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.