Industry’s Long Good-bye: Listening to Stories of Jobs Lost and Hopes Remembered

In this installment of our Oral History in the Age of Trump series, Annie Valk discusses interviews conducted by students at Williams College with residents in the nearby deindustrialized town of North Adams, noting how the accounts complicate the superficial narratives of our current political moment.

By Annie Valk

Three years ago I began teaching an oral history class at Williams College that asked undergraduate students to interview people about living and working in North Adams. Tucked in the mountains of northwestern Massachusetts, North Adams and Williamstown (home of Williams College) are separated by four miles and myriad economic and social differences.  Williamstown represents the affluence commonly associated with the Berkshires: nearby tourist sites include the dance venue, Jacob’s Pillow; Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra; numerous spas and yoga retreats; and the popular Appalachian Trail.

Looking north on Eagle Street, North Adams, Massachusetts, between Center and Main Streets. Photo by Joe Mabel, via Wikimedia Commons.

Within this culturally rich area, North Adams stands out — and usually not for positive reasons.  With approximately 13,500 residents, North Adams has the character of a small town but shares problems faced by many urban areas across the U.S.  About 30% of the population is food insecure and 21% live on incomes below the federal poverty level.  The conditions wrought by underemployment have worsened in the past decades following numerous plant closings; notably, Sprague Electric Company, which made capacitors and other electrical components shuttered in the 1980s, ending fifty years as the area’s chief employer.  Three years ago, the city’s hospital dramatically cut staff and services. Countywide, the number of manufacturing jobs has fallen by 78% since the 1970s, leaving tourism and hospitality the most energetic part of the local economy.

The disparity among the white, working-class, struggling residents of North Adams and the wealthy, urbane institution of Williams College does not escape the attention of students– that is, when they even think about North Adams at all. My goal of using oral history to introduce students to the nearby city has taken on new meaning in the months since the last presidential election.  As a nation, we’ve become comfortable explaining electoral politics in terms of such contrasts. Listening to residents’ stories gives students new understanding of the human impact of the loss of manufacturing while offering a powerful way to challenge many current political truisms that blame disgruntled former industrial workers for Trump’s ascendancy.

Since the spring of 2016, we have interviewed about 30 individuals who describe the long process of deindustrialization they and their city have endured. Most narrators grew up in North Adams and recall the city in the years before the 1970s, when industry hummed and Main Street bustled.  Adults enjoyed access to plentiful jobs and although conditions often were harsh, generally pay was good and work was steady. These benefits translated to upward mobility: the ability to buy homes, afford vacations, send children to college, and retire while healthy enough to enjoy it all.

Robin Martin describes working at Wall Streeter shoe manufacturing, her first job.

Friends, neighbors, and family members, sometimes spanning multiple generations, worked together in textile, shoemaking, and other mills, creating a tight sense of community and bonds that supported people through hard times, including labor strikes and turmoil resulting from alcoholism and accidents.

Tony Pisano recalls the work his family did for Sprague Electric Company.

The North Adams that endures in residents’ memories differs starkly from the city that students see (and generally avoid) today.  Stories of loss reverberate powerfully throughout the recordings: lost jobs, lost business, lost community, lost pride, and a lost communal vision of the future.  As historians have noted, deindustrialization is a process, not an event; in North Adams, that process has continued for decades and the community has been barely holding on for a long time, as individual residents cope with systemic change.  The interviews detail the ways that plant closings shredded the social fabric of this tight-knit community. The downsizing and departure of factories forced other businesses that served food, sold clothing, and offered necessary services to close, a wave that rippled to every corner of the city.  One resident explained that the community has been saying a “long good-bye” to Sprague Electric for more than thirty years. A new museum, Mass MoCA, has moved into some of the buildings deserted by Sprague but the “hole in North Adams’ soul” left when Sprague closed remains unfilled.

Residents talk about working at Sprague, the company’s closing and their hopes for the future.

Most interviews concentrate on the local economy’s transformation, going from vibrant to stagnant in the period of fifty years. But the country’s broader political context becomes especially evident when residents talk about the future. In deep blue Massachusetts, North Adams’ voters backed Bernie Sanders in the primary; and 65% cast ballots for Hillary Clinton in the November 2016 election. These, then, are not the allegedly racist and embittered voters responsible for Trump’s victory.  Given their familiarity with the widespread and long-term impact of job loss, residents put little stock in candidates’ campaign promises.  It took a long time for the jobs to disappear and it will take more than slogans to guarantee their return. Generally, residents don’t expect the state or federal government to enact measures that successfully bring back work and repair the damage done to the community.  Instead, they stress that residents themselves need to come up with solutions.

Robin Martin expresses skepticism that federal policies can bring back factory jobs.

It will take a while to sift through the accumulated interviews and even longer to know how four years (or more?) of a Trump presidency will affect the local economy or modify the political attitudes of either residents or students.  However, the interviews already go beyond the superficial narratives too frequently offered to explain this current historical moment. Oral history reminds us to listen with empathy and not disregard the hard lessons of lived experience. The stories of North Adams reveal the richly textured lives of low-wage workers and the resilience of those living on the edge financially and they offer alternative narratives about the impact of disappearing jobs and lost industry.

Jennifer Munoz recalls the  widespread impact of the closing of Sprague Electric.

Interviews from the North Adams Oral History Project will be archived by Williams College Special Collection Library. Access excerpts from some interviews, along with short audio essays produced by students here.  

Annie Valk is Associate Director for Public Humanities and Lecturer in History at Williams College. She is a specialist in oral history, public history, and the social history of the 20th century United States. She teaches experiential and community-based classes in oral history and public history. During 2015-16, she served as president of the Oral History Association. 

Featured image: Buildings of the Arnold Print Works (now MASS MoCA) as seen from the Route 2 overpass over State Street in North Adams, Massachusetts. Photo by Beyond my Ken.