GM's Oldest Plant to Close Soon

As the last SUV rolled off the production line at General Motors' oldest plant here Tuesday, Karen Green promised herself she would keep her emotions in check.

The Janesville plant was built in 1918 for tractor production and converted to a Chevrolet plant in 1923. Green had worked on the assembly line for 14 years.

When plant and union officials began thanking workers for their years of service, however, she couldn't hold back the tears.

"I was pretty good up until the end. Then I lost it," said Green, 55, of Fort Atkinson. "It was just so somber, so sad."

Green was one of 1,200 employees let go when GM ended production at the southern Wisconsin plant.

Another 800 or so jobs have been lost at local companies that supplied GM parts.

Over the years, workers churned out sedans and SUVs, including Chevrolet Suburbans and GMC Yukons. But demand for big vehicles plummeted during the days of $4 gas this summer and failed to recover as fuel prices came down.

"We gave it a pretty good run for 85 years," said Steve Kriefall, 58, of Janesville. "But these are tough times now, and it's hard to see it come to this."

Kriefall retired from a 25-year career at the plant two years ago, but came back Tuesday for the final day.

The recession and a reluctant to extend credit have further hurt GM and other U.S. automakers. GM's sales have dropped 18 percent, and the company has lost $57.5 billion in the past 18 months.

In response, GM has announced 11,000 U.S. layoffs this year. They include 1,080 workers at a GM plant in Moraine, Ohio, that also closed Tuesday.

About 50 workers will remain at the Janesville plant to complete an order of small- to medium-duty trucks for Isuzu Motors Ltd. They're scheduled to finish by May or June, and then the plant will close for good, GM spokesman Christopher Lee said.

The recent job losses follow years of dwindling employment at the plant, which had 8,000 workers in the early 1990s. Some wonder whether the Janesville area can survive.

"You're already seeing it — lots of people leaving, lots of homes for sale," said Harry Larson, 57, who was an electrician at GM for 25 years. "They'll be looking for work wherever they can find it."

Others are persistently optimistic. Marv Wopat, 61, believes the town can persevere and hopes the automaker will eventually bring a new product to Janesville and its 60,000 residents.

"I believe Janesville will survive because of the community and the quality of people," said Wopat, who retired in July after 40 years with GM. "I believe it will survive, and it will grow, and hopefully it'll grow with GM down the road."

So far, that doesn't seem likely. Even though the White House threw GM and Chrysler LLC a lifeline Friday, offering $17.4 billion in rescue loans, the money isn't likely to trickle down to Janesville.

Before the money was approved, Gov. Jim Doyle had said the Janesville plant would have "no chance" without a bailout, and even with one it would have "a very, very remote chance."

Doyle's spokesman Lee Sensenbrenner said the governor's assessment was unchanged.

"It's still a very remote chance," Sensenbrenner said. "Maybe this keeps the door open a crack, but it's still going to be a difficult journey."

Workers trickled out of the plant in twos and threes after Tuesday's final shift.

Some said they were considering going back to school, but most said weren't sure what the future would hold.

Jeff Schrobel, 50, of Fort Atkinson, said he was considering taking classes toward an engineering degree but wondered whether more schooling would help.

"I'll be 55 when I'm done," Schrobel said. "Will having a degree make any difference at that point?"

Green said she's also considering going back to school, although she doesn't know what she'd study. Meanwhile, she's been cutting back on her Christmas and other spending.

"I'll just have to learn how to get by with less," she said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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