With the closing of the plant by Detroit during the 2008 economic collapse, at least eleven thousand workers at the plant or related industries lost their jobs and only 750 employees were offered transfers to plants in Fort Wayne, Indiana or elsewhere. In 2005 there were 308 foreclosures in Janesville. By 2009, that number jumped to 487 with 1300 pending.
The film opens with the words of President Barack Obama: “The promise of Janesville has been the promise of America.” The film goes on from there to document Governor Scott Walker’s union-busting tactics, complete with the protesters bearing signs with messages like, “I never thought I’d miss Nixon” and “We will not go gently into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
The light, in this case, would be the gains won by unions over the years, which Walker and the Republican Tea Party members set out to destroy.
Director Brad Lichtenstein takes us into the lives of both veteran Democratic Senator Tim Cullen (24 years in office), one of the few legislators who seemed to make much sense and/or be willing to compromise, and that of workers and business people in the community. Of his fellow Republican legislators, Cullen said, “Every vote is 19 to 14. It’s sheer partisanship. There’s no interest in compromise. They’re not conservatives; they’re radicals.”
Among the workers profiled was Gayle Listenbee, a black single mother with 24 years of seniority at GM, who accepted employment in Fort Wayne, leaving her 18-year-old son behind and relatively unsupervised. When her son, D.J., an admirer of Detroit muscle cars, was involved in a serious car accident, Gayle blamed herself and was plagued by guilt over her decision to take the transfer. She was (also) initially fired by her new employers. However, her union representative, managed to get her reinstated, pointing out that she had never pulled against her sick leave in 24 prior years of employment.
Another African-American mother of two girls, aged 9 and 12, whose husband retired from G.M. on disability, took the transfer as well and is heard saying that her only hope is retirement or the lottery, and that she thinks winning the lottery is more likely than early retirement.
Cynthia Deegan, who had spent 11 years in the military and had worked for Frito-Lay prior to taking her General Motors job, has a health scare that almost drives her from the federally-financed retraining program, which eventually lands her a job at $10 or $11 an hour at a hospital, part-time, for a 20-hour week at Beloit Memorial Hospital. Cynthia says of her seemingly never-ending job search, “I didn’t think it’d be this hard to find a good job.”
Meanwhile, across town, we see the Republican moneyed CEOs and bankers trying to mount pitches for more jobs in Janesville (“Ambassadors of Optimism”) and welcoming Republican Governor Scott Walker (especially CEO Dianne Hendricks, whom Walker hugs while not affording her less slender female counterpart a similar warm welcome.) Hendricks would go on to make the single largest political contribution to Walker’s campaign ever made in the state: $510,000.)
We hear Scott Walker saying, “You have an ally in the Governor’s office,” but causing what is referenced as “a point of change” with his attacks on unions representing teachers, firefighters, and policemen. As a result of Walker’s budget cuts, 200 teachers are laid off. Walker’s
Budget Repair Bill is referred to as “a watershed moment.” (Hence the film’s title). When the president of the teachers’ union sits down to plead the case for education, he is told that he should just be grateful that Janesville isn’t Providence, Rhode Island because Providence lay off 2,800 teachers. The glee with which the Ambassadors of Optimism regard the low wages that prospective incoming businesses will be able to pay, cannot be concealed. Gone are the days of good salaries. As the film says, “We’re not an auto town any more.”
Time and time again we hear the “us against them” theme repeated. The phrase is used, “Who shall govern us: the people or the money?” in reference to the tremendous amount of money spent by the millionaire Koch brothers to keep Governor Walker in power. ($45.6 million by the Republican incumbent versus $20.8 on the Democratic side, in July, 2012).
At the end of the film, the City Council votes to give 20% of the city budget to a new business (Shine Medical Technology) which has no hope of returning on the investment prior to 2015.
“As Wisconsin goes,” so goes the nation.