Telling the story of Janesville and General Motors

Former state Sen. Tim Cullen writes about the auto plant that defined the city for decades

Janesville GM assembly plant
The north entrance of the Janesville GM assembly plant in 2009. The plant has since been demolished. (Photo via Wikipedia, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

When Tim Cullen was going to college at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in the early 1960s, he spent his summers working at the Janesville General Motors plant.

“I got paid $3.25 an hour,” the former Democratic state senator recalls. His college tuition was $110 a semester. “After two weeks I would have enough to pay one semester of tuition. After four weeks I could pay a full year.”

Former state Sen. Tim Cullen
Former state Sen. Tim Cullen (Photo courtesy of Tim Cullen)

Almost 50 years later, Cullen had another relationship with the plant that for decades had been Janesville’s leading employer: serving as co-chair for a task force appointed by Gov. Jim Doyle to try to persuade GM to keep the plant open. It was, in retrospect, probably an impossible task, considering that the company once known as the world’s largest automaker was closing two dozen plants across the country.

Those bookends in Cullen’s life — as a lifelong Janesville resident and the third generation in his family to have a job at the auto plant, and as someone with a ringside seat in the plant’s final days — have led him to write a book about the history of the factory and the city it helped to define.

Disassembled: A Native Son on Janesville and General Motors, was published in October. Cullen spoke about the book Wednesday evening at Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee.

Memoir and history

Writing the book gave Cullen an opportunity to reflect on both his familial connection with the auto plant and his role in the failed effort to keep it open.

But it also led him to explore other themes that rippled through the life of the plant and of the Janesville community — about race, gender, and diversity, about the role of unions in transforming the American working class into the middle class, and about what communities can learn from the story of one dominant employer’s impact, for good or ill.

The Janesville GM plant’s heritage is intertwined with Cullen’s own.

“My grandpa was there at the beginning in 1923, when it first opened for automobile production,” he tells the Wisconsin Examiner. Cullen’s father worked his way from forklift driver to a job in the plant receiving office. “You can find thousands of examples of the same story, generation after generation working there.”

He owes his summer job, and therefore his college education, to a “sons of autoworkers” program at the plant that took on employees’ children for summer jobs while they were in college.  “That will also tell you about the times,” he muses. “There was not a program for daughters of autoworkers back then.”

He got around, spending one summer as a janitor; another on the assembly line bolting in driver’s side seatbelts; and another making seat cushions in a department that was one of the few where women were allowed to work in those days.

Political odyssey

After college he didn’t return to the plant. He sold insurance for a while, was elected to the Janesville City Council on his second try in 1970, then got a job as the district staffer for a newly elected Democratic congressman in Wisconsin’s 1st District: Les Aspin. In 1974 he ran for state Senate, where he served until the election of Republican Tommy Thompson as governor in 1986.

Thompson reached across the political aisle to appoint Cullen to his cabinet. A few years later he left government and politics for the private sector in the health insurance industry.

Cullen returned to the Senate when he was elected in 2010, the same year Scott Walker was elected governor. After serving one term, he retired at the end of 2014, discouraged by the growing partisanship in Madison.

In writing Disassembled, Cullen drew on his memories of the plant, but also on research. The primary narrative is the last two decades, starting in the mid-1980s when a remarkable period of union-management cooperation helped save the Janesville plant from an expected closing at the time.

Learning the full story of that era was among the surprises he encountered researching the book, Cullen says. The United Auto Workers local union shop chairman at the time, Jim Lee, negotiated some 15 changes in the plant’s contract to encourage GM to keep it open.

“He made some changes the membership didn’t like,” Cullen says. “He took all the heat and got that done. That led to the plant being open for 22 more years. He played a huge role, I believe, in saving that plant from total closure.”

By 2008, however, circumstances had changed dramatically.

‘We didn’t have the clout’

“Just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong,” Cullen says. “Gas prices went to $4 a gallon. There was a big national recession. GM was going broke — although for a while, we didn’t know that.”

With more than two dozen of its plants on the bubble — and given that GM was headquartered in Michigan, site of another plant GM could have closed instead, in a district represented by John Dingell, the powerful Detroit Democratic congressman — Janesville’s closing was just about unavoidable. “The only possible thing that could save us was political power, and we didn’t have the clout.”

The cost, though, was devastating — between the plant itself and suppliers who were affected, as many as 4,500 jobs were lost. “It had a huge impact on their families,” he says of the workers who were let go, “but also on the community. We’ve been fighting our way back for 11 years now.”

As Cullen researched the book, he also found himself learning about the history of race relations and gender relations in the plant, and in the community, and decided to make that part of his book as well.

“You can’t separate what goes on in the plant and what goes on in Janesville” where those subjects are concerned, he says.

There was a time when the plant refused to hire black people. John Scott Jr., an African American hired in 1961, was only the third black employee to go to work at the plant. Later interviewed by the Wisconsin State Historical Society in 1976, Scott died in the 1980s.

The influence of national United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther, a committed supporter of the Civil Rights movement, along with the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 helped change that, opening up more jobs in the plant for African Americans.

The story was much the same with women. “Until 1965, they would not allow women on the assembly line,” Cullen says of GM — just on the seat-cushion line, where, as it happened, wages were lower. Having worked in both areas in his youth, he knew that “there was no difference in the degree of difficulty” to justify the difference in pay.

When he worked in the plant, he knew the woman who changed that: Doris Thom. In the mid-1960s, he says, “she walked into the plant manager’s office with a copy of the Civil Rights Act, and said, ‘I want to work on the assembly line and get the same pay rate as men!’” The company relented.

Growing diversity

Although not perfect, “Race and gender issues in Janesville have gotten a lot better over the last few decades,” Cullen believes. “Sometimes the laws are ahead of people’s views, but the law does change things. I think it takes time.”

To help encourage Janesville’s growing diversity, Cullen is donating profits from the book’s sale to the Janesville Multicultural Teachers Opportunity Fund, which he launched in 2008 to raise money for college scholarships for students of color in Janesville, supporting students who want to become teachers and who are willing to return to Janesville to teach for at least three years.

Cullen is not sure how unions will fare in the future. Huge plants like the Janesville GM factory are easy to organize, but as more employees are scattered, that’s become difficult. Automation and what he sees as an ambivalence among younger generations toward unions add to that challenge.

On the other hand, he notes, “if management pushes around workers enough, that will be the re-ignition of the union movement.”

The book concludes with lessons to be learned from the history of Janesville and the GM plant, chief among them the importance of economic diversification instead of relying on one big employer, however generous.

“The biggest thing is that when you have a dominant employer in your community, they’re in charge of whether they stay or not,” Cullen says. “The community, the business community, or the state government are not in charge.”

And if that dominant employer is headquartered out of town, the balance of power is even more lopsided.

“If they close you, they don’t care about the political fallout in your own state,” he says. “They’re gone.”

Erik Gunn
Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.