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On the corner of Main and Division in Ishpeming, Mich., Buck's Restaurant is known for serving big breakfasts and big portions to residents who depend on the mining industry for survival.

Changing Gears reporters have been out on the road. Our team has traveled through the Great Lakes in search of places where local economies, and town cultures, revolve around a single employer. Some are actual company towns – but not all of them can be defined that way.

Often overshadowed by bigger cities like Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland, citizens of these places have experienced the Midwest economy in their own way, and developed different approaches to riding out the Great Recession.

Starting Monday, we’ll bring you stories of five such places.

Niala Boodhoo begins our reports in Kohler, Wisc., a planned village created by the Kohler Company in 1912. The company remains a lynchpin of the town, as well as a global leader in plumbing products. She also visits Decatur, Illinois, the unofficial soybean capital of the world and home to food-production kingpin Archer Daniels Midland, a Fortune 500 company.

In the far reaches of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Kate Davidson visits Ishpeming, a town supported by the mining industry and perhaps one of the few remaining locations in Michigan where blue-collar workers can find job stability.

In Ohio, Dan Bobkoff reports on two towns, approximately 70 miles apart, taking different approaches to  their local economies. Orrville may be best-known as the home of Smuckers, but it has kept its business base diverse for generations with companies like Schantz Organ Co. and Wil-Burt, which makes telescopic-masts (the kind you see on TV trucks).

In Norwalk, Dan tells of the community effort to support Norwalk Furniture when the company faced financial turmoil. The town offered incentives to keep the company in Norwalk, and then a group of local businessmen bought the business outright.

As you listen to our reports, we’d love to hear from residents of these places, about what makes their towns distinct and the challenges faced there. We look forward to your thoughts. And come back Monday, when Changing Gears kicks off its road trip.

Wisconsin’s controversial collective bargaining law took effect today, and many public employees will feel the immediate pinch in their pay checks.

The law, officially Wisconsin Act 10, was published Tuesday by the state’s attorney general.

It limits collective bargaining on all but issues involving pay for most public workers, except for police and firefighters. It also requires employees to pay more for health care coverage and pensions. I talked about the new Wisconsin law with our friends at PBS Newshour.

For many public employees, the impact of the new law will be an 8 percent pay cut. Some communities negotiated new contracts with teachers and other employees before the law took effect. Those contracts will remain in force.

But employees where contracts have expired will be bound by the new law in any new agreements that are reached. Read Changing Gears’ Wisconsin coverage here.

The Wisconsin law has a turbulent history that included a standoff in the state Senate, protests that brought throngs of supporters and opponents to Madison, and a legal challenge that went to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Opponents of the law are talking about a federal court battle, but legal experts say they may face an uphill battle because the law applies specifically to Wisconsin, not to other states.

This week, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the architect of the new law, signed the state’s new $66 billion budget that includes $800 million in cuts. But he also vetoed a series of provisions in the budget.

Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Controversial Wisconsin law takes effect today. After months of passionate protests and debate, a controversial law that limits collective-bargaining rights of public employees in Wisconsin goes into effect today. The law cuts wages by approximately 8 percent, and strips employees of almost all bargaining leverage. Wisconsin AFL-CIO secretary treasurer Stephanie Bloomingdale tells our partner station WBEZ the unions aren’t done fighting. “This union-busting measure will not go unanswered,” she said.

2. Green light for Detroit’s light rail. Detroit leaders and federal officials have reached an agreement on the route of light-rail service from the city’s center up Woodward Avenue. Officials from the city administration tell the Detroit Free Press the route is a “compromise” and some financial backers of the $500-million project may not be happy. Officials say the route combines the need for speed and neighborhood development.

3. Help wanted in Ohio manufacturing sector. Ohio has lost more than 350,000 manufacturing jobs in the past decade, but some companies still looking to hire say they can’t find qualified workers. The problem? One human resources director tells our partner Ideastream that workers must multitask and need new training. Ned Hill, a dean of Cleveland State’s Levin College, says “the notion that someone can just walk in and learn a machine in a few hours and be up to speed … if that happens, that’s the exact job that’s going to be automated and disappear.”

Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Economists await automotive sales numbers. The U.S. manufacturing sector slowed following the Japanese nuclear catastrophe. This week, economists hope new data will show an uptick in automotive sales and, in turn, growth in orders for U.S. automotive suppliers.

Changing Gears senior editor Micki Maynard tells partner station WBEZ that the automotive sales numbers will not only help measure the manufacturing sector, but act as an overall indicator of health of the U.S. economy. “Car sales always depend on employment, jobs and housing,” she said. “If those things are not lining up, car sales won’t go up in any specific way.”

2. Labor unions decry Detroit mayor’s ‘scare tactics.’ Detroit Mayor Dave Bing has told union leaders the city’s school district must help save $121 million in health care and pension costs or face takeover from a state-appointment emergency financial manager. So far, some union leaders are daring Bing and the state to appoint one – they believe the emergency managers championed by Gov. Rick Snyder will be  unconstitutional.

3. Wisconsin adopts two-year budget. Gov. Scott Walker signed a two-year, $66 billion budget that cuts nearly $800 million from public schools and business taxes, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported today. The budget closes a $3 billion shortfall. Walker signed the budget at Fox Valley Metal-Tech, a site that highlighted a tax cut for manufacturers included in the budget.

Three stories makings news across the Midwest today:

1) Ohio governor proposes consolidation study: The state of Ohio contains more than 3,800 local government entities, including cities, townships and villages. Ohio governor John Kasich said today he wants to appoint a committee to study whether consolidating these entities would save taxpayer money.

“It’s not going to be a commission so we can navel-gaze,” Kasich told our partner station Ideastream. “It’s going to be a commission that’s going to look at what they do around the country, what the research has shown and they’ll do their own research.”

2) Fallout from Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling. After months of wrangling, the Wisconsin Supreme Court reinstated a controversial collective bargaining law Tuesday on a 4-3 vote. The implementation of the law, which restricts public employees collective-bargaining power and requires them to contribute to pension and health-care premiums, is the least of Wisconsin’s concerns, writes Forbes.

The magazine believes the ruling has created a new crisis, a contentious and unprecedented split among the jurists. “The minority opinion further alleged that the majority was driven by political motives rather than the desire to deliver a fair and judicious opinion. In the world of the law, this is beyond huge,” Rick Ungar writes.

3) Illinois trails neighbors in manufacturing ranking. “Illinois carries world-class danger for its manufacturing industry.” Those are the words of Michael Hicks, director of Ball State’s Center for Business and Economic Research. He believes the state’s unfunded pension liabilities and higher tax burden are alarming companies within the states borders.

Although Illinois’ improved its overall ranking to 11th in the center’s annual manufacturing and logistics report card, but the state fell behind five of its six neighbors. Crain’s Chicago Business has the rankings for all the Great Lakes states.

A controversial new Wisconsin law that limits the collective bargaining rights of thousands of public employees in Wisconsin is back on the books.

On a 4-3 vote along partisan lines, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that lawmakers were not constricted by the state’s open meetings laws when they passed the controversial legislation in March. Their decision overrules a Dane County Circuit Court judge, who initially struck down the legislation.

The Wisconsin situation has drawn intense national attention. Supporters and opponents of the new law have eagerly awaited the Supreme Court’s decision, so they can plot their next steps.

Changing Gears’ Guide to Understanding The Wisconsin Debate

Although new challenges are expected, the law will take effect as soon as the bill is officially published, a development that appears imminent, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The new law limits employees ability to bargain over their salaries and requires them to contribute to their pension and health-care premiums.

In its majority opinion, the court wrote of the circuit court ruling, “one of the courts that we are are charged with supervising has usurped the legislative power which the Wisconsin Constitution grants exclusively to the legislature.”

While concurring with parts of the decision yet dissenting with its cornerstones, Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson admonished her fellow jurists for what she called a superficial and political decision.

“The Dane County Circuit Court took the time and made the effort to consider the issues carefully and write a 48-page decision, including findings of fact and conclusions of law, explaining and supporting its reasoning,” she wrote. “In contrast, this court gives this important case short shrift. …

“On even casual reading, the explanations are clearly disingenuous, based on disinformation.”

Republican Gov. Scott Walker, whose trumpeting of the law stirred fierce protests in the state capitol, said the legislation was needed for giving local governments flexibility in dealing with budget deficits.

(Read the full decision here).

Changing Gears has covered the Wisconsin situation in depth over the past few months. Here’s a Q&A about issues involved in the public employee debate.

Three must read stories about the Midwest economy:

Illinois law makes it harder for teachers to strike. The Chicago Tribune reports Illinois Governor Pat Quinn will sign a sweeping education reform bill into law today. Under the bill, kids will be in school longer each day and for more days a year. Performance will be more important than seniority in making tenure decisions, and it will be more difficult for teachers to strike.

Pressure to open mine in Wisconsin breeds bogus ads. In Wisconsin, the state’s biggest business lobby is running ads touting supporting mining legislation. But, there isn’t actually any legislation written yet. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel explains that the ads are being run in the hope that Republicans will maintain their majority in the state legislature and approve opening an iron ore mine in the northern part of the state.

Pure Michigan campaign gets $3 million more. The advertising campaign touting Michigan’s natural beauty has gotten more in donations this year compared with 2010. The donations are from businesses and local governments that think the advertisements are a good investment. The total for the advertising campaign is approaching $28 million.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court began hearings today on the state’s controversial public employee law. Its decision is eagerly awaited by union members and collective bargaining opponents alike.

Associated Press photo

Here’s a guide to help you understand what’s at stake.

Last month, the Dane County Circuit Court struck down the new law, saying Republican lawmakers violated the state’s open meetings regulations when they held hearings on the legislation.

Debate over the law sparked plenty of drama in Wisconsin, where thousands of protestors descended on the state capital in Madison.

Some called the protests as important to the labor movement as the sit-down strike at General Motors in Flint, Mich., in 1936 and 1937.

And Wisconsin isn’t alone: other states in our region passed legislation affecting state employees’ collective bargaining rights. Here’s our Q&A explaining what the issues mean.

Wisconsin readers: are you a state employee affected by the new law, or did you support its appeal? How do you view today’s hearings?

Five must-read stories on the Midwest economy

1) GM Tech Center Investment: General Motors said today it is investing $130 million in its technical center in Warren, Mich., and expects to add 25 jobs.

GM joined Ford and Chrysler with a good first quarter in 2011. Photo by Chris via Flickr.

The automaker will build an enterprise data center, and remodel an administrative building on the tech center campus. The move comes after the Warren City Council approved tax credits. GM also is getting a credit from the state of Michigan.


2) Union Law Before WI High Court: The Wisconsin Supreme Court is hearing an appeal today of a decision by a lower court to void a controversial new state law. The law stripped most unionized state employees of their collective bargaining rights. The lower court said Republicans in the state legislature didn’t obey open meeting requirements. Both union supporters and lawmakers want a quick decision so they can plot their next moves.

3) Wilkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome: With summer in full swing, foreign tourists are showing up in Chicago and across the region. Cities are happy to have them visit, but they say the U.S. is losing out to countries that make tourist entry easier. Our partner station WBEZ looked at how foreign tourists could help boost the local economy.

4) Another Big Win For Indianapolis: Indianapolis has had its share of major sports events through the years, including the annual Indy 500 and the NCAA basketball playoffs. Now, Indianapolis will get to hold the Big Ten championship football game through 2015, beating out a bid by Chicago. Indianapolis already was tapped to hold the first championship game this year, on Dec. 3. Cities vie for these games because of hotel, restaurant and concessions revenue, as well as international exposure.

5) Casino Closer in Toledo Towns all over Ohio are going ahead with plans to build casinos. In Toledo, construction is about half finished, and developers say they’re on track to open in the second quarter of 2012. If it meets the deadline, it would be the first of the new crop to launch.

Eventually, the Wisconsin Supreme Court may have the final say over a law that restricts the collective bargaining of public employees. For now, the controversial legislation has been struck down.

A Dane County judge ruled Thursday that Republican lawmakers violated the state’s open meetings act when they passed the bill on March 9. In her 33-page ruling, Judge Maryann Sumi wrote, “transparency in government is most important when the stakes are high.”

Republicans should try to pass the legislation again, opines the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, this time with a “more reasonable approach.” The ruling is a big boost to Wisconsin Democrats and their efforts to recall Gov. Scott Walker, says the Washington Post.

Elsewhere in the Midwest today:

Amid the backdrop of declining population, Detroit Public Schools have altered their consolidation plan after receiving community input. Meanwhile, towns throughout Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are struggling to survive, writes the Associated Press.

Also in Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to sign a $46 billion state budget, a move that comes without the usual high-profile wrangling, reports our partner station Michigan Radio. In Ohio, lawmakers see township consolidation as one way money could be saved in the future, Ideastream reports.

WBEZ says that lobbyists for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel are already in Springfield representing his interests in the state capitol. The new mayor has limited time for action – the legislature adjourns Tuesday. Across Illinois, unemployment rates are dropping in metro areas, says the Chicago Tribune.

The number of homes in the foreclosure process declined nationally during the first quarter of 2011, but they still account for 28 percent of all sales. In Ohio, foreclosed properties sold for an average of $75,397, says the Akron Beacon Journal.