Metal Fatigue: American Bosch and the Demise of Metalworking in the Connecticut River Valley. By Robert Forrant (Baywood Publishing, 2009)

Robert Forrant was braced for a rough day on Feb. 4, 1986. That day, he and a group of fellow members of the International Union of Electrical Workers Local 206 headed to a West Springfield hotel to meet with representatives of American Bosch, the Springfield plant where Forrant had worked for the previous 12 years. For the past four years, he'd also served as the union's business agent.

The union reps were trying to negotiate a new, three-year contract with management. They were doing so against a disheartening backdrop: over the previous 30 years, Bosch workers—once 3,000 strong—had watched their jobs disappear as management moved more and more production work to plants with cheaper operating costs in the South and overseas.

In the eight years since the plant had been bought by United Technologies Corp., the number of union jobs had dropped from 1,130 to 800. Just a few years earlier, the company had opened a plant in South Carolina, moving 500 union and non-union jobs to the site.

Heading into the contract talks, the union team was worried; with the company increasingly investing in other, cheaper locations, negotiators were anxious to hold on to what jobs remained. For years, the union had predicted that Bosch would one day shutter the Springfield plant—a prediction that company officials repeatedly denied.

On that winter day 23 years ago, the union was finally, unhappily, proven right. Instead of a contract offer, they were handed a one-page memo announcing the plant's closing. At the same time, just a few miles away at the plant in Springfield's North End, workers were getting the same news. Within a month's time, a "phase-out" plan was in effect, with several dozen workers being laid off each week until the plant was finally emptied. All told, 1,200 people were put out of work.

That sort of job loss would be devastating to any community. But in Springfield, it was an especially tough blow. Over the previous decades, the city—like similar cities up and down the Connecticut River Valley—had seen its fortunes fall, as factory after factory closed. Skilled laborers who once raised families, bought homes, sent their kids to college on their plant wages, now found themselves in a new job market, where their years of experience brought them no advantage and the only vacancies were in the low-paying service sector.

Unlike some of his former colleagues, Forrant was able to transition into a new career: academia. A professor in the Department of Regional Economic and Social Development at UMass-Lowell, Forrant has written extensively on the effects of deindustrialization in the region. His new book, Metal Fatigue: American Bosch and the Demise of Metalworking in the Connecticut River Valley (Baywood Publishing), looks at how the closing of one once-mighty Springfield employer affected the city—and how those consequences are still felt today.


Forrant had been a graduate student at UMass Amherst in 1974 when he lost his house, and his research work, in a fire. The son of a blue-collar (and union-proud) family, he found work in a number of local factories, including a plastics factory where he made dishes and toothbrush handles amidst an overpowering chemical smell, and a Florence cutlery plant "straight from the pages of Dickens."

Then Forrant landed at American Bosch—known to employees simply as "the Bosch"—where he joined 1,500 workers who made fuel injection systems for cars, trucks and tanks. The plant had been in the city since 1911.

"The Bosch, with its pounding and screaming machinery, heat-treating furnaces, and forklifts careening everywhere, was a sprawling and exciting place," Forrant writes. It was also a familiar, and familial, place, where many employees spent their entire working lives. Off the shop floor, they talked about their kids and the Red Sox, bet on football games, relaxed at company picnics.

Companies like Bosch played a crucial role in Springfield's development. For 150 years, Forrant writes, the city sat at the center of a prosperous manufacturing corridor that ran along the Connecticut River, stretching from Bridgeport up into Vermont. Springfield's good fortune began back in the late 18th century, when Congress selected it as the site for a federal armory; the armory, in turn, helped spur other manufacturing development in the city, with a particular focus on metalworking and machine parts. Springfield became known as an area for innovation—Forrant calls it the Silicon Valley of its day—where new techniques and technologies spread from plant to plant, and drew new businesses to the area.

The metalworking industry—Bosch, Westinghouse, Easco Hand Tool, Chapman Valve, and other companies—employed thousands of Springfield residents, who helped create a strong, vibrant city. Workers bought houses, creating stable neighborhoods; they spent their salaries in local stores, supporting a healthy downtown.


Bosch, like many similar plants, suffered a long and slow death; shocking as the 1986 plant closure felt to the people who made their livings there, the writing was on the wall for about 35 years, as Forrant explains.

By the early 1950s, Bosch, like many companies, began looking for cheaper locations for its operations. In 1953, Bosch opened a plant in Columbus, Miss., one of the poorest areas in that state. Local officials, eager for new jobs, tossed in $750,000 for infrastructure costs, Forrant writes. The area also offered a desperate workforce willing to work cheap, and a culture where—significantly—labor unions did not have a stronghold. When that plant opened, 500 Springfield jobs were lost.

Over the years, more and more jobs were lost, as Bosch moved more and more operations to cheaper places. It was hardly the only company to do so, as Forrant notes; Westinghouse, for instance, opened a plant in Ohio in 1958, resulting in the loss of 1,500 Springfield jobs. There, too, jobs steadily disappeared, until Springfield's Westinghouse plant completely shut down in 1970.

When Forrant and his fellow union negotiators headed into contract talks that February day in 1986, they had in the back of their minds Bosch's new South Carolina plant. The previous year, in a union briefing to government officials, Forrant had warned that Bosch appeared close to shutting down the Springfield plant. "We see clearly the impending closing of this plant," he wrote in a memo. "The whole industrial base from Greenfield to Springfield is being eroded. There may be jobs available, but they are definitely not good paying ones."

Nonetheless, Forrant writes, officials from UTC (the company that bought Bosch in 1978) repeatedly insisted they had no plans to shut down the plant. And state and local officials were more than happy to accept their reassurances, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. When news finally broke of the plant's closure, he writes, city leaders acted "wounded."

Then-Mayor Richie Neal, who'd been meeting with Bosch officials for months, told the media, "Each step of the way, we were told not to worry, that they were not going to close. …To tell me at 2:00 p.m. that the eventual phaseout was imminent does not, to my mind, demonstrate high regards by that corporation for this community." No kidding.


The closing of Bosch, and of many other similar employers, continues to have a profound effect on Springfield. In the 1970s and '80s, Forrant notes, 45 percent of the city's manufacturers closed. Metal Fatigue includes a chart showing the thousands of jobs lost in the period covering 1982 to 1990 alone: 2,000 laid off at Easco Hand Tool; 400 out of work when Package Machinery closed; another 250 out of work when Chapman Valve closed; 250 more when Columbia Bicycle closed.

The effects, Forrant writes, rippled throughout the city. Displaced workers could no longer afford to pay their mortgages. Those who were "lucky" found work in the growing service sector, at a fraction of their previous salaries. With a sizeable portion of the city's residents now struggling, other industries—the banks, the department stores—suffered, too.

"Compounding the situation, there were nearly two decades of hapless efforts by various local and state governments to overcome employment loss and build some sort of sustainable economy," Forrant writes. "Springfield… fell into serious disrepair. Corrupt officials exacerbated the problem and caused residents, already cynical about their government, to become even more disenchanted with city leaders. Its once-powerful agglomeration of skills and innovative firms depleted, Springfield staggered, nearly bankrupt, into the new century."

And, like many in organized labor, Forrant is not impressed by the body charged with fixing the city's economic crisis: the Finance Control Board, created by the state Legislature in 2004. Forrant criticizes the board for focusing on the "symptoms" of the city's crisis—specifically, by cutting personnel costs in city government—"but [failing] to address the historical relationship between the disappearance of well-paying work and the city's plight."

Under the Control Board, Forrant writes, "Some parts of the city run better, but many essential services have been cut, bitter labor relations exist with teachers and most other municipal unions, and there was no concerted effort to rebuild the city's, and by extension the region's, economy. Poverty increased, and the neighborhoods were neglected as city leaders attempted to jump-start the moribund downtown."


For almost 20 years after its closure, Bosch sat vacant, an eyesore and a painful reminder to the neighboring community.

On Dec. 16, 2004, the long-vacant plant burned to the ground. (While arson was suspected, no one was ever charged.) The morning after the fire, Forrant drove to the North End to look at what remained of his one-time employer. About 100 other former Bosch employees were there, too, exchanging stories about "the old days," he writes: "[I]t felt like I was attending a friend's wake."

But if the burning of the old Bosch plant was a powerful symbol of the decline of Springfield's manufacturing base, it was soon overshadowed by a more concrete example: the day after the fire, nearby Danaher Tool, which once employed 2,000 people, announced that it, too, was closing. Jobs lost: 300.

Robert Forrant will read from Metal Fatigue on June 24, 7 p.m., at Odyssey Books, 9 College St. (Village Commons), South Hadley. For information, call 534-7307 or go to