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Kodaked again

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            It was the fall of 1965, and a busload of us freshly-minted college kids passed through the gates on Ridge Road and into another dimension. The tour guide said Kodak had everything for everyone, not just company bowling lanes and such, but something we youngsters barely grasped: lifetime employment. And the plant was so clean. Well, the air was industrial strength, but I was wowed.

            Soon enough, like real Rochesterians, we'd be calling Kodak the "Great Yellow Father." We'd swallow the theory that Kodakers had no unions because the company "outbid" them with high wages and wide benefits. We knew that in Rochester, the ancient threat If you don't like it here, go someplace else implied a destination. Want to do better? Lock yourself in the Big Yellow Box.

            And so we coasted, earning our collective Brownie points as the company grew toward its zenith in the early 1980s. For every respectable Rochesterian, the proper attitude was "full speed ahead." Snapshooting was as immortal as American apple pie and as international as Coca-Cola. And film would always, you might say, be on a roll. A grand illusion. You can be sure the movers and shakers knew the real scoop even back then. But as always, they weren't inclined to share.

            Whatever was in their hearts, the downsizing moves on, more mercilessly than Henry Ford's assembly line. Over the next few years, we'll see 15,000 Kodak workers, a third of them local, get the ax.

            The business-oriented Rump Group, representing the hard political center, rightly says Kodak's plan is "a kick in the pants to the Rochester community." But the Group's bottom line is pretty weak: "We must work even more aggressively to streamline and promote economic development, reduce the cost of government, and improve the economic climate for Kodak and other businesses to create new jobs."

            Do these self-appointed community leaders actually believe this? Maybe it's true that Kodak's top people are small-minded enough to base their global decisions on such factors. But I can't see them reversing a 20-plus-year trend and adding jobs here if, say, the county tax rate drops a few pennies. Of course, if we adopt Chinese labor standards...

            It's not the Rochester area that dictates its own local economy. It's the class that steers private and public investments on the macro level, through such massive pipelines as the military procurement system. That class long ago dumped Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse, and dozens of other "obsolescent" towns and shacked up with the worldwide Sunbelt, leaving us with an ever-worsening mess. The route to a local renaissance starts with change at the top --- and we don't mean only by dumping Bush this year.

            Meanwhile, Kodak's trying buy its way into the community's good graces. The company announced it was starting a $15 million economic development fund to create local jobs. Then days later, the company announced a hefty annual bonus for its workers. Even a front-pager in the Democrat and Chronicle led with the irony.

            Kodak's soft-spoken PR spoke truly when it said the industry "is undergoing fundamental, structural change" and adjusting to "market realities." The question is, why aren't government and society doing likewise?

            Technology shifts are inevitable and desirable, and the "end of work" is not necessarily a terrible fate. It's just that workers have no power. When they're "casualized," they've got few choices. And in a company town, with rump groups at the helm, it's almost impossible to get all the options on the table.

            Political options, that is. That giant sucking sound you hear is the absence of discussion about plant-closing legislation, decent unemployment and retraining benefits, universal non-employment based health care, and the other social supports that allow real people to control their lives and pursue their dreams.

            Amazingly, despite the news, there's incredible energy around here. Over at the Raging Burrito one day after work, still chewing on the Kodak story, I downed a couple local beers while watching some of Rochester's younger crowd play volleyball. It would take a Walt Whitman to fully celebrate the youth and optimism there. I wonder if the company bowling alley was ever so dynamic.

            Human capital in action. Rochester's got loads of it. Too bad the likes of Kodak executives are the fund managers.

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