have flocked to the local community college, taking courses to become cooks, nurses, electrical utility linesmen, but Corkhill isn’t buying all the feel-good, reinvent-yourself rhetoric, not with the jobless rate so high that there might not be jobs for all those newly qualified.
‘Part of me wants to go back to school, too,’ Corkhill acknowledged, sitting at the simple oak table in his kitchen. ‘I always had the talent and the intelligence to do it, but I feel too old to study for a new career.’
It’s sad to see a once industrious man hobbled by unemployment, tied down like Lemuel Gulliver, but by invisible economic and emotional strings. Corkhill passes his days watching SportsCenter on ESPN in his dimly lit living room and tracing his genealogy on his basement computer. He is proud to discuss what he has discovered: his father’s line comes from the Isle of Man; his mother had ancestors on the Mayflower. His genealogical spadework may be impressive, but all the sitting around ‘makes my wife unhappy,’ Corkhill says. She holds a packaging job at Andes Candies – famed for its after-dinner mints – and rises each day at 3:30 a.m., leaving for the factory at 4:30 and only returning home twelve hours later.
Corkhill’s father’s father worked at the G.M. plant for three decades, and his father put in some time there as well, before hiring on at the Parker Pen factory in Janesville, once the world’s largest pen factory, but now shut down. Not that Corkhill was eager for his eight-year-old son to work at the G.M. plant someday, but it nonetheless bothers him that his son will not have that opportunity, should he ever want it. For decades, a steady wave of Janesvillers took jobs at G.M. straight out of high school. The pay was great, Corkhill says – twenty-eight dollars an hour when the plant closed, coming to $58,000 a year for full-time workers, sometimes $70,000 with overtime. The wages and benefits were so good that many college graduates, even some with masters degrees, signed on at the plant, and some teachers quit their jobs to work there.
‘The one thing my father told me is you work hard to make things better for the next generation, but now I worry we won’t be able to do that anymore,’ Corkhill said.
The G.M. plant is an imposing industrial structure, some five million square feet, the size of ninety football pitches. It has a distinguished yellow brick façade for its administrative offices, which were surrounded by the main plant, a jumble of steel, pipes, cranes, fences, oil tanks, corrugated metal walls, testing facilities and train tracks, all topped off by a towering black-tipped smokestack, with the blue G.M. logo – its paint peeling badly. Today the plant is hauntingly silent, its workers gone and its guts – the once-clattering assembly line with hundreds of ultramodern robots – have been ripped out and shipped to other plants. The sprawling parking lot, once filled with more than a thousand cars, is empty.
One thing especially rankles Corkhill – that so many people voice hostility, rather than sympathy, toward the laidoff G.M. workers during their time of trouble. They deserve it. They were lazy, spoiled and overpaid, many people say. In Corkhill’s view, these critics couldn’t be more wrong. ‘My first day kicked my butt,’ he recalled. He moved to G.M. for the pay and benefits with the hope of ultimately retiring there, after having worked at the same candy factory as his wife. ‘I was installing muffler systems. I had to carry them over to start the installation; they were so heavy I was sweating bullets. I had to wear a bandana to keep the sweat out of my eyes. A lot of people who had worked there for years were laughing at me. But after a while, I caught on.’
From G.M., and from his father, Corkhill got the message that there was no excuse for not working hard. ‘My dad always told me, “No one owes you anything. Your employer isn’t doing you any favours. It’s a contract. It’s between you and them. You do your job, and they pay you. If they stop paying you, you stop working. Make sure you’re there and make sure they get what they paid for. And make sure you get paid what’s coming to you.”’
Janesville is a Chevy – rather than a Cadillac – town that has long frowned at pretence, although it makes one big exception for the Harley Davidson jackets and sweatshirts that so many of its men wear, partly to be macho, but even more so, to flaunt their ‘Made in America’ pride. General Motors began making Chevies in Janesville in 1923, and since then the town has taken on a personality much like those nofrills, all-American cars: down to earth and down market. Janesvillers see themselves as hardworking, humble folk, the descendants of early-to-rise farm boys who became early-to-rise factory workers, the assembly plants sometimes erected alongside cornfields and grazing cows. On Center Avenue, the Kmart closed down several years ago and is now home to Rock County’s unemployment and job retraining office. Among the busiest stores on Center Avenue are True Value Hardware and Pick ’n Save, a supermarket across an oversize parking lot from McDonalds. Notwithstanding the decades-old Navy jet out front, Post 1621 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, at the intersection of Center Avenue and the Rock River, often seems more bar and bingo parlour than temple of martial valour.
Janesville’s topography was transformed by what geologists call the Wisconsin Glaciation Episode some 70,000 years ago, glaciers pushed down from Canada and remade Janesville from rocky and craggy to as flat as the Kansas prairie. First settled in 1835, it grew into a modest agricultural centre where German, British and Scandinavian immigrants exploited the rich soil and endured the punishing winters to raise wheat, corn and dairy cows. General Motors acquired a tractor factory in Janesville in 1918 and five years later converted it into a Chevy plant to compete with Henry Ford’s Model T. By 1937, during the height of the Great Depression, Janesville’s now established G.M. work force staged a sitdown strike, one of dozens that rocked the auto industry. It was a militant action that pressured G.M. into granting recognition to the United Automobile Workers, soon to become the nation’s most powerful labour union. The plant contributed to the war effort during World War II, converting to military production and, helped by hundreds of ‘Rosie the Riveters’, produced 16 million artillery shells, its motto becoming, ‘Keep ’Em Firing.’
In the decade after the war, the United Auto Workers, through a series of painful strikes that gave way to a far-sighted peace accord with G.M., secured for its members the best wages and benefits of any factory workers in the world. Janesville boomed as never before. During the 1950s and 1960s, a new wave of homes, with more bedrooms and larger kitchens and living rooms, homes equipped with Hotpoint stoves and Philco televisions, sprouted in Janesville. Many had two cars out front, and some even had a motor boat to use on the Rock River or nearby Lake Koshkonong.
It was a time of unprecedented prosperity, of swollen, tail-finned cars, a time when many Americans cheerfully sang a tune made famous by Dinah Shore, ‘See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet’. Janesville’s Chevy plant and hundreds of factories like it made the United States the world’s richest nation, the economic city on the hill. (Any threat from Toyota or Honda was far away and unforeseen.) These muscular factories turned Detroit, Pittsburgh and Cleveland and smaller cities like Janesville, Peoria and Dayton into thriving communities, catapulting millions of families into a middle class far bigger and wealthier than anyone would have dreamt during the 1930s.
In 1960, during the height of the Cold War, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, hailed America’s industrial prowess while speaking at the National Automobile Show’s dinner in Detroit. ‘An American working man can own his own comfortable home and a car and send his children to well-equipped elementary and high schools and to colleges as well,’ he said. ‘They [the Soviets] fail to realize that he is not the downtrodden, impoverished vassal of whom Karl Marx wrote. He is a self-sustaining, thriving individual, living in dignity and in freedom.’
G.M.’s public relations wizards made Janesville the centre of a corporate celebration in 1968; they declared that a blue, two-door Chevrolet Caprice assembled there was the 100 millionth vehicle to be produced by General Motors. For the next decade, the factory continued to flourish, and in 1977, arguably the plant’s zenith, it had 7,100 employees and, according to the Janesville Gazette, produced 274,286 cars and 114,681 trucks.
The Janesville plant faced a rude shock in the early 1980s. Squeezed by recession, Arab oil embargoes and imports from Japan, G.M. made some painful cost-cutting decisions to consolidate production – it transferred pick-up truck production and 1,800 jobs from Janesville to its plant in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Soon rumours began to surface that Janesville’s days were numbered. The plant converted to making an unglamorous subcompact, the Chevrolet Cavalier, but sales fell short of expectations, further fuelling fears about the plant closing.
But late that decade, with gas prices low and the nation absorbing Ronald Reagan’s ‘It’s Morning in America’ swagger, sport utility vehicles began to catch on and G.M. designated Janesville as its main SUV plant. By 1992 the plant had started making Chevrolet Suburbans and the public couldn’t get enough of those vehicles, the largest and least fuel efficient in G.M.’s fleet. Because of America’s love affair with the massive, macho motor vehicles, the plant – which also assembled Yukon and Tahoe SUVs – returned to its glory days. Many weeks the workers were required to put in five or six ten-hour days. Soon some of Janesville’s G.M. families had two SUVs parked outside and many took annual vacations to Florida or Las Vegas.
The workers didn’t realize it at the time, but the bubble economy – the stock market bubble, the credit bubble, the housing bubble – was helping lift the plant to new heights. Once those bubbles burst, it meant calamity for Janesville. When credit seized up and gasoline soared to more than four dollars a gallon, car sales plunged nationwide, and SUV sales plummeted even more drastically.
In June 2008, General Motors shocked Janesville by announcing it would close the plant, then G.M.’s oldest, that December. Two thousand four hundred G.M. workers lost their jobs, and so did 1,600 Janesville workers who were employed by satellite companies that served the G.M. plant. Those 4,000 jobs were a staggering loss not only for Janesville, a community of 60,000, but were part of the nearly six million factory jobs that the United States has lost since 2000, wiping out jobs that provided solid wages and benefits that assured middle-class prosperity for millions of families.
For many economists and cheerleaders for business, the response was that this was the creative destruction described by the economist Joseph Schumpeter in which capitalism renews itself and grows ever more efficient. To them, the emphasis was on the ‘creative’ part of creative destruction. But in Janesville, few could see beyond the destruction.
Since the closure, hundreds of the plant’s workers have transferred to other G.M. facilities in Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana and Texas, often leaving their families behind and visiting them every month or two. Deep down, however, many fear that those plants will share Janesville’s fate, notwithstanding the $50 billion federal bailout of General Motors. Even the president of Janesville’s community college, where hundreds of other laidoff workers have gone back to school to pursue new careers, admits there might not be jobs for them after graduation.
And hundreds are like Kevin Corkhill, feeling at once immobilized and adrift, wondering where the good times went and struggling to puzzle out their future. Their immobility is underwritten by the generous unemployment benefits that the union’s contract guarantees – seventy-two per cent of factory pay for thirty-nine weeks and fifty per cent of pay for another thirty-nine weeks.
‘The benefits delay the pain, but the pain is still there in the end,’ Corkhill says.
Surprisingly, Corkhill voices more confidence in Janesville’s economic future than America’s. He says his hometown is certain to attract business investment because its work force is well educated and hard working. He tells the story of a friend’s father who went to work for George Lucas’s film company in California.
‘His dad told me, “If you ever want a job, just go to California and tell them you’re from Wisconsin. That’ll get you a job right away because people know about the work ethic here. In California, if it’s a sunny day, no one would go to work. They’d go surfing. But someone from Wisconsin, they’d go to work. There’s a farm tradition in Wisconsin and people there are serious about working.”’
Corkhill sounds far more worried about the future of America’s economy because he has seen so many factories close in Janesville and throughout the Midwest. ‘How can you have a country or economy that doesn’t produce anything?’ he asks.
In his eyes, there is a fundamental problem with America’s commercial values and consumers. He sees a myopia, an utter failure to see the big picture. ‘There’s something wrong that we as a country are willing to accept products from any place as long they’re cheaper,’ he said. ‘We don’t care about safety. We don’t care about conditions for workers. We only care about whether it’s cheaper. That cheapens life. It cheapens everything.’
Along with millions of his fellow factory workers in wealthier nations, Corkhill has felt the threat from lower-wage competition abroad, whether from China, Mexico or South Korea. He has seen these pressures erode America’s manufacturing base, with managers at General Motors and many other companies warning that unless American workers make concessions – unless they, say, work faster or accept cuts in benefits – their factories might close, with their jobs shipped overseas.
‘Did you ever see Grapes of Wrath?’ Corkhill said. ‘It reminds me of what’s happening now. I remember people sitting outside a camp waiting to pick fruit, and the boss would say, “You’re going to take a pay cut today. If you have a problem with that, there’s a person out there, who is willing to take pennies less than you.”’
‘There’s no humanity in it,’ Corkhill concluded. ‘There’s always someone willing to do it for less.’
Corkhill, like so many Americans, grew up hearing and thinking about the American dream, but he questions what has happened to the dream and to America’s upbeat, cando nature. ‘There has been a shift about the American dream,’ he said. ‘Something has changed. Now it’s the American nightmare. If you don’t vote a certain way, terrorism will happen. If you don’t do this, this plant will go overseas, the whole economy will collapse.’
Suddenly the front door opens and his eight-year-old, Ian, enters, school over for the day. With his straight brown hair and big, innocent smile, Ian looks straight out of a 1950s family show, perhaps ‘Father Knows Best’. Corkhill immediately rides herd on Ian to do his homework – now. Perhaps Corkhill is doing this because of what happened after he finished high school in 1978. His uncle had arranged for him to get a job at the G.M. plant, but Corkhill was intent on going to college to study natural resources, eager to work outdoors, either in forestry or water management.
‘I didn’t apply myself very much,’ Corkhill confesses about his years attending the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point. ‘I drank a lot of beer. I played a lot of pool and soccer. School didn’t come first and my grades reflected that.’ He didn’t flunk out, but he was paying for college himself and decided to quit because he didn’t want to go any deeper into debt when ‘I wasn’t performing to the level I was capable.’
Now wiser and more reflective, he expresses two competing regrets. One, that he didn’t work harder in college, the other, that he didn’t take a job with G.M. when his uncle had urged him to. If he had, he would have already put in his thirty years before the plant closed and would be receiving a full pension.
‘I’d be retired by now and in good shape,’ he said.
Instead, he’s trying to figure it all out.
Steven Greenhouse is the labour and workplace reporter for the New York Times and author of The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker.
Photograph by Jeramy Jannene