From textiles to technology, and the American House to Amazon
Amazon’s creep all throughout the country has resulted in it popping up or growing operations in several major cities. Like this one. Locally, we’ve spilled a lot of ink about major behemoths like Amazon, and General Electric, promising jobs in the region in exchange for government kickbacks. It’s a lot more complicated than that, of course, but you know the routine by now.
The promise of new jobs is nothing foreign to the people of Boston; our city has long been sought after as an “up and coming” location for a booming corporate atmosphere. Looking through the job listings of the early 20th century, it seems that there were similarly high promises floating back then. In the heyday of the cotton industry, headlines as well as the classifieds boasted of massive budget increases for the city and its cotton mills. At certain moments, 100,000 jobs were promised to the working citizens of the region in a single swoop.
Not surprisingly, as industry grew here and people flocked, those thousands of employees became dispensable. This as wages dropped or remained stagnant, and as taxes often increased to fund corresponding services. The result, according to the Boston Post in 1909, was “an incalculable injury to the city and every laborer.”
Looking at the city a century ago, it isn’t hard to find newspapers full of stories about broken promises. There had been big wins for organized labor in the area beginning in the late 1800s, but a depression hit in 1893, leaving more than a third of even organized laborers jobless, and beginning a period of uncertainty that would stretch through the end of WWI in 1918. According to the 1977 book, Boston’s Labor Movement: An oral history of work and union organizing, by Sari Roboff, “by 1895, the percentage of the [Boston] population in industrial production had fallen off significantly, and textile factories began leaving for new regions as early as 1900.”
Few industries were spared. In one case, the American House, a long-standing Boston hotel at the time that attracted a number of prominent visitors through the early 20th century, closed in 1918 and displaced hundreds of employees. Despite the promise of opportunity, many workers were forced go out and find a new way to make a living.
Fast-forward to today. Unemployment in the region has decreased as of late, dropping from around 10 percent as recently as 2012 to 3.5 percent today, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Furthermore, according to the BLS, from January 2017 to January 2018, Massachusetts added an estimated 29,000 jobs. No doubt much of that comes from an influx in the tech sector and from companies that will be swallowed by or serve the mighty Amazon if its new corporate headquarters lands here. Or perhaps even if it doesn’t.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. As one outlet broke it down in 1975, the post-Sputnik era of innovation, kicked off in the late ’50s, placed a heightened importance on the sciences, which soon became an integral part of America’s economy and culture. At the same time, engineers overall endured a 2.5 percent decrease in pay as the market got saturated. A higher unemployment rate for newly graduated engineers followed.
No one knows for sure if Amazon increasing its footprint here many times over would lead to the same kind of oversaturation. At the same time, officials may want to study the history that we should be familiar with and be wary of the promises that any industry or corporation brings to the area.
This throwback is a collaboration between Dirty Old Boston, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and DigBoston. For more throwbacks visit facebook.com/dirtyoldboston and binjonline.org