“Some of this reminds me of dropping a big stone in a pond,” Terry Phillips mused over lunch at the Glenville Queen diner, just outside of Schenectady, New York. “You get this big wave.
And then it hits the shore and bounces back, and then it comes back again, but it’s much smaller and muted.
But those little waves are still going back and forth.”
Phillips, a former district governor for Rotary International and an engineer by trade, moved to Schenectady more than 30 years ago to work at General Electric (GE), once the largest single employer in the region.
But in 1974, General Electric moved its headquarters from New York City to a more expansive facility in Westport, Connecticut and, between that and the tectonic shifts in America’s economy, the successive waves of downsizing changed the city and the surrounding area in ways nobody could have predicted.
The loss of jobs at GE — which, at its height, employed about 30,000 workers in a vertically integrated manufacturing facility with back office functions for the rest of the corporation — transformed Schenectady (like the loss of so many other manufacturers would transform so many other manufacturing communities) into a very different and not altogether better place for the people who had located their lives here.
Only about 5,600 people worked in manufacturing in the county in 2011 — total. General Electric has only about 4,000 employees there now.
The largest employment sectors are healthcare and retail work; as part of an economic development plan, the state licensed a casino at the site of one of the manufacturing facilities once used by GE and the 1,500 jobs it will bring to the area is considered a huge boon.
What happened to Schenectady as a result of GE scaling back its operations in the area isn’t a unique story: you could write a similar piece about any American rust belt town.
But maybe to understand the very real economic anxiety that people feel here it helps to understand the sense of security with which many people grew up.
Sitting in the living room of his house in Scotia — a suburb just across the river that was developed as the middle class, created by well-paying jobs at GE, increased the demand for housing in the area —Bernie Witkowski reminisced about the role the company played in his family.
“When [my dad] got a job with General Electric, that was it. I mean, that was the dream, OK?” he said.
“The GE was the thing. Almost all my uncles worked for General Electric in Schenectady, everybody worked for GE.
“And when I was brought up, that’s what we heard all the time.’Oh, when you get out of high school, you go to GE, you go to GE.’” he explained.”
My cousins went to GE. I went.”
He started as a stock boy in March of 1967 after high school and moved into the electrician apprentice programme before he was drafted in 1968 and went to Vietnam.
When he got out, he went back and spent the rest of his working years at the company.”There was no reason to leave because it was a good job,” he said. “It was a great job.”
Don Chapadeau was a lifer at General Electric, too: he started there in 1973 and retired after 42 years.”My father was employed by GE — he worked in Utica [about 75 miles west of Schenectady] — and my grandfather was GE,” he explained.”Back in the 70s, that was the place to be.”
Like Witkowski, Chapadeau joined the company straight out of high school in 1973.”I didn’t want to go to college, I worked with my hands, so it was the place to be,” he said. “I did everything from clean toilets to build turbines and generators.”
At the beginning of their downsizing in Schenectady, General Electric wasn’t moving facilities to Mexico or China, though that happened later.
They moved manufacturing facilities south, where wages were lower and unions less powerful. “They used to have a motor department there,” Witkowski explained. “They moved somewhere south, non-union shops, lower wages, that was the first big move.”
But in a vertically integrated facility like General Electric used to be, moving one piece of production has downstream effects. “Part of that motor division, they had a place where they made their own wire,” said Witkowski.
“Thousands of jobs around the clock, making wire for all these motors. So when the motor department went out, the wire mills went out, too.”
Under the union contracts of the time, those blue-collar workers who lost their jobs but had seniority at the company could “bump” less senior workers to stay at GE. “Let’s say you were a lathe operator,” explained Witkowski.”Well, then you could bump a lathe operator somewhere else in the plant, as long as you had more seniority.
And then that person might have to bump a lower-paying job, maybe a sweeper. Eventually, somebody had to go out on the street.”
Or, as Chapadeau put it: “Until, eventually, there was nobody left for you to bump, you went out on the street”.
“Even though people could bump, the whole population was getting smaller and smaller and smaller,” explained Witkowski. “If there was less machinists, then they needed less electricians, less carpenters, less steelworkers, less painters, less maintenance people.”
“I know a lot of people that got laid off that I worked with, maybe they went somewhere to a machine tool company in Albany and worked as electricians,” added Witkowski. “But they didn’t make the kind of money they made at GE. They didn’t have the benefits.”
“In the 80s, we got into [laying off] people with 12, 13 years” of service, Chapadeau added. “First time I got laid off was 85, came back in 86. Then got laid off in 87, came back in 90.” By then, he had enough seniority to last until he retired in 2015.
Like Chapadeau, those people who did find work almost always responded to a recall notice, if they got one, because the money and benefits were better at GE — even if they knew they might get laid off again.
“I kind of described it like a rollercoaster ride,” he added.
The downsizings didn’t just affect people who worked at GE.
There were businesses — like Sears Roebuck, the uniform company Rudnicks and little lunch places — that stood just outside GE’s gates on Erie Boulevard to cater to white- and blue-collar workers on their lunch breaks.
“They would run buses from inside the plant and drop you off down in front of Proctors, mainly for the secretaries, who had an hour. They’d go to lunch, they’d go shopping. Thousands of ‘em,” Witkowski explained.”And a lot of people would just walk up Erie Boulevard, the people that had an hour for lunch, and just go.”
“Everybody was out spending money on their lunch hour.
And all those stores were thriving,” he added. “And then when they laid everybody off, well, you know what happened with downtown Schenectady” he said.
Little businesses closed, empty storefronts abounded, nothing wase able to stay in business.
“When you drive by the GE and look out and see green and a running track or a soccer field, that’s where there was buildings, that’s where there was jobs,” he said.”All those people. Everybody buying homes, buying cars. Even in Schenectady, there was a lot of car dealerships, you would drive up State Street, there was car dealerships.That’s all gone, too.”
The ripples didn’t stop there.
Though Phillips, the engineer, wasn’t directly affected by the rounds of layoffs and downsizing, he’s got plenty of examples of the impact on his life as well.
“We go to First United Methodist in Schenectady,” he explained.
“When GE was booming, church was full of people.”
“Our church will seat about 600, but on a typical Sunday we typically have less than 100,” he added.” “And that’s been a fact of 37-some-thousand people don’t work here any more.And the people that do work here, not as many of them live downtown, they live in the suburbs.”
Schenectady County’s population peaked in 1970; by 1980, it had dropped down to below 1960 levels and kept going down until 2000. As the population has begun to grow again, so has median income … and the number of people living below the poverty line.
Like Terry Phillips’s daughters, Bernie Witkowski’s son and Don Chapadeau’s kids left the area for college and most didn’t come back.
Most of their high school classmates who stayed in the area aren’t employed by GE — but, then, only a handful of people,compared with the early 70s, are employed by GE at all.
Signs of an resurgence in Schenectady — a new multiplex, a shining chain hotel on State Street, the coming casino — coexist uncomfortably with the area’s burgeoning homeless and low-income population, and boarded-up houses the city won’t tear down.
Cars line up at the interstate on-ramps during the morning commute, and then speed past GE and into Albany.
Schenectady County isn’t a bad place to live nowadays, but it’s not the same as it was.
Nobody feels like they have job security, even if median household incomes are rising; nobody knows what’s next for the city, or for housing prices, or what their kids will do for work if they can’t or don’t want to go to college.
And everybody has heard the promises from politicians that they’ll bring jobs back to the area: in 2011, president Obama visited GE with its CEO, Jeffrey Immelt, and talked about modernisation and new investment in the facility for renewable energy, spurred on by a $5mn grant and a package of tax breaks for the company.
In November 2015, GE announced that they were moving that renewable energy business out of Schenectady and into France.
The city’s economic development body nonetheless offered the company a $1.26mn tax break in January 2016, to help them modernise their fitness center, health facilities and landscaping.
They’ve promised not to cut any more jobs.
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