Legacy of upstate tycoon considered on national airwaves

Dec 2, 2010

Yesterday evening, All Things Considered aired a driveway moment-worthy story, profiling one of upstate New York's early welfare capitalists. George F. Johnson earned that title by offering Endicott-Johnson shoe manufacturer workers generous benefits, including subsidized housing and free shoes.  That generosity effectively countered efforts by labor to organize workers in his factories, which were spread across the Southern Tier until the 1960s.

In addition to being really good radio, the piece shared memories from residents, about the company's heyday:

During the good times, Endicott Johnson would host band concerts in the park on Sunday evenings, according to Geral Zahavi, who wrote Workers, Managers and Welfare Capitalism. The final song was "Marching Along Together." Endicott Johnson workers and mangers took the song as a sort of anthem, a symbol of the bond they felt between labor and management.

There was, however, an opposite side of the coin.

Bob Johnston lived in the Triple Cities for 50 years and was a union organizer in the region. He believed that all of the benefits that Endicott Johnson provided were a way to make people feel as though they had to be grateful to the Johnson family. And he says he felt that this was wrong.

Susan Sherwood, founder of the shrine to historical Southern Tier technology we profiled this summer, took a stab for us at defining what the region might still be seeing of the Johnson legacy:

I think the real impact on the community that is lasting, is 'have respect for your employees', whether you’re a small firm or a large firm. And so ... as a result, we have a strong tradition of that, and people are used to being treated well, so when they’re not, they will look elsewhere for employment, and what happens in cases like that are the people who leave are the people you want to keep. Because the people who leave are the ones who have the skill to look elsewhere.

Sherwood acknowledged that more recent job losses have led people to look for employment outside the region, but she thinks quality of working life might be key to bringing them back, if and when new jobs do take root.