By Ruth Conniff
Brad Lichtenstein’s recent documentary, “As Goes Janesville,” offers a penetrating view behind the scenes of the political goings-on in Wisconsin over the past few years. It is the project from which the infamous “divide and conquer” statement was made by Governor Scott Walker to billionaire Diane Hendricks in answer to her question about whether he was going to make Wisconsin a Right to Work state. By the end, viewers are left with a better understanding of political rhetoric and its real target audience.
The film paints a detailed picture of the relationship between politicians and the business interests they serve in the wake of the closure of the GM plant that was the largest employer in the city and provided thousands of family-supporting jobs. Parallel to that story, it follows the lives two women who were laid off from well-paying, industrial jobs in Janesville.
Cindy Deegan, a veteran who was laid off from Alcoa after 13 years bemoans the passing of an era where there actually was a thriving middle class. "Now either you're rich or you're poor. There's no in between," she says as she busies herself with full-time lab technician school and caring for her two children.
Cindy worries that her oldest daughter will have to enlist in the military in order to make a future for herself because the family can’t afford to send her to college. Her husband Doug, who is permanently disabled, tries to console her saying, “No, we’ll be fine.” But his tone and facial expression as he says this gives of a completely different message: “We’re totally screwed.”
Mary Willmer, the President of M&I Bank (which was acquired by BMO Harris during the making of the film), puts more effort in to bucking up and putting on a happy face. “We don’t want to paint a picture of doom and gloom for people in this community,” she says. In fact, she spearheaded a campaign to seduce businesses to relocate to Janesville through local and state tax incentives.
The campaign is called Rock County 5.0 and it includes none other than Diane Hendricks whose ABC Building Supply business is located in Janesville. Says Willmer of the effort, “We need to be the Ambassadors of Optimism in Rock County. I want to get Rock County turned around by putting everything on the table to get business here. Opening doors, removing barriers. When you put the future in the hands of business owners, business leaders, you'll have success.”
Luckily for the Rock County 5.0 team, the 2010 elections were just around the corner, and there were plenty of business-friendly candidates to support. Hendricks herself supported Scott Walker to the tune of $500,000. In his acceptance speech on election night, Walker said, “Tonight I want to tell every business big and small in this state that you have an ally in the Governor’s office. Come today you don’t have to be afraid anymore because Wisconsin is open for business.”
Fearlessly, the Rock County 5.0 group summoned the newly elected state legislators from the region to a meeting - all but one Republican, most of them freshmen. Willmer told them, “Do we need to leverage the potential here? Absolutely.” Diane Hendricks added, “If we had more attractive rules, I mean, this state is so heavily controlled by the unions, and the laws are written in favor of the unions.”
Demonstrating a clear understanding of his place in the scheme of things, Rep. Joe Knilans didn’t miss a beat. “My ears are open to all of you because you guys are the minds, I’m the tool.”
Meanwhile, UAW member Gayle Listenbee had been laid off from her job at GM after working there for 24 years. She had to decide whether to uproot her family and take a transfer to a different plant, or to look for another job locally. When her local job search came to a halt after realizing the only available jobs paid an average of $9/hour, Listenbee made the difficult decision to commute to and from work at a GM plant in Ft. Wayne Indiana.
John Dohner, president of UAW local 95, explains the tough spot the 750 out of the 11,000 laid off workers with enough seniority to be offered a transfer were in. "The people that are being moved down to Arlington, Texas, Kansas City, Ft. Wayne. If they turn down the job they're severing everything they had with GM. It's a forced move."
Listenbee drives home every weekend to be with her daughters and husband in Janesville, hoping for an early retirement offer or a winning lottery ticket, “whichever comes first.”
In talks about how to attract businesses to Janesville, Rock County 5.0 discussed the issue of workers. To Hendricks, these people are one undifferentiated mass of labor to exploit.
Hendricks: "Of the workforce that was let go two years ago, how many of the workforce is still here?"
Willmer: "They're all gone."
John Beckord of Forward Janesville: "If you opened a new plant here, how fast could you hire and train a new workforce?"
Willmer: "Quickly, easy."
Beckford: "So the fact that all those people are gone is perhaps in the plus column, because they could pay less."
Hendricks: "Oh, a lot less."
But non-unionized, low wage workers was just one part of the strategy. The other part involved offering massive public subsidies (money paid by working people who make enough money to pay taxes but not enough to sock it away in offshore tax havens) as venture capital to companies who promise to move to Janesville. This is also a strategy being pursued by Walker at the state level.
Addressing a meeting of Rock County 5.0, Walker said, “Everything we do, it’s got to be about how to make it easier for the private sector, not the government, but the private sector to create more jobs in this state. And I think it fits in beautifully with what Rock County 5.0 is talking about. What we’re putting in place not only lowers the tax burden on small businesses, but major changes when it comes to regulatory requirements in the state.”
Willmer championed a request for $8 million in tax incremental financing for a startup medical technology company, Shine, to build its factory in Janesville. Although the city budget was already strained, the council voted to approve the deal.
State Senator Tim Cullen bemoaned the situation, calling it a system of legalized blackmail. “You pay up or the jobs don’t go in your city or state,” said Cullen. “I think this whole Shine deal is indicative of the very difficult straits that Rock County is in right now economically.”
The Rock County 5.0 team called in state legislators for another arm-twisting meeting to discuss the bill that would abolish the Wisconsin Department of Commerce and create the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation as a semi-private agency. WEDC would serve as a vehicle to dole out grants, loans and tax credits to businesses. The provisions of the law removed reporting, tracking and other accountability measures for companies that receive state taxpayer money for the promise of creating jobs.
Senator Cullen made a valiant but ultimately vain attempt to argue against the proposal. “I’m not opposed to the use of tax credits. I’ve voted for a lot of tax credit bills already,” said Cullen. “What I can’t understand from looking at this bill is how the public is served – there’s nothing in the bill that says they have to have created jobs before they get it. We’re messing around with the public’s money; the public has a right to know what they’re getting.”
In the now legendary prank phone call Ian Murphy made to Scott Walker posing as billionaire David Koch, Walker revealed the crass ideological nature of his agenda when he warned “Koch” not to reach out to Cullen, even though Cullen had been instrumental in supporting many a Republican initiative. Walker said, “He’s not one of us. He’s not there for political reasons; he’s just trying to get something done. He’s not a conservative, he’s just a pragmatist.”
Thanks to Murphy and Lichtenstein, we have a glimpse of some of the things that politicians say to their backers behind closed doors. When speaking in public, those are the people to whom they are telegraphing messages in a more indirect way through by means of coded language. In parsing this kind of political rhetoric, the question inspired by Rep. Joe Knilans must be asked: “Who is the mind and who is the tool?”
The title, “As Goes Janesville” is a quote from Barack Obama when he spoke about the GM bailout and the potential for closing the Janesville assembly line. In saying, “As goes Janesville, so goes America,” Obama was also acting as an Ambassador of Optimism of sorts in a campaign to meet the needs of business owners, while thousands of workers – and millions of taxpayers - ultimately got the shaft.
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.