Editorial: Region much poorer for industrial job loss

08/07/2007
By From the Springfield Republican, masslive.com

By Robert Forrant

The fire at the American Bosch factory and the closing of Danaher Tool are part of the passing of an honorable blue-collar way of life. When I visited the fire scene on Dec. 17 it felt like I was attending the wake of a good friend.

Vivid memories of working at Bosch flooded back. Workmates often showed up an hour early, started coffee pots and argued about sports and politics and bragged about their children. People sold doughnuts and newspapers to raise money for their children's college tuition or a local charity.

The union- and company-sponsored Athletic Association supported athletic teams in the city's thriving industrial leagues and organized trips to Red Sox, Bruins, Celtics, Yankees, Rangers and Knicks games.

One can only imagine what it would have been like this past October when the Red Sox won the World Series. Every year the Athletic Association rented Mountain Park, a local amusement park, for a family outing, and sponsored a children's Christmas party. Danaher workers surely have similar memories.

From the early 1800s through the 1980s, Springfield was the hub of one of the world's leading industrial districts stretched out along the Connecticut River. Known as "the industrial beehive," Springfield's prosperity hinged on a set of industries that required thousands of highly skilled metalworkers.

However, Westinghouse and American Bosch began relocating work out of the city in the 1950s. Soon the Armory closed and the city hemorrhaged blue-collar jobs; from 1950 to 1987, half of the region's factories were shuttered.

Manufacturing job loss accelerated once more in the recent recession. Massachusetts has lost 20 percent of its blue-collar jobs since 2001.

More than 1,000 people worked at Bosch in 1986 when United Technologies pulled the plug. For many, the plant was their only job, straight from high school.

My friend Donald Staples spent 36 years in the sprawling factory. He sent two sons to college on his steady wages. Staples intended to work in the plant for a summer and then return home to New Hampshire to attend college on the G.I. bill. After the closing he told me, "It's sad. I didn't realize how much it meant to me, till I think about not going back in there. I can close my eyes and walk through the building. It's as if they tell you your mother's sick, but you never believe she is going to die."

Ironically, the day I visited the fire I learned that one of the last metalworking firms in the city's North End, Danaher Tool, was to close. It is fitting, I guess, that these two factories' fates are intertwined. At their peak, several thousand metalworkers made a very good living in that part of the city, and Bosch and Danaher workers (back then Easco Hand Tool) often met at Elsie's for a beer and a burger on their 30-minute lunch break.

We should care far more than we do about the passing of places like Bosch and Danaher. What does such job loss mean for the regional economy? Here is one interesting statistic:

Median household income in older industrial cities in Western Massachusetts is well below the state average of $50,502. The numbers are: Greenfield, $33,110; Holyoke, $30,441; North Adams, $27,601; Pittsfield, $35,655; Springfield, $30,417.

This certainly helps us to understand the financial condition of Springfield these days. As the business agent for International Union of Electrical Workers Local 206 at Bosch when it closed, I watched my friends receive their layoff notices. I worried with them about what they would do for work as the available pool of decent industrial jobs shrank.

Now, I teach industrial and labor history at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and I remain deeply troubled over how working families can put food on the table and save for their children's education and their retirement in an economy with so little regard for people who make things.

My dad worked hard as a meat cutter for the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company from the Second World War until he retired after 40 years. We were not rich, but a steady paycheck provided a level of economic security.

Such security is elusive these days, no matter how much President Bush contends that the economy is great.

When Bosch closed, a newspaper editorial pointed out that the service economy everyone seemed to put so much faith in too often produced jobs that required little skill, and offered low pay and no benefits.

Twenty years later not a lot has changed.

The Bosch fire and the closing of Danaher should give us all pause to consider the society we want - one polarized into the haves and have nots, or one that fairly rewards people for hard work and never forces them to choose between medicine for their children or money for groceries.

Robert Forrant is professor of Regional Economic and Social Development at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, and former Bosch worker and union officer there.