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Welcoming Our New Robot Overlords

Posted October 24, 2017

Under Economic Issues, International Trade Issues

(Sheelah Kolhatkar – The New Yorker)

When David Stinson finished high school, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1977, the first thing he did was get a job building houses. After a few years, though, the business slowed. Stinson was then twenty-four, with two children to support. He needed something stable. As he explained over lunch recently, that meant finding a job at one of the two companies in the area that offered secure, blue-collar work. “Either I’ll be working at General Motors or I’ll be working at Steelcase by the end of the year,” he vowed in 1984. A few months later, he got a job at Steelcase, the world’s largest manufacturer of office furniture, and he’s been working at its Grand Rapids metal plant ever since. [...]

In the nineties, Steelcase employed more than ten thousand workers in the United States and operated seven factories around Grand Rapids, making chairs, filing cabinets, desks, and tables, and the screws, bolts, and casters that went into them. Packed shoulder to shoulder, workers polished and painted wood and assembled steel parts by hand. Today, there are only two Steelcase plants in Michigan—the metal factory, which makes desks and filing cabinets, and a nearby “wood plant,” which produces wood furniture. In total, they employ fewer than two thousand workers. The company’s only other U.S. plant, in Athens, Alabama, employs a thousand full-time workers.

The history of Steelcase, in many ways, is the history of manufacturing in America. The company was founded in 1912 with one product, a fireproof metal wastebasket. As the economy boomed in the following decades, America’s burgeoning corporations needed to furnish their offices with desks and shelving and cubicle walls. Click here to read more.