Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Square Deal - A Different Perspective on May Day

Today is International Workers' Day. Growing up during the Cold War in a staunchly anti-Soviet home, my only awareness of it was press coverage of the military might marching through Moscow's Red Square. Those displays did not reflect the original intent of the day, but colored my perspective on labor movements, factory work and workers for many years.

The families I research were primarily agrarian with an occasional merchant or doctor. Rarely have I found ancestors living in a city and only once have I found a relative working in a factory prior to 1910 when my Carpatho-Rusyn family began arriving. Almina Whitaker died 3 Oct. 1844 in Chicopee Falls, MA. She was listed as a factory girl and died of an acute infection at age 17. She was my husband's 4th great-aunt. There are surely others.

Arch at the entrance to Johnson City.
It reads "Home of the Square Deal."
My paternal grandparents were both factory workers after they emigrated to the United States, but their experiences were different from those who worked in most of the factories and mills across the country. They worked for the Endicott-Johnson Corporation, a shoe manufacturer located in the Southern Tier of New York. Endicott-Johnson (or E-J as they were referred to at home) was known worldwide for their Square Deal, a paternalistic but generous program of medical care, recreational facilities, profit sharing and low cost housing that kept unions at bay. Another company in the area modeled their benefits programs on E-J's Square Deal. That company became IBM, where my father spent most of his working life.

My father, born in an E-J medical clinic not far from his parents' home, spoke glowingly of the medical care his family received. My grandmother spent months at a sanitarium at Saranac Lake recovering from influenza. Her job was waiting for her when she returned. My father recovered from rheumatic fever at a farm where E-J contracted to have its employees and their dependents cared for. The clinics, care and doctors were well-thought of and all were provided free of charge to E-J employees and their families. I never heard a single comment from my father or any other family member about Endicott-Johnson that was anything but laudatory.

When I was growing up IBM was equally revered. There were IBM Christmas parties, IBM country clubs, superb benefits packages. An IBM scholarship paid for some of my college education and IBM summer jobs helped pay my living expenses. It was mentioned more than once that there was no need for unions or labor organization at IBM. We knew whose fathers (and it was only the fathers) worked for IBM. No secret handshake, but we considered ourselves fortunate.

That world of welfare capitalism, with its lifetime employment and security, is long gone. Its legacy includes the binding together of healthcare and employment. We who grew up in its embrace face a changed world.

Happy International Workers' Day!

You can read more about E-J and its Square Deal in this episode of NPR's Radio Diaries and in this book by Gerald Zahavi.

Clifford Lyle Stott, The Vital Records of Springfield Massachusetts to 1850 (Boston: NEHGS, 2003), II:1225 citing Book 4, Births, Marriages, Deaths, 1843-1849.

Endicott-Johnson Employee Badges belonging to Stephen and Anna Popp; digital images; privately held by Susan Popp Clark, St. Louis, MO. 2008

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, HABS NY, 4-ENDI,1--1.


  1. I enjoyed reading this post. Having grown up in Pennsylvania, in a area pretty similar to the southern tier of New York, I remember hearing similar stories.

  2. You really struck a chord with me on this posting. Both my grandparents, Frank Desko (Belorussian) and William Shelepak (Rusyn - Slovakia) worked at the EJ tanneries in Endicott. I grew up in Endicott and graduated UE in 1972.

    I remember many stories about how EJ took care of their own, and IBM too.

    What struck me the most was when my mother told me how EJ would go to Ellis Island and get the immigrants that had cardboard signs around their necks which read, "Which way EJ".

    I am extremely proud that both grandfathers became US citizens. Thanks for a wonderful post.

  3. Very interesting post and on a topic I would not have thought to write about. I'm glad you did. Gone are the days when someone stayed at one company for 30 years. Today employees are disposable. A company my husband was contracting with in California was insistent that he/we relocate. We did not. Less than two years later the company declared bankruptcy, and the division he was working for is gone. Times have changed...


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