Another City and more problems for workers
One of the towns my wife and I moved to was another hard hit area in terms of manufacturing and machining. In 1965 we moved to Amsterdam, N.Y. to take advantage of some openings in the school district administrative staff there. I had just finished my master’s degree in school administration from Syracuse University and wanted to become a principal. Shortly after moving to Amsterdam and taking a job there as a teacher, I was appointed to a Principal’s position in one of the seven elementary schools.
Amsterdam is near Schenectady and therefore supplied many workers for GE there. Jobs were fading fast in that town too. GE was consolidating and moving jobs to other parts of the country – and the world. I was told that at one time there were machine operators, machinists and tool and die makers living on just about every block in the city. Many of them were no longer needed by the changing scene in the manufacturing world and the shrinking labor force at GE.
Amsterdam was at one time called “Carpet City” as much of the bare floors in the world were carpeted by the looms and the proud skilled workers there. The huge, empty, multistory buildings in Amsterdam attest to its faded importance in the carpet industry. Not a single carpet stitch is done in Amsterdam anymore. The carpet industry moved south to single story buildings where the new high speed looms were computer driven, thus displacing many more workers. Between the fading job prospects at GE and the computer driven mills in the south it was Amsterdam workers turn to suffer from automation.
As a result of dwindling opportunities for employment, the middle class in Amsterdam shrank, the lower class expanded and the upper class either left or moved to the suburbs. It was a sad time in the city of Amsterdam. Those of us in the schools saw increased levels of child abuse and spousal abuse with some families and individuals destroyed by alcohol and drugs exacerbated by the dwindling opportunities. Many children were ill clothed and ill fed. Poverty in America is not pretty to those who work with it as well as those who suffer from it. Other cities all across the country in America suffered the same. I can’t imagine the conditions that must exist in Detroit today and how the people are suffering there along with those designated to help them. How awful it must be.
While thinking back to my days on the family farm I remembered the migrant workers that we hired each summer. My personal experiences and what I witnessed in Amsterdam wasn’t the first time I had witnessed the loss of jobs to automation and new approaches to tasks.
We planted peas and string beans as a cash crop to augment the falling milk prices we dealt with shortly after buying the family dairy farm. I thought about the young Black kids, the children of migrant workers, that I used to play baseball with each summer when they arrived to pick our crops. We had an old, abandoned spacious house on a part of our property that I assumed belonged to the farm that was absorbed into our larger farm years before. It was windowless and had no plumbing, just an outhouse. There was a great cool, wonderful spring up the hill from it and the forty or fifty migrant workers thought it would be a great place to stay during the picking season and they offered dad rent money for it. Dad demurred as he didn’t think it was adequate for them. However they insisted it was better than the tents they usually slept in and dad finally did rent it to them for a nominal fee. I was delighted as I would have playmates to keep me company when they weren’t picking.
There were about ten of us of varying ages and we put together two small baseball teams in a neighboring field. I learned quickly what it was like to be an outcast as I was the only white kid in the bunch and was always the last one to be picked. I really liked one boy whose name was Willy. He was a skilled baseball player but wouldn’t go with either team until I was picked. Willy and I spent a lot of time together playing toss and catch and just getting to know one another. He was a really nice kid. Over the years I recalled those times while studying poverty in America in college and I often wondered what kind of life was dealt to Willy.
Sadly, when the picking season was over in our area the workers moved on to the ripening fields north of us. It was a sad time for me as I had no playmates again.
The Birdseye vinery in our area was very meticulous about harvesting our crops at just the right time. A supervisor would come around more and more often as the peak time for picking got closer. When the Birdseye advisor said it was time to pick, we had about forty-eight hours to accomplish that. At those times, my dad would call a telephone number he was given and at daylight the next morning a large group of workers would arrive in old school buses and commence the harvest.
One year, we didn’t get any workers and the old house wasn’t rented. What did arrive in their stead was a tractor mounted mechanized picker and a handful of workers. I always wondered what happened to all the workers that were once needed. No one that I knew of addressed that problem – Conservatives, Liberals, Republicans or Democrats. Nobody seemed to care about those agricultural workers left behind. I knew mechanization was happening in the whole agricultural scene with just about every harvest of fruits and vegetables but no one seemed to be concerned about finding jobs for the displaced agricultural workers. I wondered what had happened to Willy but had no way of finding out about him. I never even knew his last name.
And so it continues. Many jobs did go overseas but many jobs just disappeared as automation and more efficient mechanization of work took over. I talked to a friend of mine who owns a machine shop and he told me that many of the machines that used to require skilled workers now are computerized and can run for hours producing the same part over and over. Just keep the machine loaded with the raw stock and forget about it unless a tool or part needs to be replaced. In many cases that is done automatically as well.
The rise of the plastics industry also had a huge impact on the number of jobs available. Plastic molding and extrusion replaced many jobs that formerly required machining. Chemists concocted plastics of different hardness and strength to the point where a fully functional gun can be manufactured from nothing but plastic. A recent bill in the US legislature extended the ban on plastic guns because they can’t be detected by x-ray or metal detectors and therefore become a threat in the travel industry.
There used to be a better life with better jobs awaiting us just out of high school. Now, there is an employment problem even for college graduates. Hard core unemployment is the wave of the future and the problem is growing exponentially. We need to re-think our notions about putting people to work. The jobs that were available for those of us who remember the good old days are just not there anymore.
These days, we need to think “outside the box” for new approaches to the problems created by automation. As a matter of fact, I recently heard one commentator on the news suggest that we establish permanent benefits for laid off workers. As soon as a worker is laid off he or she automatically receives unemployment benefits and training to fill job needs expressed by US businesses.
Job sharing needs to be investigated. Two people might share the same job, each working six months on that job and six months working in public service in schools, hospitals or environmental work similar to the Civilian Conservation Corp of yesteryear. Something has to be done as we move into this new age. Fast food work is not enough to encourage the young to have families and maintain a healthy middle class. I read recently that even fast food outlets are investigating automation.
It begs the question: what do we do as hardcore unemployment becomes a rapidly increasing reality?
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Part three – forthcoming: Another city and more problems for workers.
Copyright 2018 by Charles Loomis