Janesville GM: The End of a Long Decline

Janesville GM is set to close its doors in January, 2009. In 1970, when its’ workforce was at its largest, GM employed around 7000 workers at the Janesville plant.

The regional economy is faced with a serious economic crisis, where the state teeters on the edge of bankruptcy and thirty regional banks having posted losses in the second financial quarter of 2008. Most spectacularly is the Marshal & Isley Bank of Milwaukee, which lost $388 million dollars, more than all the other banks combined. (1) This was the product of their exposure to bad real estate boom related debt.

At its peak, GM employed some 600,000 United Auto Workers union members. Today there are about 60,000 UAW members working for GM. The entire leadership of the UAW has been assisting in this process and benefiting from it at the expense of its diminishing membership. The payoff for them has come, among other things, in the form of the “Voluntary Employee’s Beneficiary Association”, where the union leadership was granted in the course of negotiating the poison contracts with the company, the health and retirement benefits that the automakers once provided and are now held by the union in the form of a trust they can gamble on the markets. In this respect VEBA money will assure the apparatus the continuation of their own salaries. The power of the union, as personified in the likes of Ron Gettelfinger, is power delegated to the union by the capitalists themselves. It represents a form of capitalist management.

The union has exacted the cost of its own survival on the backs of workers.

Janesville used to be something of a company town with a local municipal government and police very close to GM employers. There was even a seven-hour sit-down strike in sympathy with the Flint Sit-down Strike, in 1937. During the Second World War the plant was converted to making artillery for the US Armed Forces.

Workers at this plant have produced everything from tractors to artillery to SUVs.

A history of production at that plant over the last thirty years is a history of periods of decline, followed by periods of drastic decline, even with the relative successes of production models like the Chevy Cavalier, Suburban and Tahoe. The peak period of production at the plant occurred in 1985, when workers produced 385,856 Chevy Cavaliers, Cadillac Cimarrons, CK pickups and GMC Sierras. When this plant was in its period of peak production, the size of its workforce was in its fifteenth straight year of decline.

The plant is commonly said to be one of the largest plants under one roof in the US.

It is located near the major distribution hub of Chicago and is relatively close to the Detroit headquarters. Aside from GM, the next four largest employers in Janesville today are a health insurance company, the county government, the state government and a medical supply company. As of last April, Mercy Health System was the largest employer with 2,635 workers, the School District of Janesville has 1,515, the Rock County government has 1,189, and Lab Safety Supply has 920 workers. (2) These employers do not employ the numbers of workers or pay them what GM once paid its workers. Janesville is small, with an official population of 62,000 people. So this decline has produced a profound impact on people’s lives and livelihoods and upon municipal services. GM Assembly plants in Toluca Mexico, Moraine Ohio and Oshawa Ontario are also slated to close; still further plants will have whole shifts eliminated. Everything is on the block and when those cuts are made the capitalists will shout for more.

Some left groups would call for the nationalization of the auto industry. This course would no more assure job security than lighting a votive candle in a church.

Neither nationalization nor privatization ever managed to halt or arrest Rover’s decline as an auto manufacturer. Nationalization has never halted a declining rate of profit.

That it is now no longer possible to produce anything at a plant the size of GM Janesville is a testament to inherent systemic failure and waste embodied in capitalism.


(1) Balousek, Mary. 30 banks reporting losses. Wisconsin State Journal. August 28, 2008.

(2) Bona, Thomas V. Janesville residents: GM plant’s closure will hurt everybody. Rockford Register Star / businessrockford.com . June 3, 2008.