What Our Reality Is
“If I could just stay here I would be so much happier,” says Gayle Listenbee, “But there are no jobs.” Gayle has lost the job she held for years at the General Motors plant in Janesville, Wisconsin. This would be the same GM plant that Paul Ryan cited during the Republican National Convention in August. While Ryan’s assertion provoked a debate over truth-telling and point-making during political campaigns, Brad Lichtenstein’s film focuses less sensationally on the effects of the plant closing on people in Janesville.
To that end, the documentary follows Gayle’s difficult search for employment. Where she used to make $28 an hour on the assembly line, now, in 2009, she learns that neither the Hormel meat packing plant nor the local Frito Lay’s distribution center is hiring. At the Janesville Job Center, she learns that no positions are paying more than $9 an hour. “It’d take four jobs to make at least a living,” she sighs. “I’d have to work four full time jobs.”
Gayle shakes her head and heads toward the first set of glass doors at the Job Center. The camera cuts to a next shot, as she stands between these doors and another set, looking down at the papers she’s been handed and seeming caught—between the dismal news she’s just heard and the blinding white daylight outside. The take is brief and resonant. Her voice provides a bridge to the next shot, Gayle in her car, contemplating the Fort Wayne, Indiana plant that GM is, for the moment anyway, keeping open. It’s four hours away, and working there will mean a four-hour commute each weekend, while her children and husband, who’s on disability, remain in Janesville. “My head says one thing and my heart says another,” she smiles. She puts her name into the lottery for a job at this plant, hoping it comes through and maybe hoping it doesn’t, too.
Gayle’s story is one of four revealed in (the abbreviated version of) As Goes Janesville airing on PBS’ Independent Lens on 8 October. Each concerns the effects of the plant closing, expectations dashed and efforts to survive. As Gayle and her family come to terms with the difficulty of her working far from home—the scenes where she speaks to her tearful daughter on the phone or returns to huge hugs in Janesville only begin to suggest the strain this decision puts on her children—Mary Wilmer, president of Janesville’s M&I Bank, takes seriously new governor Scott Walker’s declaration that Wisconsin is “open for business.”
During a brief encounter with Mary and her colleagues, Walker extols the virtues of “Divide and conquer” in the campaign to rejuvenate the state’s economy. Mary nods as he speaks, then sets to work on bringing new business to the state, and specifically to her county. “We want our kids to look at Rock County as a place to stay,” she tells a meeting of local business leaders she’s bringing together under the name Rock County 5.0, her finger touching the table in front of her as she pronounces each word carefully. She nods as a colleague asserts, “We’re not an auto town anymore, boom.” She adds, “You reinvent yourself, you get better, you get stronger.” Just so, Rock County 5.0 raises $1 million in monies deemed both public (through the City Council) and private.
Here the film sets another story in opposition to Mary’s, in tracking the evolution of Tim Cullen’s political career. The only Democrat newly elected to the state senate in 2010, Tim sees his anomaly in several contexts, not least being his outrage at precisely the fight against unions undertaken by Rock County 5.0 and Walker’s Republican colleagues. Where Mary sees herself and fellow RC 5.0 members as “ambassadors of optimism,” Tim sees the group as an example of “kind of a legalized blackmail system,” where “you pay up or the jobs don’t go in your city or your state,” that is, a system designed to widen the gap between rich and poor and debilitate the middle class (Gayle notes a similar trend in the union-gutting efforts (“The rich still got money and the poor never had it”).
Mary sees RC 5.0 as an attempt to lure entrepreneurs to Janesville. Though the city’s money might go to pay for “social needs,” it’s a better investment to “incentivize” a company like Shine Medical Technologies to come to the area, pulling out the familiar analogy that it’s better to a man to fish rather than feeding him, not exactly addressing the problem posed by the public funding of private entrepreneurs at the expense of “social needs.”
Cindy Deegan might be a model of the person learning to fish: on losing her job at Alcoa making tire rims for GM trucks, the former longtime soldier goes back to school (using money from a federal program) to become a lab technician, knowing that a new hospital is under construction in Janesville. She’s got a lot of maybes in play here, and then she discovers a lump in her breast, just as she’s losing her health insurance from Alcoa; she reveals this as she also notes that her grandmother died of breast cancer.
Cindy’s story is at once her own and typical of those told in As Goes Janesville. She laments her loses and focuses on the future, believing she can affect what happens, if only she works hard. The same might be said of Mary and Tim, certainly, as well as Gayle. The camera observes her washing her face one morning, looking into the bathroom mirror. “This is what our reality is,” she sums up, “Getting through the day to day, living for the weekend.” That reality is of a piece with the films closing epigraphs, including the one noting that the Janesville plant was one of 39 GM has closed, wit no plans to reopen.