Labor Day Used to Be a Grand Celebration in This Storied Factory Town

Labor Day Used to Be a Grand Celebration in This Storied Factory Town

Labor Day Used to Be a Grand Celebration in This Storied Factory Town

Then the factory closed and the union crumbled.


As always, the clowns arrived first, rounding the corner from Milwaukee Street onto Main, tossing candy to the children who had scrambled off their parents’ laps. A local radio DJ, booming into his microphone from the reviewing stand, welcomed the crowd to Janesville’s beloved Labor Fest. It was September 3, 2012, a shimmery scorcher of a day in this small city in southern Wisconsin that has proclaimed its end-of-summer parade the “Midwest’s Best.”

I was standing next to the reviewing stand on that steamy afternoon because I’d begun work on a book about what happens to an ordinary community with a deep industrial past after the Great Recession stole thousands of good jobs. Janesville was a useful place to explore that question. The city had been home to General Motors’ oldest operating assembly plant until it turned out its last Chevy Tahoe two days before Christmas in 2008. GM’s decision to close the plant triggered a cascade of 9,000 vanished jobs in town and nearby—first at the plant itself, then at companies that had supplied parts and services to it, and then at restaurants that no longer had enough customers and at day-care centers that folded because parents out of work no longer need someone to watch their young kids.

On that September day five years ago, I was still getting to know Janesville, whose congressman, Paul Ryan, would become speaker of the House of Representatives. But I had already learned that this city of 63,000 took Labor Day seriously, magnifying the holiday into a three-day celebration of the well-performed work and well-mannered labor relations in which the people of Janesville took pride. The weekend’s crowning event had been called the “Parade of Champions” from the 1950s through the ’70s, when the plant’s union and management, along with local business owners, all came together to plan it.

During those years, workers gathered at the United Auto Workers Local 95 union hall, setting aside the work of assembling Chevys to assemble parade floats, each year’s more elaborate than the last. One year’s float illustrated the benefits that unions conferred on working men and women, with a family on a simulated fishing trip atop a float with a fake stream. Another year, the parade set a world record for a hitched team: a 300-foot extravaganza starring eight ponies and 64 llamas towing a wagon. Known in recent years as Labor Fest, the celebration always pulled in enough donations to hire the country’s top-rated fife-and-drum corps.

Nearly four years after the 4.8-million-square-foot assembly plant shut down, the event had become a husk of its former self. The parade had dozens of fewer units than even a couple of years before, with the only marching bands coming from the city’s two high schools. Its goodwill ambassador was a school social worker raising money to help house a growing crop of homeless teenagers.

But it was the shrunken role of the autoworkers, who for so many decades had been Labor Fest’s chief sponsors and backbone, that was most jarring. Not only did Local 95 no longer have a float, but no autoworkers were marching at all. Instead, two old guys in union caps each held the end of a dowel dangling a small banner that read: UAW Local 95 Retirees.

The union’s vestigial presence in a parade intended as a celebration of workers made a fitting metaphor for how far labor’s fortunes have fallen in Janesville in recent years. The once-mighty Local 95 lives on today as a pale reminder of the force it used to wield in Janesville. Its collapse echoes the dwindling power of labor across Wisconsin, where union membership has plummeted to a far greater extent than it has nationwide.

Shortly before the GM assembly plant closed, UAW Local 95 boasted 4,400 active members. By last year, it had been reduced to just over 300, according to Labor Department figures (the local’s current leadership places the number slightly higher). The local has shriveled from 16 bargaining units to just five. Of the units that remain, none represents actual autoworkers; the largest represents workers at a hospital in town.

“It’s falling down to bare minimum,” said Dave Vaughn, 68, who followed his father into the assembly plant and onto Local 95’s executive committee. After he retired, Vaughn reprised his former role as the local’s first vice president for a few years—this time as a volunteer.

Today, the local is led by Tim Silha, another retiree from the plant. Like many in his day, Silha had felt lucky to be hired there weeks after graduating from high school in 1975. He stayed for 33 years, until he retired in 2008, just months before the plant shut down. Silha never imagined that, five years later, he would get a call from a buddy who used to lead the local and now works in the UAW’s Region 4 office in Illinois, asking whether he would consider running for election to become the local’s president. Silha was so grateful for the pay and benefits that the UAW had won for him over his decades at GM, as well as his $3,600 monthly pension checks, that he agreed to do it.

It’s no surprise that Local 95’s leaders these days are retirees. The local has roughly 10 retired workers for every active member. A circuit-riding regional benefits representative who still comes to the union hall—but only one afternoon a week now—fields questions mainly from retired workers with concerns about their pensions or health benefits. This skew toward nonactive workers reflects, in exaggerated fashion, the situation facing the UAW on a larger scale: Its nearly 416,000 active members last year were eclipsed by the more than half a million retirees.

Less than a year after he took over as president, Silha had examined the local’s finances and told the Region 4 official who had talked him into the role that he didn’t think the local could make ends meet much longer. He ended up turning to the retirees who comprised the bulk of the membership, asking them to consider chipping in a little more than their voluntary $3 dues each month.

“The history of each and every retiree lies within these walls,” Silha reminded them in a letter. “It is our ultimate goal to keep the doors open at Local 95 for years and years to come.” If retirees or their surviving spouses volunteered to pitch in, say, a pension deduction of $5 a month, he wrote, “our Local would find the stability it needs to remain open and available for our union membership.”

Today, the books are balanced once again, with nearly half of the retired workers or their spouses donating $2 to $20 a month, plus income from renting out the union hall for weddings and quilters’ meetings and, once, a gathering of the National Wild Turkey Federation.

Still, keeping the lights on through the generosity of its own retirees is a steep fall from the glory days of the UAW, in which Janesville always had a part. This year marks the 80th anniversary of the famous General Motors sit-down strike of 1936–37, which halted work at more than seven plants in five states and produced the first national contract through which the UAW gained recognition as the GM workers’ union representative. In Flint, Michigan, the strike lasted 44 days and sparked a riot. In Janesville, it lasted nine hours and 15 minutes before the city manager negotiated a plan under which the workers agreed to leave the plant, while its managers promised not to manufacture any vehicles until the strike was settled nationally. That night, Janesville’s striking GM’ers filed out of the plant and marched peacefully through the streets of downtown.

At the end of World War II, amid fears that the country might slide back into a depression, the UAW “more than any other union aspired and thought big,” said Joseph McCartin, a labor historian at Georgetown University. In 1945, the labor leader Walter Reuther led a nationwide strike at 96 plants, including Janesville’s, with demands for a 30 percent wage increase and no increase in car prices. The idea was that rising wages and steady prices would trigger a postwar economic boom built on workers’ buying power. When GM objected that it couldn’t afford those terms, the UAW demanded that the company open its books to the union to prove its argument.

General Motors never did disclose its finances, but the workers got their raise—a 17.5 percent increase—cementing the UAW’s identity as “a true social union,” McCartin said. “It thought not just about its members, but about reorganizing the whole economy and putting the needs of working families at the center of things.” Soon after the strike ended, Reuther became the UAW’s president for the next quarter-century. The Local 95 union hall on Janesville’s south side still bears his name.

The diminishment of this union local is neither unique nor novel in the 21st century’s early years. Across the United States, unions have been suffering in their membership and political and economic clout. In such an environment, Wisconsin stands out in neon as Exhibit A.

When he took office in early 2011, Governor Scott Walker, a conservative firebrand, swiftly persuaded the State Legislature to pass a law, known as Act 10, that weakened the rights of most of the state’s public unions. As a private-sector union, the UAW wasn’t a target, but Walker’s move established a vehement and polarizing antilabor tone for his state. Autoworkers did have a direct stake four years later when Walker persuaded the Legislature to adopt a right-to-work law, enabling workers to opt out of paying dues to the unions that negotiate contracts on their behalf.

That time, even Silha, who prefers to keep a low profile, went to the State Capitol in Madison to testify against the bill. It became law nonetheless and is one reason that union membership in Wisconsin has plummeted from 15 percent in 2008, when Janesville’s assembly plant closed, to 8 percent last year—far more steeply than in the rest of the nation in those years.

The ebbing of union participation was evident from a survey of Rock County—the swath of southern Wisconsin for which Janesville is the county seat—that I conducted in 2013 for my book, with the help of researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The survey was a way to gauge people’s economic experiences and attitudes five years after the Great Recession had officially ended; when we asked whether they belong or had ever belonged to a union, it turned out that 15 percent said they were current members, while 38 percent were former members. And after all that had happened—thousands of local union jobs gone, an anti-union governor running the state—when we asked whether labor unions mostly help or mostly hurt the US economy in general, opinion was closely divided.

The erosion of the UAW local has affected Janesville in ways that ripple beyond the loss of union jobs. “It used to be, when the community needed something, we were the first letter they sent out,” Silha said. “We used to give to just about anything and everything.”

“Beaucoup bucks,” recalled Mike Marcks, who served two stints as Local 95’s president in the 1990s and again as a retiree just before Silha. The union accounted for half of the giving to the United Way’s annual campaign in Janesville, with many workers donating one hour’s pay a month. On the night that a house fire left a family homeless just before Christmas in the early 1980s, a nurse working a late shift at the plant got a call asking whether workers might help out. They passed a hat down the assembly line and collected $3,000. It was the beginning of a UAW-GM Christmas food drive that lasted 25 years, until 2009, after the plant closed. Without the workers, the organizers just couldn’t pull together the money or the manpower to keep the food drive going.

The local still makes a few donations—to the YWCA, to veterans’ groups—but the amounts are smaller. “We are very stringent,” Silha said. “I could not stand in front of the membership and tell them how we gave $2,000 to something at the same time I am asking them for extra money.”

Members still gather outside the union hall to paint campaign signs—invariably for Democratic candidates—every election season. Bernie Sanders paid a visit while running for president last year. Yet Local 95’s political influence has waned. “When we were a big, thriving union, if we requested somebody to come to the local to talk about some issues, they would come,” Marcks said. “Now they kind of overlook us a little bit.”

As for Labor Fest, in 2014, two years after I first watched the parade, the celebration was cut back from three days to two. The next year, it was abruptly canceled, with no official explanation. The parade was back last year, smaller than in the past—and about the same size organizers are expecting for Labor Day this year.

These days, Silha is 60 and has been retired for nine years on his good pension. He worries about a younger generation of workers who are making not much more than half of his old $28-an-hour wage—far from enough for a nest egg. He hopes the labor movement’s decline, in Janesville and beyond, might eventually prove to be cyclical. For now, he says, the remaining members of Local 95 “believe in the cause and, given the chance, would wish their children were in a union also.”

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