Blue collar blues

Economist Paul Harrington has lots of data about manufacturing employment in Massachusetts, and all of it is ugly. In 1984, about 670,000 people were employed in making things, or about one in every four non-agricultural workers; just a decade later, manufacturing was down to 447,000 employees, or about 16 percent of the state’s private sector workforce. That was far from the end of the slide. Last fall, manufacturing accounted for just 331,000 of Massachusetts’s 3.2 million private sector jobs. In just two decades, manufacturing’s share of total employment in Massachusetts fell from 25 percent to barely 10 percent. But Harrington, co-director of Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies, says there’s another way to capture the reality of these vanishing blue-collar jobs–with a colloquialism that’s vanishing as well.

Worcester’s Wyman-Gordon Co. was
still at full power in 1982.

“Do you remember when someone used to go work for some big, established company around here?” Harrington asks. “You’d say, he’s at General Motors or Polaroid or whatever–he’s set for life. You just don’t hear that expression any more.”

Set for life. It’s a phrase the workers profiled below would find familiar, if poignant. Kevin Casella figured he was set for life when he went to work at Wyman-Gordon Co., in Worcester, as a high school graduate and community college dropout in 1985. He never thought that, at 46, he’d be a laid-off father of two. And Karl Farmer thought that the social compact that had long marked Cambridge-based Polaroid’s relationship with its employees was something he could count on forever.

Those were expectations of a different era. It was an era that promised not only security but also opportunity for society’s have-nots–those who had a dream they were willing to work for. For more than a century, manufacturing was the first rung on a ladder to the middle class for wave after wave of immigrants and for countless Bay State residents who did not or could not attend college. “In manufacturing, you had this upward mobility based on skills acquired on the job,” Harrington explains. “Even without formal schooling, you could work your way up the mobility ladder. Now that ladder has broken down and doesn’t work anymore.”

Manufacturing still provides a haven for immigrants, Harrington says, but for fewer of them. High school dropouts, for whom factories long served as an economic and social lifeline, have caught particularly bad colds from manufacturing’s big sneeze. “Access to full-time jobs for high school dropouts is way below what it was in the past,” says Harrington. “Even when they do find full-time work, real earnings today are about two-thirds of what they were 30 years ago.” The consequences, he says, go well beyond a shrinking paycheck: “The loss of manufacturing undermines basic family structure and community.”

The decline of manufacturing jobs has become a big issue nationally. Between 1999 and 2003, during the recent recession and tepid recovery since, 2.8 million manufacturing jobs disappeared, devastating the industrial Midwest. But in Massachusetts, the drain of manufacturing jobs is an old story, one that attracts little attention today. “If one company were closing with the sudden loss of thousands of jobs, then we’d maybe see big headlines,” says Massachusetts AFL-CIO treasurer Kathleen Casavant. “But it’s been a slow bleed over many years to the point that people don’t even know about some of these companies until they start closing.”

Example: Last October, Main Street Textiles, in Fall River, closed, with the loss of 400 jobs, but the event merited just a one-paragraph squib in The Boston Globe. The slightest hiccup in biotech gets more ink than that.

And it’s not just the media that have lost interest. “Unfortunately, too many policy-makers see manufacturing as a thing of the past in Massachusetts,” says Richard Lord, president of Associated Industries of Massachusetts. “AIM is trying to change the stereotype that the New Economy isn’t going to contain manufacturing jobs. It has to include manufacturing, and for a lot of reasons. The most basic is that manufacturing creates wealth. Losing our manufacturing base will have a profoundly negative impact on our economy.”

For now, however, the negative impact seems confined to people like those you’ll meet here, people who saw themselves once as the source of a nation’s wealth–as well as their families’ breadwinners–but now as society’s castoffs. The economy will adjust, providing opportunities for the next generation that the factory hands of yesterday–or those remaining today–would find difficult to imagine. But for individuals who knew a different era, and who bought into a social contract that is no longer being honored, change comes hard.

‘We’re the core of America. And we’re under attack.’

“Blue-collar guys without a lot of skills were never going to be rich. We knew we’d have to work until 62 or so. And we always understood that,” says Paul Soucy, president of United Steelworkers Local 2285, who put in 25 years at Wyman-Gordon. His father and his uncles racked up more than 40 years apiece at the company; his brother is working there still. “What I don’t understand is why people don’t get what’s happening to us now,” he says. “We’re Middle America. We’re what makes America go. We’re the ones buying the cars, keeping the local stores afloat, trying to put our kids through college and provide for our families. We’re the core of America. And it boggles my mind that we’re under attack.”

Kevin Casella: “Wyman’s was it”

Attack might not be the right word, even if that’s what it feels like to Soucy and other factory workers. But there’s no doubt that the world of factory work has almost disappeared in Massachusetts, and it’s on the way out elsewhere.

Kevin Casella: “Good pay, good benefits.
You assumed you were set for life.”
Kevin Casella, 46, has watched–and lived–the change. Back when work was steady, Casella could spot his fellow workers in blue-collar bars around Worcester even if he had never met them. “You could always tell the guys from Wyman’s,” he says. “They were the ones with cash.”

Casella was one of those guys from Wyman’s, as the 120-year-old Wyman-Gordon Co. was known to generations of workers who produced the firm’s complex metal components and other products for aircraft engines, energy turbines, and other heavy equipment. “If you grew up around here, Wyman’s was it,” says Casella, who was raised in Grafton. “I went to community college for a couple of years but never finished. You didn’t really need to. There were a lot of places to get good work, but Wyman’s was it. Good pay, good benefits. You worked at Wyman’s, you assumed you were set for life.”

Founded in Worcester in 1883, Wyman-Gordon had a customer base of defense, energy, aircraft, and other clients that would seem to immunize it from the rise and fall of the business cycle. Or so Casella thought. After working in construction and other jobs, Casella started at Wyman-Gordon in 1985 as a chip puller in the machine shop at the Worcester plant. Part of that plant has since been closed. Gone, too, is the local ownership. In 1999, the company was acquired by Oregon-based Precision Castparts Corp.

After less than a year on the job, Casella faced the first of a string of layoffs that came and went with contracts, recessions, and market cycles. They didn’t discourage him. “With every layoff, I always thought I’d be back,” says Casella. And a layoff didn’t always mean being out of work, he says. “It used to be that you’d get laid off, you could go across the street and find work. It maybe wouldn’t pay as much as Wyman’s, but it was a paycheck until you got back. Now it’s different. The places across the street aren’t there anymore. You have to go to Malaysia or China.”

Indeed, Casella did go back, a few months after his first layoff, shifting to the company’s Grafton plant. There he was a millwright, helping to maintain the plant’s complex machinery. “In Worcester, I’d heard that you don’t get laid off in the Big House–that’s one of my names for Grafton,” says Casella. “But I did.” His longest layoff, in 1993, lasted eight months. Casella, who married in 1989 and has a daughter who is now 12 and a son who is 9, has tried other jobs. He sold copy machines for a while, but it was not for him. Wages, habit, and colleagues kept drawing him back to Wyman-Gordon. “It was dirty, loud, hard, and heavy, but you took pride in making products that were going to help your country.”

Helping the country took Wyman-Gordon only so far. The company was hit hard by defense cutbacks in the early 1990s. It rebounded with commercial air sales, but then they plummeted too. Lately, the company has suffered by its choice of customers: One major energy-related contract, for example, fell victim to the collapse of Enron.

Manufacturers cite high labor costs and union work rules as factors in their inability to compete with overseas operations. Casella, who served on Steelworkers Local 2285’s executive board for six years and was a Wyman-Gordon shop steward for eight, knows that. “People say we were overpaid crybabies, but I sometimes think it’s because they were jealous that we made more. They don’t realize that we set the standard that brings up everybody’s wages. But at the same time, I can see the company’s point. I’m a union man, but the fact is that if there’s no company, there’s no work. No mortgage payments. No toys.”

Despite nearly two decades of seniority, last year Casella joined the rank of unemployed manufacturing workers with solid credentials and work histories but few options. “I know people who started when they were 18, and now they’re 45 and laid-off,” says Casella. “Everything they’ve ever known is at Wyman-Gordon.”

He tries to keep things in perspective. “My wife and I saw this coming, and we prepared for it. We put money aside for the kids.” But Casella also feels the ground shifting under him. “I’d like to think this is just another layoff, but this one’s deep. A lot of people won’t be going back. My son says to me, ‘Dad, now you’re going to be a mailman, right?’ Then, after a while, he says, ‘Dad, when are you going to get a job?'”

Casella was beginning to wonder the same thing. “You miss the pay”–about $19 an hour, down from $22– “and you miss getting up and going in every day,” he says.

He got called back in late December to Wyman-Gordon’s Worcester plant. Less than two months later, he was laid off again. Now he doubts he’ll ever be called back again. “They keep laying more people off as they keep sending more work out of the country,” Casella says. “If you work at a place like Wyman-Gordon, you always took layoffs as a given. It was always peaks and valleys. The difference now is outsourcing and job elimination. This time it isn’t a cycle. This time, it’s an exit.”

Karl Farmer: “Polaroid culture was family”

A few years ago, Karl Farmer was sitting with a group of other Polaroid workers when he realized something that would be almost unimaginable in today’s manufacturing world. “I’d been with the company for about 28 years at that point,” says Farmer, “And I was [still] the least senior person at the table.” At that time, he didn’t feel that there was anything strange about making a life at the company Dr. Edward Land built. “That’s just how it was at Polaroid,” he says. “Management made you feel wanted, and you trusted management. It meant good production and steady operation for the company, and longevity and security for the people who worked there.”

Karl Farmer: “Corporate officials priced
their own company out of the market
at the workers’ expense.”

Farmer, 57, was raised in Roxbury, attended Boston public schools, and graduated from Northeastern University in 1970 with a degree in electrical engineering. In 1971, Polaroid was actively recruiting black engineers, and Farmer was one that Polaroid got. “But I wasn’t trying to milk the situation,” he says. “My brother was working for Polaroid as a financial representative, and he thought it would be a good place for me. The Polaroid culture really was family. Some companies frown on husband and wife working together, but at Polaroid, it was a way of life. And you wouldn’t invite your mother or daughter or brother to work for a company that didn’t treat you well.”

Farmer eventually held various production, management, design, and service positions. If the image of manufacturing work–skilled or unskilled–is of rote jobs and rigid divisions of labor, Polaroid was anything but, he says. “There were so many facets to the company that you could virtually get an advanced degree without ever going to school. If you felt stagnant in your job, you could do something different without ever leaving the company. Management encouraged it. Dr. Land always tried to knock down walls.”

But the picture changed at Polaroid as quickly and completely as an image on Dr. Land’s famous instant-developing film. Polaroid, which once employed 13,000 people and 9,000 as recently as early 2001, faced mounting business losses. Once an icon of innovation in Massachusetts and around the world, Polaroid filed for bankruptcy protection in October 2002. A new Polaroid–based in Waltham, not Cambridge–has emerged, but a gaping hole remains not only on Memorial Drive, but also in the psyches and pocketbooks of former employees.

“In late 2001, I was told my job was going to be gone, so I had to either accept another job in the company or take a layoff into retirement,” Farmer recalls. “A job was available in Wayland, but it meant a long commute. I was going to be 55 [in January 2002], so I decided to take the layoff. Remember, we didn’t know what was going to happen. And people at Polaroid used to say that we can’t wait to go because the retirement package was so great. We owned Polaroid stock that we thought would always be worth a lot. I figured I could easily afford to retire. I’d be able to do other things, like take courses or teach golf. Then the roof fell in.”

The sweet retirement offers fell off the table, replaced by vastly reduced packages. The stock fell to near zero. Farmer and other Polaroid retirees and laid-off workers have angrily challenged their treatment, with a rage stoked by the hefty salaries and golden parachutes given to former executives who led the company to bankruptcy–and also to the officers and directors of the new Polaroid formed from assets of the bankrupt entity.

“The way I look at it, corporate officials priced their own company out of the market at the workers’ expense,” Farmer says. “Workers did what they could to economize, like shipping work offshore. We kept the company going, but it turns out all we did was protect huge salaries for executives who had great contracts but no accountability.

“The people who have really paid are the workers at the bottom,” he continues. “A lot of corporate America thinks you can have companies of just offices and no workers. Corporate offices may bring about some projects, but they don’t add any value to a company. It’s the line worker who actually adds the widget that produces the real value.”

Farmer now works as a mechanic at a golf course in Bedford. Even as an engineer, he found that his skills were a better fit for Polaroid than for today’s job market.

“At Polaroid, I never became an expert in one field,” he says. “I was more a jack-of-all-trades, which was an asset to Polaroid. But today, it’s a liability. Employers can pick from all the résumés in the world right now and find the exact square peg they need for a square hole. I was kind of a gel that would fit into any hole. A company could train me for a particular task, but why should it? With so many unemployed workers out there, companies can pick a specialist out of a pool of specialists. They just don’t see the benefits of a person like me.”

Maria Furtado: “All I knew was Cliftex”

Even as a teenager, Maria Furtado had her future all figured out. “By the time I was 16, it was already programmed into my mind that I was going to quit school to go work in a factory,” she says.

Maria Furtado:
“You could just tell something was
going to happen to the company.”

Furtado moved from the Azores to New Bedford with her family when she was 8, following two sisters who had come over earlier. “My parents worked in the local mills,” she says. “I remember sitting in junior high school counting the years until I could go to work. Two days after my 16th birthday, I quit school and went to work. It was my first job, and I assumed it was my last job.”

That’s because the job she got, 20 years ago, was at Cliftex. At the time, Cliftex employed 2,000 people making men’s suits and other clothing. Though she felt “like a little girl in a grown-up world,” Furtado says, the work fit her like a tailored suit.

“The work was heavy, but it wasn’t as boring as straight sewing because I did detail work, closing the sleeves on men’s suit jackets,” says Furtado. “On good days, I’d close up to 400 coats, which is 800 sleeves. I was fast, and because my pay was based on how many pieces I did, I always made at least $100 a day. With no education, there was no other way I could have made that kind of money in New Bedford. I was able to save enough to get married and to help out my parents.”

But this immigrant dream of hard work for reliable reward didn’t last. Like other textile makers, Cliftex was hit hard by market changes, imports, and stiff competitive winds. Once New Bedford’s second largest employer, Cliftex filed for bankruptcy in August 2000, and has since shut down. To the AFL-CIO’s Kathleen Casavant, who spent 17 years as a union organizer and representative for clothing and textile workers, the story is all too familiar. “There is nothing like being a union rep and walking into a plant and telling folks they’re going to close, and I’ve done it too many times,” says Casavant. “The workers are angry at the union, angry at the company. But I don’t blame Cliftex and other employers for closing their doors. It’s our trade and other public policies that are responsible. How can these companies compete with low-wage places like China?”

At Cliftex, rumors of serious problems had long been in the factory air. “You could just tell something was going to happen to the company,” says Furtado, who heeded the warning signal by getting her GED in 1999. “If Cliftex closed, I wanted to at least be able to get into a training program for something else,” she says.

The next year, she was laid off from the job she had assumed would last forever. She had two young children, a marriage (to a fisherman) that was ending, and little education. The skill she did have–stitching men’s suit coats–was no longer worth $100 a day to anyone. The day after getting her layoff notice, Furtado dropped her two daughters off at school and headed for the stone wall that separates New Bedford from the sea.

“I just sat there and cried,” she recalls. “I was totally depressed. What was I going to do? All I knew was Cliftex. I didn’t even have a side job. All I knew was sitting at a machine and sewing. It was so scary.”

Then came a call from her union, UNITE Local 377, about a meeting with the state’s Rapid Response Team, which offers information about training programs and other services for workers who have been or are about to lose their jobs. “That’s where my GED began to pay off,” says Furtado. “I learned about openings in health care and went back to school.” Even with some help and some direction, making the transition to a new job in a new industry was not easy, she says. “I had to take care of my kids while enrolled in a training program fulltime for nine months and making just $250 week in unemployment insurance.”

Making the transition from factory to health care was difficult in other ways, says Furtado. “A job counselor said I could become a medical assistant in phlebotomy. I said, what’s that? Drawing blood, she said. I didn’t think I could do that.” But she finished the training program, then went to work in a medical office in Wareham. A few months later, Furtado became a medical assistant at the New Bedford Health Center, then a laboratory assistant. Her goal now is to become a registered nurse.

Furtado is still earning less than she did at Cliftex, but at least it’s not piecework. And a part of her still doesn’t believe the change she’s made in her working life. “At times, I just stop at the job I have now and ask myself if I’m really doing this,” says Furtado, who is also taking courses toward a bachelor’s degree at Bristol Community College. “I was so used to stitching work, and now I’m doing something I’d only seen other people do in a doctor’s office. If you told me four years ago I’d be doing this, I’d say you were crazy.”

Manufacturing will never regain its dominant position on the Massachusetts industrial landscape. No one appreciates that reality more than those who have seen the notion of “set for life” lost to harsher phrases such as permanent layoff, outsourcing, and foreign competition. People who once prospered with manufacturing are trying to make sure the hard lessons they learned are not lost on their own children.

“If one of my kids wanted to go to school to become a machinist, I’d say that that may not be the right choice today,” says Kevin Casella. “You want to help your kids get a job in a vocation that’s going to last. And you have to make sure they are adaptable to the changes they’re going to face.” If they do follow in his blue-collar footsteps, they should plan on a volatile working life, he says. “It would be OK with me if my kids went to work for Wyman-Gordon or a company like that if that’s what they wanted to do. You can make a decent wage and can take pride in the fact that you’re helping supply industry with the parts that help make this country run. But I’d also tell my kids that they’d better be prepared to move on to a different company and to different kinds of work.”

“My daughter is proud that I got out of the factory.”

Maria Furtado offers similar advice to her two daughters. “I’m telling them how important it is to go to college, to get an education. It’s true that people even my age were once able to do OK financially without going to college. People were able to make it to the middle class without a lot of education, and they were able to afford their kids a better future that was not in the factory. But today, I tell my children that you can’t do that. There are no factories around here any more.”

Though she still earns less in the medical field than she did at Cliftex, Furtado thinks her children are learning something from her own experience. “My daughter is proud that I got out of the factory, that I’m doing something that is not factory-related. In a way, it was good for me that Cliftex closed down because another door opened to a field in which I’m very happy.”

Karl Farmer’s three children have all found work that is far from Farmer’s life of making things. One works in criminal justice, another advocates for mentally challenged adults, and the third is a phone company service representative. They’re all doing well. But Farmer worries about people trading on their specialties in the open market, rather than signing on with a company and doing what’s needed to make it a success.

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“The kind of engineering work I did at Polaroid–being a jack-of-all-trades–is a thing of the past,” says Farmer. “I got a lot of satisfaction out of being able to do different things, to think about how to solve different problems. That’s all gone now. Today, it’s specialize in this and specialize in that. In the long run, I think that’s bad for industry. But I don’t think industry cares.”

Phil Primack, a Medford-based freelancer, writes about economic development and other public policy issues.