Entertainment, Features, National

The Rise and Fall of Manufacturing in Bridgeport   

November 2, 2017

By Andy Piascik

Bridgeport, Connicticut – In its manufacturing heyday, Bridgeport had a number of industrial hubs. The area where Jenkins Valves, Underwood and several other factories stood in the general vicinity of the Ballpark at Harbor Yards and Webster Bank Arena was one such hub.

The section of Boston Avenue with the General Electric factory to the north and Remington Arms to the south was another, though those two factories were so large and employed so many workers that each could be considered a hub of its own. And then there was a stretch of the West Side running along both sides of the railroad viaduct from Howard Avenue to the point where Fairfield Avenue meets Railroad Avenue.

West Side Hub

Some of the factories that were once part of the West Side hub – United Pattern, Casco, Bassick, Dictaphone – still stand, though all are long empty. The American Bead Chain building still stands and now houses a charter school. Others like Hubbell have been demolished. Another that was demolished in the 1990’s was Bryant Electric, long a division of the massive multinational Westinghouse Corporation and the largest of the West Side hub, both in terms of the area it covered (200,000 square feet) and number of employees. And in its history we can trace the trajectory of manufacturing in Bridgeport, from an apex that seemed like it would never end to decline and sometimes bitter demise.

Bryant

The Bryant Electric Company was founded on John Street in downtown Bridgeport in 1888. The company grew rapidly and moved three years later to its long-time location. With additions over the years, the factory was composed of 20 buildings bounded by State Street to the north, Hancock Avenue to the west and Railroad Avenue to the south. On the east, it stretched as far as Howard Avenue, with buildings zigzagging alongside residential homes on Organ Street.

Workers at Bryant made wiring devices, switches and electrical components – 12 devices in all in the beginning, a number that increased to over 4,000 by 1928. The company’s founder, Waldo Bryant, sold a majority interest to Westinghouse in 1901, though he continued to run the company until 1927. Bryant Electric acquired several other companies in its early years and was Bridgeport’s largest employer for a time: seven hundred people were working there in 1905 and 1,500 in 1915.

Difficulties of Factory Work

Factory work in the early 1900’s was extremely difficult and often dangerous, and wages were low even at prosperous companies like Bryant. Workers struck the plant a number of times over the years, with the first strike of note taking place in 1915. The strike was led by women assemblers not welcome in the American Federation of Labor’s craft unions who demanded an eight-hour workday and overtime pay after 40 hours. After two weeks during which the plant was completely closed, the workers won their demands.

The UE

Workers gained additional strength on the job when they elected the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), one of the most radical affiliates of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), as their collective bargaining representative in the late 1930’s. Significant gains in wages and benefits were won during the boom years of the Second World War when the company did a significant amount of production for the military.

Despite a postwar assault on the UE by business, government and top officials of the CIO that weakened it and other unions, especially after the UE was ousted from Bridgeport’s massive GE plant, workers at Bryant continued to earn important improvements in working conditions and living standards. In an effort to address widespread unemployment in the Bridgeport area, the UE initiated a campaign in the mid-1950’s for the 35-hour work week which it said would enable profitable companies like Bryant to hire more workers. Bryant and the rest of Bridgeport’s business class ignored the campaign.

Capital Flight and Job Loss

Bryant’s parent Westinghouse was among the corporations that adopted increasingly aggressive labor relations in the 1970’s. That approach involved demanding givebacks in wages and benefits as well as the shift of production to low-wage areas. Despite ongoing objections by Bryant workers and the UE, objections that were eventually echoed by local elected officials, Westinghouse moved more and more Bryant jobs from Bridgeport to North Carolina, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Workers in Westinghouse factories in those locations were paid very low wages, benefits were minimal and workers who engaged in any kind of collective action were subject to termination, with little recourse.

Bryant workers organized demonstrations against job loss as early as 1974. By 1976 when they participated in a brief nation-wide strike against Westinghouse, the factory’s workforce was about 700, down from an all-time high of 1,700. The decline continued in the years that followed as capital flight and job loss spread through Bridgeport like a contagious disease. In the 1980’s, Bridgeport Brass, Bullard, Jenkins, Bassick and other industrial mainstays closed their doors while others laid off large numbers of workers who were never rehired.

Resistance

Resistance to this trend was higher among Bryant workers than at other shops. On January 13, 1986, they demonstrated at company headquarters on Sylvan Avenue demanding that Westinghouse maintain its production operations in Bridgeport. Carrying placards that read “Bryant Belongs in Bridgeport” and “Keep Bryant in Bridgeport,” the workers called on the company to cease the transfer of production to low-wage, non-union plants. They also organized a march down State Street on April 12, 1986, demanding that Westinghouse commit to keeping Bryant open.

With profits rising because of its abandonment of places like Bridgeport, Westinghouse announced in 1987 that it would close the Bryant plant the following year, exactly 100 years after its founding. The UE, the 450 workers who remained and community supporters continued to rally and protest but production ceased for good on April 22, 1988. The sprawling factory was demolished in 1996.

A Road Not Taken

One possible way the Bryant factory might have been kept open and the jobs saved that was apparently not considered in any serious way was that of a combined government-union-worker purchase of the plant from Westinghouse. Unlike many countries, there is little history of such efforts in the United States despite the obvious potential benefits. Government at all levels, virulently pro-business historically, had entered a particularly toxic pro-business stage by the 1980’s, and there was no will at any level for such a project. In addition, American unions, including the more militant UE, had overwhelmingly ceded decision-making about production to management long before and were thus largely rudderless when their militancy was most needed.

Whether such a government-union-worker venture would have succeeded is something we will never know. What we do know is that Bridgeport is the less for the fact that it was not at least attempted, and many of the ongoing problems the city confronts today trace in part to its loss of tens of thousands of good-paying working class jobs such as those at Bryant.

Bridgeport native Andy Piascik is a long-time activist and award-winning author whose novel In Motion was recently published by Sunshine Publishing (www.sunshinepublishing.org). He can be reached at andypiascik@yahoo.com.

November 2, 2017

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