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How one worker rebounded after GM closed Wisconsin plant

By Nathan Bomey, Detroit Free Press –

After General Motors closed its Janesville, Wis. plant more than three years ago, Jim Milbrandt didn’t blame Barack Obama, Paul Ryan or any other politician.

Milbrandt, who worked at the plant for 43 years, bought a salon and spa instead – and he hired his four adult children to staff it.

Now he runs administrative functions at the Janesville business, Indira Spa & Salon.

“I figure if I can guarantee my kids a job, they’re not going to be coming to me asking for money,” Milbrandt, 64, said jokingly.

The plant was thrust into the middle of a national political fight Wednesday when Wisconsinite and GOP vice presidential nominee Ryan criticized President Obama for telling a Janesville crowd in February 2008 that U.S. aid for the auto industry could save the plant “for another hundred years.”

Ryan insinuated that Obama can be blamed for the plant’s demise. Critics pointed out that GM produced its final Chevrolet vehicles at the plant on Dec. 23, 2008, when George W. Bush was still president.

GM actually manufactured other products at the plant for the first few months of Obama’s administration in 2009 as part of a longstanding contract with Japanese automaker Isuzu to jointly produce heavy trucks there. A few dozen GM workers stuck around through late spring 2009 to produce the final Isuzu vehicles.

Milbrandt, one of those workers, said the plant’s closure can’t be pinned on a politician of any party. Some 1,300 GM employees lost their jobs when the plant closed.

“I think General Motors is to blame for that,” Milbrandt said.

Milbrandt, a self-professed staunch Democrat, said Ryan had obviously “misconstrued” the facts about the plant’s demise. He said he’ll vote for Obama, but he doesn’t mind Ryan’s political acumen.

“Everybody thought (Obama) was going to be able to save our plant, but it didn’t happen. I think he’s done just about as much as he could do,” he said.

Today, the GM plant, which produced its first Chevrolet in 1923, is “still idled,” a GM spokesman said.

That means it could theoretically reopen someday if GM identified new products for it to produce. But it would take a major investment to get it ready for production.

GM has placed its emphasis on getting its existing plants up to full production capacity, said David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Center for Automotive Research.

“It’s going to be iffy whether we’ll see anything at that plant at all,” Cole said. “It was a good plant — they had a good workforce — but it was an old plant.”

That workforce once included Milbrandt’s father, editor of the UAW Local 95 plant newsletter.

“He worked there 39 years. He would be rolling over in his grave right now if he knew that plant had shut down,” Milbrandt said. “My dad was a very staunch union man. Matter of fact, on his gravestone it says, ‘Here lies the body of a dedicated union man.’ ”

Milbrandt’s not waiting around for the plant to reopen. He’s too busy running his shop, which he bought from another entrepreneur soon after retiring from GM.

“I really wasn’t ready to retire and I’m still not ready to retire,” he said. “I basically run the salon behind the scenes. I do like payroll; I do the withholding taxes; I’m like Mr. Fixit. I’m a gopher. I’m an absentee replacement for the receptionist. I do that for my kids.”

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