My grandparents on my Father’s side worked in the Hat Corporation of America factory in Norwalk, Connecticut most of their lives. My grandmother was a seamstress; my grandfather worked in the printing plant making those nice silk logo’d liners that went into men’s hats in those days. They were religious and patriotic. My grandfather was chief of the Fire Company (Putnam Hose). My grandmother converted to Catholicism once she came here from Norway (in order to marry my grandfather, who was a staunch Catholic and a Knight of Columbus). She raised three kids, adopted one more, and then went back to work. They survived the great depression, and were a big part of the labor movement, surviving the great Hat Corporation strike that unionized the workers in millinery plants in America.
They believed in Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He brought dignity to the workers’ lives by creating the National Labor Relations Act, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Social Security, and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. They were proud members of the millinery union, and knew they would have something of a retirement because of social security.
When I chose to start my business after college at Marquette University, it involved staying in Wisconsin rather than moving back to New Jersey. My reasoning was simple– Wisconsin was an industrial paradise, with major manufacturers like Rex Chain Belt, Cutler -Hammer, four or five major breweries, Mercury Marine, Harley-Davidson, Nordberg, 4 or 5 Paper Companies, Allen-Bradley, Allis-Chalmers, Menasha Corp., Banta Corp., Briggs and Stratton, Johnson Controls, The Milwaukee Journal, Allen-Edmonds Shoes, J.I. Case, Bucyrus-Erie… we probably worked with 500 local companies over the years… before they started disappearing.
Getting Tough on Labor
Sometime in the late 1980’s this country got tougher on labor. A big part of that was deregulation, a relaxing of anti-trust regulation, and a big movement to conglomeration and leveraged buyouts. Wisconsin companies were cash rich, which made them a major target for acquisition specialists, who could merge them and shrink them and consolidate them in friendlier tax-haven states, often in the south. Unions were threatened with job losses as new owners threatened to move companies south if unions didn’t make concessions to reduce wages or workforces. Cutler-Hammer was now Eaton Corp, with headquarters elsewhere. Paper companies and breweries were acquired and turned into branches. New managements began raising executive salaries and squeezing labor. Even utilities and hospitals were merged into holding companies which reduced oversight and allowed CEO’s to become kings.
The type of corporate rah-rah “we’re all in this together” HR videos disappeared, because, well, they weren’t all in this together.
People we had worked with were let go, or “furloughed”, and production companies started looking for business in Chicago or Minneapolis or New York to survive. The nail in the coffin for Wisconsin was Scott Walker’s war on unions and the Wisconsin Republican courts and career politicians that supported him.
The Trickle Down Theory at its Worst
The consolidation, mergers, and acquisitions affected not just direct labor but all of the suppliers that had supported those companies. Ad agencies, printers, production companies, materials suppliers, machine shops, rental halls, caterers, you name it.
And now, thanks to covid and consolidation, the stock market looks great and the job market looks poor. Trapped in our homes or under masks, those of us that can work do when we can, but it’s not all that often. Many companies that employ thousands, especially retail, are failing. Those of us that support them are suffering. Life-long employment with companies that care is a long lost concept, so no one is protected. Let alone your favorite pizza parlor, barber shop or bodega.
Labor Day in 2020 has special meaning. It is the culmination of corpoarte greed, deregulation and contempt for the American worker. We should vote in November for those who care about people, care about the dignity of work, and care about the disappearing middle class.
Vote like your life and your job depend on it, because it does.