ORONO — In April 2009, WestPoint Home of Biddeford (originally the Pepperell Manufacturing Co.) announced that it would close its doors, ending 159 years of textile manufacturing. In the same month and year, the Lewiston City Council initiated action to demolish the massive Bates Mill No. 5, the last component of the original textile giant, the Bates Mill manufacturing complex (also dating from 1850).

The dovetailing of these events dramatically symbolized the long shadow of the deindustrialization process, which claimed textiles as its first victim.

When the massive textile mills took root in Maine and altered the skyline of the communities in which they were anchored, they were heralded as cathedrals of prosperity and progress and provided the means of livelihood for workers far and near.

Labor reformers, however, viewed them as “tombs for the living,” “living hells” and “prison factories,” and the workers who paraded through the mill gates as “living machines.” Organized labor engaged in a long campaign to create a shield of protection around the “white slave workers.”

Paramount to labor and a mosaic of middle-class reformers, who could hardly be described as members of the revolutionary vanguard, was the liberation of the “tiny hostages to rapacious capitalism” and “the steel jaws of the modern industrial machine.”

Between 1947 and 1972, Maine lost 16,128 textile production jobs. Textile manufacturing, which was the first and most important industry in the state in 1950, soon gave birth to a graveyard of Maine’s textile titans.

The Goodall Mills of Sanford closed in 1954. Bates closed its Androscoggin mill in Lewiston and its York Mill in Saco in 1957. The Continental Mills in Lewiston closed in 1961. In 1958, the Saco-Lowell Shops of Biddeford and Saco (manufacturers of textile machinery) moved to a new plant in South Carolina.

The impact of such closings on the local communities can be gleaned by the fact that the closing of the York Mill and Saco-Lowell Shops meant a loss of 4,000 jobs in the twin cities, while the shutdown of Goodall meant a loss of about 4,000 additional jobs.

It was not surprising that in 1959, the Biddeford, Saco and Sanford area was reported to have the highest rate of unemployment in the nation (23.1 percent), or that individuals and their communities witnessed the pain, hardship and disruptions triggered by the “creative destruction” of capitalism. Re-training and community “revitalization” had entered the lexicon.

In 1951, the economic jewel of the industry, the Bates complex of mills, alone employed 6,751 production workers, a number that was pitifully reduced to 55 by 1992.

The industry lost its “magic” as it was caught in the grip of disparate forces ranging from the rise of synthetic materials (by 1959, the chemical industry had produced 26 different types of synthetic fibers), labor difficulties, government trade policies and regional and global competition. On the eve of the 21st century, the industry could count only 4,000 on its roster.

With variations, the erosion and demise of Maine’s textile manufacturing base served as a template for the decline of the shoe and paper industries.

What used to be blue-collar phenomena – the exportation of jobs, unemployment and economic insecurity – has now reached a great swath of the white-collar spectrum of workers who have discovered that advancing technologies and their application to the work process can readily make obsolete whatever knowledge and skills they might possess.

Witness in today’s “new economy” and global marketplace how architectural work, computer programming, financial analysis, legal services, graphic design, radiology, microbiology, copy editing and design work for newspapers, R&D, etc., are exported. If what one does can be digitized and exported electronically, one has reason to experience the new world of job insecurity.

Today’s new casualties increasingly arise from a phylum of workers who historically and culturally thought themselves insulated from the economic hazards faced by blue-collar workers. Sophisticated credentials and union membership are no longer quite the prescriptions that provided the antidotes for job insecurity that they once were.

Job security, income, wealth and power disparities, the survival of the middle class and the purity of the democratic process itself all have fermented to the top of the pyramid as issues of concern.

It is a time of the unraveling of safety nets, calls for “flexibility” and worker concessions (a monotonous refrain heard by workers), and global corporations and “global hiring halls” that have an impact on all, raising questions about the obligations of economic globe trotters to the workers, communities and nation that nurtured them. Perhaps it is time to reconnect Labor Day to its “spiritual” roots.

— Special to the Press Herald