Creative Destruction: How the PK Met its Demise
When Mr. Unknown assumed the position of superintendent at some unspecified point, he was eager to put his own spin on the company’s operations. It wasn’t long after he posed for the camera in his brand new three-piece suit, next to his shiny new telephone, that Mr. Unknown felt the overwhelming forces that had overcome many of the superintendents before him. Mr. Unknown had wanted so badly to make this new position work, considering the excitement around town surrounding his employment announcement in the Herald. Soon, though, a turbulent economy and presssures within the company drove Mr. Unknown out of his position faster than he was hired. After his departure (or was he still here?) Mr. Unknown followed news of the PK closely, watching as uncertainty in leadership and strikes and unionization pulled the company down a path of destruction and its ultimate closure.
From its beginnings in 1881, the Perry Knitting Company had faced uncertainty and constant shifts in its leadership. Beginning with Milo H. Olin’s personal financial investments as President of the company, the mill saw four different superintendent candidates take reins of the company in the first ten years of operation (Clark and Roberts 87). Over the span of the mill’s history, it saw the effects of a multitude of superintendents, presidents, and lower-level managerial positions on its day-to-day operations. The constant ebb and flow in leadership might have led employees to become exceedingly stressed, unsure about their future employment, and and some level unlikely to trust in their company. At the same time, the mill was Perry's largest employer. A necessity.
“Improvements in machinery have come so rapidly that a machine can seldom be run until it is no longer capable of effective work. While it is still in good condition it is supplanted by an improved pattern, which the constant competition of the new mills forces the older ones to install. The used machinery, though in good order and capable of good work, must be sold for a small fraction of its cost, or else discarded outright and sent to the scrap heap”—Holland Thompson, "From the Cotton Field to the Cotton Mill" (1906)
By the time Ray Traber retired in 1958, his name had appeared in the Herald many times. He and other family members were almost local celebrities, their personal lives covered in the Sunday newspaper almost every other week. Management of the PK had been running in the Traber family for generations--George Sr., George Jr., George III--and while outsiders admired the expertise that came along with the name, laborers weren't really celebrating. Several times they tried to unionize and even went on strike. What wasn't so clear to anyone, though, was how radically and permanently the textile industry was changing. Even during the PK's best days in the 1910s-20s, mills in the northeast were closing or relocating to southern states, with their “low wage rates, less stringent labor laws, and less pressure from unions" (Smith 86). The new mills used new equipment, allowing them to hire less-skilled workers. All of the economics were running against Perry, one of the last holdout knitting mills in the northeast, so who's to say PK managers were running the show?
And with Ray it was complicated. He was a local boy who moved with his father to the midwest after his mother died. His father later returned to New York as a superintendent at the Oswego Knitting Mill. Ray, a nephew of George Sr., began working at the PK in the finishing department in 1915, later transferring to the machine department where he became master mechanic. A bit of a mill rat, in other words. Then he left Perry for a job in San Diego in 1928, came back to Rochester and worked for Eastman Kodak a while, then returned to the PK in 1931 to "conveyorize the mill" and open the company's first production office. From a worker's perspective he was behind the speed-up and a new round of anxiety; still, it looked like Ray's own life was a bit unsettled. In 1935 he went on the road selling (during the Great Depression) until he was interrupted by the war. "At this time, he went into the office, undertaking a number of different jobs, rounding out his career as director of public relations" ("Ray Traber"). All the changes were blowing Ray Traber around, too.
Regardless, in 1937 the Perry Chamber of Commerce was clear with its warning when the Textile Workers Organizing Committee came to town: “In Case of Strikes—Everyone Loses!” Twenty years earlier 300 Polish and Italian workers at the PK had gone on strike; they wanted more money per hour and for piecework. At one point someone cut the power transmission cable to the mill, and the Warsaw sheriff along with ten special deputies were called in (“Egg Bath”). So now the Chamber saw renewed “labor troubles” as a danger beyond any single firm, and made a case to mobilize other community members against the union—even those who didn’t work at the mill. EVERYBODY LOSES. No one escapes.
Three times in this short advertisement an appeal to continued “economic stability” was made. Labor organizers were the face of economic instability. Responding to these tactics in a broadsheet, organizers asked whether employees trusted their employers or their fellow workers: “THE UNION WILL PROTECT YOUR JOB!” It’s doubtful that either side in the Perry dispute was in a position to guarantee economic stability; by the late 1930s almost all of the northern textile mills had relocated to the south.
During April, May, and June somewhere between 150 and 500 mill workers went on strike for a pay raise, a 40-hour work week, a week’s paid vacation, and equal division of hours during economic slowdowns. A rally of 1,200 strikers and allies from around the area supported them. Meanwhile the PK management and mill workers against unionization staged two Loyalty Parades down Perry’s Main Street. Their signs read “Give Us Liberty”; “Let’s Have Our Own Collective”; “Don’t Bite the Hand That Feeds You”; “We Can Take Care of Perry”; “I Want My Home.” It wasn’t hard to feel an undercurrent of anxiety over potential job loss. Struggling families were close by; southern mill owners, and the northern mill owners who had relocated there, were far away.
“The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organizational development from the craft shop and factory to such concerns as U. S. Steel illustrate the same process of industrial mutation—if I may use that biological term—that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism”—Joseph Schumpeter, “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy” (1942)
When Mr. Unknown heard the news that the PK had sold a warehouse to Champion Products in January of 1963, he was hardly surprised. The B & O was going to shut down its branch line to Perry, and even the Herald was nervous that “the overall trend has been downward” ("Whiter Perry?"). Businesses weren’t built to last, he thought to himself. It wasn’t the first time that a substantial building masked internal crises, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. High above Mr. Unknown were other Mr. Unknowns making fateful decisions. The PK once had been the backbone of Perry, yet it ended up as an empty warehouse--at least for now. Mr. Unknown pulled the watch out of his vest pocket. There was hardly anything for him to do then, besides turn his attention back to the conversation he was having on his black rotary phone; the same one that sat in his office at the PK all those years ago.
-- "Egg Bath Given Participant in Clash at Perry." Rochester Democrat & Chronicle 5 April 1917: 9.
-- “In Case of Strikes--Everyone Loses!.” Perry Record 1 April 1937. Weblink here.
-- “Knitting Mill Strike Steadily Waning.” Perry Herald 23 June 1937: 1. Weblink here.
-- "Knitting Workers Strike." Rochester Democrat & Chronicle 3 April 1917: 15.
-- "Officers Guard Perry Rally, Strikers Reveal Demands." Rochester Democrat & Chronicle 14 June 1937: 6.
-- “Ray Traber Retires After 40 Years at Knitting Co.” Perry Herald 9 Oct. 1958: 1. Weblink here.
--"Whither Perry?" Perry Herald 24 Jan. 1963: B2. Weblink here.