By Tim Trenkle
Before the Janesville, Wis., General Motors plant closed in the Great Recession year of 2008, it hummed with prosperity, a great assembly line begun in 1919. Legend had it as the biggest GM plant on earth. In the 1980s, sweethearts graduating from nearby Craig High School could combine incomes with overtime to produce a $100,000 annual income.
In 1988, the year Paul Ryan, Republican nominee for vice president, graduated from Craig, I opened GM as a lubricant customer for my Milwaukee employer.
I was a sales engineer. I worried that only the big boys at big oil could have GM’s business.
During those years, Lee Iacocca promised Kenosha, Wis., he would keep the AMC Jeep plant going. In 1985, he and Chrysler had a working arrangement with AMC. Everyone wanted to believe Iacocca.
Almost as soon as he finished promising, he closed the plant and removed jobs, using it like a venture capitalist, creating money and image for his Chrysler Group.
AMC was my customer. A quote from that era called the arrangement one of “ … corporate serendipity… .” If that sounds familiar, as if a Mitt Romney Bain Capital undertaking, it’s a precursor. People were bitter for years after AMC closed.
In 1986, GM’s maintenance chief Bob Radtke finally agreed to see me. I told him I was a working man, the son of a meatpacker. Illinois and Iowa roots. He said he would give me a try.
Mr. Radtke took me on a tour. I remember a sea of tables near the doors. He explained: That was where his lube salesman sat, drinking coffee. Big oil sipping profits. He didn’t like that. He gave me a chance and when he OK’d me as a supplier, I took my wife to dinner in Janesville. We had four children and I was going to grad school.
The circle is small. Life is short. My wife and I will soon be retired. We think of our working lives and things that mattered.
We think the president was wrong to suggest individuals succeed because of government, because we are that, we are the people. We help each other. It’s not government that finally gave me the chance at GM, though we’re glad GM is still making cars. It was a neighbor.
I worry that Ryan, son of the working class of Janesville, plans to lessen funds to cities for roads and bridges, to students for education and to those old cronies I remember, once working class kings at GM, whose children may not get job training because Ryan has a blueprint. The blueprint could lessen Medicare, too.
We need to work. We all need to pitch in.
I feel the footsteps of Lee Iacocca but I hear Bob Radtke. He said that if you’ll work at it, you’ll succeed. The lessons have informed me ever since.
Tim Trenkle of Dubuque teaches psychology and writing at Northeast Iowa Community College. Comments: peace email@example.com