Toward Civic Integrity, A Book Review

This column was first published September 30, 2010 on  the Empire Page website.

After more than six years of haggling, the final hurdles were recently overcome for the construction of a Wal-Mart Supercenter within the city limits of Gloversville in Fulton County in upstate New York. While Gloversville City Court Judge Vincent DeSantis, author of “Towards Civic Integrity; Re-establishing the Micropolis,” (2007) understands the motives of the public officials who pushed the project through, he believes that this is exactly the wrong kind of development that’s needed for cities like Gloversville to function successfully in the 21st century.

In his self-published extended essay, Judge DeSantis chronicles oft-repeated accusations against Wal-Mart centered communities. In addition to the charge that they drive locally-owned stores out of business, do not provide living wages to their employees and “suck” money out of the community, DeSantis claims that big box top managers have no personal involvement in or commitment to the local communities in which their stores are located.

When the new Wal-Mart opens in 2011, the company will close its current store, which is located on Gloversville’s outskirts. That will negatively impact the stores, restaurants and bank branches that chose to locate in that area because of the traffic Wal-Mart generated. One can picture driving past those stores in the not too distant future and seeing empty parking lots. This is precisely the kind of social cost that DeSantis rails against in his book.

Ironically, the location of the current Wal-Mart was once occupied by Gloversville’s minor league baseball stadium – an institution representative of an era when communities the size of Gloversville, which at the time had a population of around 20,000, were largely self-contained.

While its minor league ballpark was on the outskirts of the city, 60 years ago Gloversville’s downtown supported a high school, a hospital, two movie theaters, locally-owned banks, department and clothing stores, a public library, a YMCA, a YWCA, a Jewish Community Center, etc. – all within walking distance of the majority of its residents. The downtown in those days was symbolic of a city that had achieved a certain amount of prosperity. Gloversville even had both morning and afternoon newspapers.

In reviewing the history of Gloversville, DeSantis blames the beginnings of post-WW II globalization for undercutting the industry that served as the foundation for Gloversville’s self-contained prosperous community. He writes that he understands the decisions of the factory owners who sought cheaper labor in Haiti and elsewhere. They had to relocate in order to remain competitive. He fails to mention, however, the other reason that owners started moving shops overseas in the 1950s––a factor that undercuts his picture of Gloversville as an idyllic, balanced community.

One incentive for owners to move out of Gloversville was the strength of the labor movement in the tanneries and glove cutting and sewing shops.

In the early 1930s, one in four residents worked directly in the glove industry. The tanneries employed approximately 2,100, while 3,500 worked in shops cutting leather and sewing gloves, and an unknown number worked out of their homes. (See Philip S. Foner, The Fur and Leather Workers Union, Nordan Press, 1950, p. 542-43.)

The mechanization of the glove industry after World War I reduced skilled craft people to easily replaceable laborers, which not surprisingly spurred the work force to organize for better pay and working conditions. Those efforts culminated with the formation of the Independent Leather Workers Union of Fulton County.

For insight into how bad some of the working conditions were in the tanneries and glove shops and the impact those conditions had on workers’ families, I recommend reading the essay by Gloversville native and novelist Richard Russo in issue 111 of Granta, a British literary publication.

In 1933, tannery workers held an 8-week strike that resulted in recognition of shop committees, 15 to 30 percent wage increases and the right to collective bargaining. After World War II, Taft-Hartley strengthened the employers’ bargaining position and the glove owners took advantage, seeking to break the union by demanding that it sign a contract without any pay increase. When the union refused, the owners of 18 tanneries imposed a lock out of union members, which in turn led to an-industry wide strike.

For the next eight months, owners tried all sorts of tricks to break the strike. They set up company unions, endorsed competing AFL & CIO unions, and accused the leaders of Local 202 of being communists. Finally on January 25, 1950, they broke the strike by using the local police department assisted by paid goons to escort scab workers into the tanneries.

One shouldn’t make light of the extent of the division that existed in Gloversville between factory owners and workers during these years. My father, a doctor who came to Gloversville as a refugee after Hitler annexed Austria, was ostracized for providing medical care to members of the IFLWU and their families during the strike. For a while he thought he would have to move out of Gloversville in order to support his family.

Which brings me to my biggest concern with Judge DeSantis’ vision of the future. I have little quarrel with his criticism of the damage inflicted on communities like Gloversville by globalization of the world’s economy, but I do have questions about where that leaves us and whether his prescription for the future will do the trick.

DeSantis argues that the global economy is not sustainable. He believes that the damage being done to the planet by our oil-dependent economy will result in public policies that restrict economic activity such as shipping products from China to be consumed by Wal-Mart shoppers. The political will for such may or may not appear. Yet, he accurately describes efforts by more and more people to move off that stage – advocates for smart growth and people who produce food and other goods for local consumption. (See “The Internet Might Save Main Street,” by Peter Funt, WSJ, September 20 for a supporting trend).

The other factor that DeSantis believes militates against the global economy is the cost and availability of oil. However, his prediction that cost of oil will eventually become too high to sustain that economy seems no closer to coming to pass than when it was first voiced 40 years ago. Further, technology may find solutions to oil dependence that result in our being able to have our cars and drive them too.

But, the globalization of business is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it meant that a lot of locally owned stores in cities like Gloversville went out of business which in turn undermined the downtown-centered culture DeSantis admires. In Wal-Mart’s defense, however, Gloversville’s downtown was dying long before they built their current store. They just took advantage of the fact that area residents already had to get in their cars to do their shopping and that they were happy to find a store that had so many inexpensive products under one roof.

On the flip side, robust international trade enabled Europe and Japan to rebuild after WW II, which contributed to tremendous prosperity in Europe and the US for several decades. That prosperity eventually flowed downhill, helping to bring countries like India, Brazil, South Africa and China out of the throws of underdevelopment. Without globalization, there would be no middle class in China today and that country might still be under the thumb of Mao’s Culture Revolution where teachers and doctors were sent to re-indoctrination camps and peasants were given power because their poverty made them pure.

Bringing this back to Upstate New York, the car-centered economy actually helped communities like Gloversville, Schoharie and Saratoga survive the past four decades because people could enjoy small city life while being able to drive to good-paying jobs using the Thruway and Northway.

Today, the Internet offers the potential for new companies to locate in cities like Gloversville. However, as DeSantis admits these jobs will not be the factory jobs of the 1930s and 40s – either in the number of people employed or in their being able to employ unskilled, uneducated workers. Good jobs today require a more educated work force –programmers, technicians, graphic designers, people with language and writing skills, etc.. The question is whether business owners will be willing to locate in cities that are unwilling to combat the negatives of blight, poverty, local crime and high taxes.

The survival of cities like Gloversville in upstate New York may come down to whether the state of New York and the federal government get their acts together. Currently the state of New York is an albatross on the back on the upstate economy. Rather than helping communities meet the challenges of the 21st century, the state has failed to address the increasing problems localities have paying for basic services. Governors have done what they always do – look for some large scale project where they can hold a ribbon cutting ceremony and the leaders of the Legislature act as if everything north of Westchester County is someone else’s problem.

Yet Judge DeSantis does offer some valuable concepts for localities that have sufficient resources to fight the decline. Saratoga represents one example where community involvement worked; Amsterdam represents what happens when the community lacks sufficient local strengths. Whether it’s too late for Gloversville, time will tell, but ironically the taxes generated by the Super Wal-Mart may help pave the way for its revival.

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