My beat at the San Francisco Chronicle is "the art of craft." Every month or so, I have the ridiculous good fortune to say something like, "Hey, what's blacksmithing/vegan taxidermy/letterpress printing all about?" Then I find a craftsperson who will let me hang out for a couple of hours and ask questions. I write up the story in a way that, I hope, honors the craft and the craftsman and also incites a few people to say, "I'd like to try that." The chance to show that objects long produced commercially can still be made by hand, whether it's bicycles or books or wooden bowls, makes me feel like I'm casting a tiny spotlight on the more magical realms of the human spirit.
One of those stories ran in the Chronicle recently, about a portrait studio in San Francisco where you can sit for a tintype photo just like your great-great-great-grandparents did. As a native of Rochester, New York, home of the Eastman Kodak Company, and daughter of a man who worked at Kodak for 35 years (we're called Kodakids) I found it fascinating to learn about how the tintypes are made, the careful mixing of silver nitrates and suspensions and fixers. I appreciated the way that the shop founders treat photographic images with reverence, even as digital technology commoditizes them.
The same week, the headline in the paper said that Eastman Kodak is contemplating the decision to file for bankruptcy, in part to loosen its obligations for paying the pensions and health care costs of its retirees. It made me think there might be a new series in me about a disappearing art, called "The Art of Corporations Treating People Decently."
Anyone who grew up in a dying company town knows what I'm talking about. I lived in Rochester in the heyday of the 1970s and early '80s, when there were 60,000 employees and Kodak had its own fire department. Though my dad started as an engineer - his work on Cold War satellites projects was only recently declassified, after 50 years - he ended up as the Head of Employee Activities. That's basically the Corporate Fun Boss, charged with organizing extracurricular events to build employee morale and camaraderie. His team organized the baseball, basketball, volleyball, and floor hockey leagues, as well as clubs for stamp collectors and square dancers. They ran the Kodak Bowling Alley, oversaw the in-plant stores that sold cameras and beer coolers shaped like film canisters, chaperoned when groups of Kodak employees took package tours to Hawaii or Greece, where they sunned themselves on Kodak beach towels.
Kodak took great care of its employees and that benefited the community in which I grew up. Families had good healthcare plans, and employees had pensions, and the public schools around Rochester were top-notch because the residents paid a lot of taxes. University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology thrived and produced smart grads who got jobs at Kodak (and, on a smaller scale, Xerox and Bausch & Lomb.) Kodak sponsored summer softball leagues for city kids and gave employees time off to volunteer in the community.
Here's a how loyal Kodak employees and their families were to the company.When my brother was a little boy, hallucinating with fever from a case of the measles, he shouted "Bomb Polaroid! We have to bomb Polaroid!" while writhing around on his bed.
I'm not informed enough or smart enough to tell you how it all went wrong, but it's fair to say that it did so in the way not uncommon for big American corporations: companies focused on short term stockholder value to the exclusion of value to customers and employees. Execs made the wrong calls on products, repeatedly - digital photography? That's just a fad. Jobs went overseas. Layoffs came around annually, like the flu. By the mid '80s my father had enough. His main function had become closing things down - bowling allies, employee stores, cancelling the annual Christmas show for kids at Kodak Theater downtown. He took early retirement and watched the company contract from arm's length.
I also worked at Kodak, just after grad school. I took a job in the International Manufacturing Division, and my big project was to a.) find out just how many employees were involved in equipment manufacturing, and b.) recommend which plants could stand shrinking. For the ten months I lasted, I got hung up on every day. My colleagues and boss were kind, bright people. But everyone had an air of defeat about them, as bad management was addressed through the time-honored tradition of firing good employees. Every building in the plant where I worked had acres - I mean acres - of empty offices, hallways that echoed in silence, a visual reminder of how low we'd sunk. And that was almost 20 years ago, long before Kodak was threatened with delisting from the New York Stock Exchange for a stock price under $1.
Rochester is inured to death by a thousand paper cuts, and it will absorb whatever happens this time, too. I was tickled by a recent article that names Rochester as a "City Poised for Greatness in 2012," alongside London, San Jose, and Austin, ascribed to cheap real estate and hiring by North American Brewing, which makes Genesee Beer. Or as we natives say, "Geneseein' is Believin.'
Like the tintype makers whose craft George Eastman helped make almost obsolete, the employees of Kodak and other once proud American manufacturers seem doomed sometimes, casualties of globalization and corporate shortsightedness.
I just hope that tales of corporations that are good citizens, benevolent employers, and civic supporters won't soon be relegated to a sidebar human interest story for a slow news day.