A case study of the decline of American manufacturing

By Rob Gavin
April 28, 2009
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If there's one city that could be called the birthplace of New England's innovation economy, it's Springfield.

With the establishment of a federal armory in the late 18th century, Springfield became a center of precision manufacturing, attracting skilled workers and forward-thinking entrepreneurs. The tools and techniques they developed were diffused throughout New England, then adapted and advanced as the economy moved from textiles and shoes to computers, telecommunications, and biotechnology.

In "Metal Fatigue: American Bosch and the Demise of Metalworking in the Connecticut River Valley," Robert Forrant recounts this proud history and the hard times that befell Springfield as forward-thinking entrepreneurs were replaced by shortsighted capitalists. Once described as an "industrial beehive," Springfield saw its manufacturing base vanish, skilled workforce erode, and social fabric unravel as quick profits trumped investment in the plants, equipment, and workers who had made the city hum.

Forrant, a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, tells this story through American Bosch, a machine tool maker established in Springfield in 1911 and shuttered in 1986 by the last of its owners, United Technologies Corp. of Hartford. It's a familiar tale of disinvestment, deindustrialization, and despair that continues today in factory towns across the nation.

Forrant, however, brings a different perspective. Before he earned his doctorate in history, Forrant was a machinist and union official at American Bosch.

These experiences infuse what is a thorough history of metalworking in the Springfield area with a sense of personal loss and betrayal. Forrant's admiration for the ingenious men on the shop floor comes through, as does his contempt for the moneymen who took control of the industry.

These corporate owners refused to see what Forrant saw: The true value of their companies came from the skills and know-how acquired by workers over generations. To corporations, labor simply became another commodity for which to seek the lowest cost. They slashed jobs, stopped modernizing plants, and ended worker-training programs. The shortsighted strategy not only destroyed American Bosch, Forrant argues, but much of the US machine tool industry.

Forrant tells the story well. The tone tends toward the academic, but the writing is clear, clean, and, for the most part, well paced. A few sections crammed with figures are dense and dry, but Forrant's passion resurfaces.

His view, at times, seems a bit simplistic. He draws a sharp line between the good guys, workers and their unions, and the bad guys, greedy corporate owners. But the decline of traditional manufacturing is not so clear cut.

Even with enlightened owners, there still would be far fewer factory workers. The history of manufacturing is the drive to produce more with fewer workers - a drive that has resulted in better, cheaper, and more widely available goods and services.

This is not to diminish the pain Forrant and his friends experienced when they lost well-paying, satisfying jobs. Lives were upended, families pulled apart, neighborhoods destroyed. It's a story told all too often. But it still breaks your heart.

Rob Gavin is a member of the Globe staff.

METAL FATIGUE: American Bosch and the Demise of Metalworking in the Connecticut River Valley By Robert Forrant

Baywood Publishing, 216 pp., $38.95