A family affair: Working at GM was practically an inheritance for many
The choice was a no-brainer for 21-year-old Marv Wopat.
Hoping to be a city firefighter, the young Navy veteran moved to Janesville in 1968.
But his brother-in-law, a General Motors worker, encouraged him to apply at the plant, where a man could count on a lifetime of job security and good wages.
Years later, Marv suggested his son and daughter work at GM for the same reasons.
Like so many, he wanted his children to reap the autoworker benefits.
"You talk to your kids about job security," Marv says, his voice halting. "All you want is the best for them. Now, they're struggling, and you don't think that could ever happen."
Marv retired from the plant in July after 40 years. He started on the line and ended as an employee counselor.
The 61-year-old is sitting on the couch at his Milton home with his daughter Janice Dillinder at his side. She got laid off from the plant in June after 12 years. The 39-year-old mother of two is holding her father's hand as he talks about the end of an era Tuesday, when Janesville workers build the last sport-utility vehicle.
Sitting across from Marv is his 38-year-old son, Matt, who has three children. He was laid off from GM in August after 13 years.
On Marv's right side is his wife, Lynn. She retired from the plant five years ago, with more than 30 combined years at GM in Janesville and Willow Run Transmission in Michigan. Her father was a GM worker, who told her she could earn the best money at the plant, but she had to steel herself for a tough job.
Lynn was divorced and trying to raise two young boys and a girl when she started building cars. She needed the paycheck, but she did not need the bullying. In 1968, men didn't want women on the line.
"I had to be walked into and out of the plant," Lynn recalls of her early days at Willow Run. "The men heckled and harassed me. I had such moxie back them. I just went in like a charging bull."
Everywhere you turn in the tightly knit Wopat family is a connection to "the plant" and so many memories. Even Janice's husband, Shane, works at Lear Corp., a company tied to General Motors. He is losing his job this week.
The Wopats are typical of GM employees. Some counted three generations of workers at the Janesville plant, which rolled its first Chevrolet off the line in February 1923. Not too long ago, high school students could count on following in the footsteps of their fathers or uncles, and, later, their mothers or aunts.
GM managers knew young hires were accountable to a higher authority than themselves. If new employees skipped work or goofed off on the line, they had to explain to angry relatives, who had put in good words to get them hired.
In better times, assemblers labored 10 hours a day, five days a week, at the plant. Often, they spent more time with co-workers than with their own families. They regularly celebrated birthdays, anniversaries and holidays with cakes and cheer. After work, they played on softball, flag football and bowling teams.
But it wasn't all fun.
The Wopats worked hard for decades "fighting the line." They use the expression to describe what it was like to perform several functions on an assembly line, which marches at the same steady pace all day long.
Lynn says the job battered her body.
She has carpal tunnel and tendinitis in both shoulders and wrists from years of repetitive motion. If she does anything over and over with her hands, they swell and go to sleep.
"There's a lot of negative talk about autoworkers, saying we did not work hard," Matt says. "People busted their butts down there."
But earnest employees could not prevent sagging SUV sales.
More than 1,250 hourly workers and 92 salaried employees will be out of jobs when SUV production ends Tuesday. Layoffs total almost 2,200, including ones earlier this year.
Marv worries about the impact on nonprofit agencies. For the last 25 years, he has led the United Auto Worker-GM holiday food drive that gives two weeks of groceries to 350 families in need.
The Wopats, like other GM families, opened their pocketbooks when it came time to support so many causes. The UAW and GM have offered money and volunteers for youth programs, Rotary Gardens and others. They also have given generously to big-ticket items, including the United Way.
"What happens when that money doesn't flow into the community anymore?" Lynn asks.
Since leaving the plant, Janice and Matt are retooling for their futures. Janice is enrolled at Blackhawk Technical College and has her sights set on becoming a nurse.
"It's a great opportunity for me," she says. "But I liked what I was doing, and I thought it was going to be my career. We all thought we would retire at the plant. It's difficult to switch careers at 39. Some people are in their 50s and going back to school."
Matt is both excited and scared about returning to class to study electric power distribution, but he remains optimistic.
"There's still a glimmer of hope that we could get another product in the plant," he says. "If I could, I would go back to work there, but I would continue with my education."
He realizes he has been fortunate to work at a company that still gives him an income and pays for him to go to school.
The whole family is proud of its role in the plant's long legacy in Janesville.
"It's been a good run," Marv says.
"We cared about doing a good job. We cared about the community."
Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Janesville Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.