The beginnings of modern hardcore unemployment
When my wife and I were married in 1955, I was lucky to find a job in a large machine shop in Utica, NY. The company originated as Utica Drop Forge and Tool Company Inc. Drop Forge was an old line company in Utica, NY that manufactured Utica tools. It had been recently bought by Kelsey Hayes Manufacturing. The Utica plant specialized in the manufacture of blades for jet engines. Around 1956, the jet plane business in the US was growing fast and so was the need for operators for the specialized machines that made the blades for all those jet engines. With a baby on the way, we needed to add some money to our meager savings and working on the family farm just didn’t bring in enough money for our growing family. The Kelsey Hayes job paid about six to seven thousand dollars a year which in 2013 dollars is equivalent to about thirty to forty thousand. My salary varied with the number of overtime hours I worked and the amount of the weekly bonus Kelsey Hayes workers received. One summer I worked twelve hour days every day with every other Sunday off. It was a grueling schedule but I was young and we needed the money.
The line I mainly worked on was the Pratt and Whitney Airfoil Grinder. Each operator ran six machines. Most of the time forty-eight machines were in operation. We ground the airfoil on jet blades down to finish tolerances and a bright shine. It was a messy, oily job. The high speed belt grinders spun off an oily film that fouled the air and slowly saturated operator’s clothing. It was a messy and dirty job. Each operator had to learn how to operate in this atmosphere learning how to replace broken belts and move quickly and efficiently as one machine after another finished a blade – ten to twenty minutes each.
Just about everyone who hired into the Clayville (a suburb of Utica) plant started on the airfoil grinders and as soon as they could – usually a month or so – would bid out into the cleaner environments of surface grinders, broaches, crush form grinders and milling machines. I quickly noticed that and figured that advancement to the more lucrative setup and supervisory jobs would come up quickly for those who stuck with the airfoil grinders. My wife and I needed the money and I decided to brave the oily atmosphere, the ugly boils on the back that just about everyone on that airfoil grinder line eventually developed and the hustle and bustle of tending to six machines. The conditions were such that I doubt that any line would be allowed to operate within that environment today.
With everyone bidding out of the airfoil grinder environment I knew that my chances of promotion from operator to a higher paying “B” Setup position were improved. Sure enough, I was soon promoted to the “B” setup position and could escape the oily atmosphere of the Grinders now and then. As soon as I learned how to take down, recognize and replace parts and reassemble the Pratt and Whitney grinder to as near perfect tolerances as possible I was promoted to the “A” Setup position.
I had hoped that my next step up would be to a machinist position. I had a lot of minor experiences with surface grinders, broaches and milling machines that I farmed out to when our airfoil grinder line slowed down for one reason or another. I learned how to use and I purchased all sorts of micrometers, calipers, dial indicators and all the other tools that a good machinist needed. I had a good reputation and foremen on other lines would request me as a fill-in when they needed one. As a twenty-one year old, I was very proud of my accomplishments and reputation and knew that would eventually carry me to a machinist ranking.
It was not to be as the whole manufacturing scene for jet blades went down the tubes. Some smart engineer found that the machining process wasn’t needed for perfect jet blades. They found that the air foil on the blades could be precision forged and would only need a polish, by hand, on large belt sanders. That spelled the end of the Pratt and Whitney airfoil grinders and other related operations.
The perfection of precision forging also spelled the end of jet blade manufacturing for Kelsey Hayes in the Utica, NY area and the end of my hopes for promotion to Machinist. In fact, being a union shop, as workers were laid off I was forced to bump around to different positions on many different machines. My prior experiences on various machines served me well and I survived until the bitter end when the whole plant shut down.
During one of my last shifts I was called in to a meeting with the plant manager, the personnel director and a couple of foremen. They wanted to make me a foreman and stay with the company and possibly move to their home area in Michigan or wherever I was needed. However, I had decided to return to college, but I was very honored by the offer – “thanks, but I’ve decided to return to college”. At the end of the meeting, the personnel director motioned me over to his side and he quietly said to me, “Good for you, you made the right decision.”
As I prepared for a career in education I realized that was the end of my desire to become a machinist. But it wasn’t the end of precision forging. Engineers and metallurgists perfected the technique of “precision forging” for the manufacture of all sorts of parts from typewriters to rocket ships. Many machinists, tool makers, and operators were displaced by the new processes and were forced into unemployment or had to learn new trades. It was the beginning of hard times for a lot of excellent and prideful workers.
If they were too old or otherwise not inclined to learn a new trade, all these skilled and successful workers joined the ranks of the unemployed. Their numbers increased as new manufacturing techniques were woven into the manufacturing processes all across New York State. We learned of these massive layoffs across the state through the popular press and our union newsletters from the International Association of Machinists.
In my mind, this was the beginning of the awareness of the term “hardcore unemployed”. In the late fifties, good jobs for high school graduates were disappearing rapidly.
This is Part One of three.
Part Two – Another city and more problems for workers.
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Copyright 2018 Charles Loomis