As Goes Janesville

I watched this wonderful documentary last night. I recommend it without reservation, and not just because I know the filmmaker, Brad Lichtenstein (I know him, like, we are friends!). As Goes Janesville is sensitive, smart, skeptical film that allows several different perspectives on the crisis that was caused in that small Wisconsin community when GM closed a manufacturing plant there in 2009.

I’m still trying to gather my thoughts about the film as a whole…but here goes…

In this documentary, work means different things to the different characters: some are assembly line workers and union members, some are bankers, some are politicians, some are unemployed. In some respect, each person in the film has expectations about their work that are violated (with the possible exception of the head of a local bank who takes up with Gov. Scott Walker to make sure that “Wisconsin is open for business”). If I work hard, I’ll get to keep my job. If I work hard, I can stay near my family. If I go back to school, and train in a new industry, I’ll find work. None of it seems possible.

There are moments of intense frustration created by this film. For me they arose when those who have power and investment capital who choose to use it in ways that do not have immediate effect. I understand the benefits of long-term investments and strategic planning. But the chasm between creating 125 jobs in 2016 and a woman who needs a job now because her health insurance is running out next month is too wide for me to be able to stay emotionally neutral. In part because of my own job search, I kept thinking “but what are they going to do now?!”

The film was created during some of the most divisive and intense political turmoil Wisconsin has ever known. (There is a This American Life about the recall election that I listened to last year.) It is heartbreaking but somehow also heartening to see the UAW and the teachers’ unions and other organized labor turn out en masse to protest Walker’s regressive policies. (I am decidedly pro-Union, so the anti-union, anti-regulation arguments from business and government held little sway with me.)  It was tough to see them beaten so badly by moneyed interests. The workers in this film are certainly those who have the most to lose and the least amount of power to change their circumstances. But what a moment to make a film about unionized workers and the struggle to cope with the realities of an increasingly hostile, internationalized, “efficiency”-driven business climate.

In the end, this is a film about people, which is why it is so good. The larger economic and political theory underpins the stories of this handfull of residents of this small Wisconsin town, each of whom has a vision of the future, and a reality to face. Each of these people seems to be trying the best they can, and for some, that struggle seems more honorable than others. The silent character is that of GM, the company that left the town. It made me want to know more about how they left–did they offer job retraining for employees? Did they offer buy-out packages? Should GM even do that kind of stuff? Do they have any duty to assist in the transition and aftermath of the plant closing, as one person in the documentary suggested they might?

For me, there were many lingering questions. This town was decimated by the loss of GM. What happens to a company town without a company? How will this town reinvent itself? Will it rebuild its workforce, one bio-medical job at a time? How many more times will it need to do so? Is it conceivable that a town like this would someday slide away, abandoned for better jobs and better pay in Fort Wayne, IN, or Madison, WI, or elsewhere? Could Janesville just disappear?

Anyway, watch it! I wish I could have gone to a screening, but I settled for my local PBS station. The documentary is available through Independent Lens, but I’m not sure if there is a streaming option. I am so impressed because I know how long Brad has been working on the film, and it was amazing to see the final product.

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