Work, Welfare, and Resistance
Gorham Manufacturing Company
Imagine walking around this site in 1899, when the Gorham Manufacturing Company was the most famous producer of silver utensils, tea services and decorative items in the world. In the central building, you could find offices, a museum of silverwork, and a library. A stylish “casino” had a dining room and underground bowling alley. An enormous workshop called the foundry blazed with heat to melt bronze for statues and plaques. In front of the fourteen buildings stood a statue of the Greek god of fire, Vulcan. And even though industrial waste from the factory was dumped into Mashapaug Pond, the grounds were spotless – trash-free and well-landscaped.
Today, some people who worked at Gorham remember the factory’s artistry and great work atmosphere, while others think of trouble with management and the effect of the company’s waste on the health of Mashapaug Pond.
Managers at Gorham wanted to turn a profit, but also believed in providing their workers with benefits and a good salary – a system called welfare capitalism. Starting in the early twentieth century, workers received benefits like medical insurance, vacation time, bonuses, paid holidays and education. Supervisors hoped these benefits would create “loyalty and cooperation” and raise morale. Silver designer Jeffrey Herman remembered that he “felt like we were a family there.” From the 1930s on, workers also joined unions to negotiate with management in case of problems, though the first strike at Gorham didn’t occur until 1958.
Jobs manufacturing silver flatware were steady and well-paid, but could be difficult and dangerous. Robin Tagliaferri, whose grandfather worked in the foundry, remembers stories of him coming home feverish and shivering from working near the fires. Smoke, debris, and dangerous chemicals were produced in the factory. Early machinery was also used without safety guards, risking workers’ fingers. Safety conditions only improved after national health and safety rules were established in first half of the twentieth century.
In 1967, another company, Textron, acquired Gorham. That same year, workers went on strike because of changes to the factory’s system of incentives, or pay based on how many pieces a worker made. Organizers of the steelworker’s union coordinated more strikes over the years to protest violated contracts, promotions of newer employees over more experienced coworkers, and impossibly high workloads. One strike lasted for over seven months, showing the employees’ unity and determination, but taking a toll on their livelihoods. Meanwhile, rising costs and the declining popularity of silver flatware weakened the Gorham company. In the 1980s, the company shrunk from thousands of employees to hundreds, moving its manufacturing to Smithfield, Rhode Island, and then to New Jersey.
If you visited this site in 1997, just before the former factory buildings were torn down, you would see the large structures without windows, crowded by vines. No businesses wanted to buy the property, and the brick and wood were thought to be too damaged to save. Today, the only physical remains of Gorham are the toxins in the pond and soil.
Would you apply for a job at Gorham, if it still existed today? Why or why not?
Why might Gorham workers have gone on strike in the 1960s and 70s? What kind of effect do you think that a strike had on the workers and their families?
Why do you think the first strike at Gorham only happened in 1958, over a century after the factory was founded?
If things were unsafe where you worked, what would you do?