By Tom Still

MADISON – Opened in 1919 to produce tractors, the General Motors assembly plant in Janesville is among the oldest of its kind in the United States. But it wasn’t the age of the brick-and-mortar on the outside that mattered when GM decided which of its plants to close and how many of its workers to cut.

What mattered was on the inside – a productive, tech-savvy work force, product lines that sell, and a tradition of cooperation that extended beyond the plant gates. The GM plant in Janesville will survive because it is tooled for the future, not the past.

GM tried to banish talk of bankruptcy last week when it announced plans to save $7 billion per year by cutting 30,000 North American jobs (about 5,000 more than previously announced) and closing five vehicle factories. The plan will reduce GM’s production capacity by about 800,000 units a year to 4.2 million units by 2008, meaning that Japan’s Toyota will probably become the world’s largest automaker within two years.

GM’s market share in the United States has fallen from 43 percent in 1982 to 26.4 percent in the third quarter of this year. It has reported losses of $3.8 billion so far this year.

With more employees laid off and more plants closed than expected, why was GM’s Janesville plant spared? Here are some reasons:

The right work force: GM workers in Janesville are among the better-trained and most productive in the company. In an industry once plagued by absenteeism and workers who refused to adjust to changing technologies, the 3,600 unionized workers in Janesville stand out. They show up ready and able to work. That’s why the plant has won three consecutive quality awards from J.D. Power and Associates.

“While we have one of the oldest, if not the oldest plant in the GM family, it is a highly productive plant with the best workers you can find anywhere in the country,” Gov. Jim Doyle said in Janesville last week.

The right products: GM believes there’s still a big market for full-size sport-utility vehicles and pickup trucks. In fact, none of the plants slated to close or lay off workers makes big pickups or full-size SUVs.

The Janesville plant primarily makes full-size sport-utilities such as the Chevrolet Suburban and Tahoe and the GMC Yukon and Denali. The Janesville plant will continue those lines and produce GM’s next generation of SUVs, the more fuel-efficient 900 series.

GM is investing $175 million in the Janesville plant for the new SUV line, which is set to go on sale in January. The state of Wisconsin has contributed $10 million for training and other assistance. A signal that GM would keep the Janesville plant came recently when the company decided to shift full-sized SUV production from a plant in Mexico so that plant could focus on truck assembly.

The right partnerships: A month ago, the United Auto Workers approved health care concessions that will save GM about $3 billion a year. In Janesville, the lion’s share of union members endorsed the measure because they knew it was part of an overall scheme to remain competitive.

Management and labor in Janesville has historically worked together to manage change, which is now a permanent part of the automotive industry. That kind of cooperation has inspired political collaboration outside the factory gates.

Former Gov. Tommy Thompson helped pay for road work that made truck routes from
I-90 to the GM plant more direct. Under Doyle, $10 million in incentives have been arranged for job training, energy assistance and a distribution center in Hudson. Republicans and Democrats alike in the Legislature are willing to support such measures because they know the payback comes in the form of high-paying jobs.

“The relationship between the state, the UAW and General Motors … makes a big difference when General Motors decides which plants are going to stay and which ones are going to go,” said Mike Sheridan, president of UAW Local 95 and a member of the Wisconsin Legislature.

Over time, the automobile industry worldwide will have fewer jobs, not more, so there is no such thing as a permanent reprieve. For now, however, GM remains a big part of Janesville and Wisconsin. Maybe that 100th anniversary in 2019 is possible, after all.