The rise of General Dynamics in Pittsfield came in the wake of General Electric’s decline.
Throughout Pittsfield’s history, the decisions of such large corporations have had pronounced consequences for the economic security and health — General Electric’s pollution of the Housatonic River remains a contentious issue — of the city’s workers.
General Electric came to Pittsfield in 1903, when it purchased Stanley Electric Manufacturing. By World War II, GE had established itself as the city’s largest employer, employing as many as 13,645 Pittsfield workers — that included about 3,000 at its defense plant — on its 250-acre campus.
Workers won economic benefits, in part, through clashes with bosses. The first recorded strike came in 1916, and in 1946, a 62-day strike won workers a raise of 18.5 cents per hour.
Pittsfield’s population grew with the rise of GE and fell with its decline. The approximately 22,000 residents in 1900 swelled to more than 50,000 by 1950 and peaked at 57,879 in 1960. For comparison, the 2020 census recorded 43,927 residents in Pittsfield.
Employment started to wane after the war, and a wave of layoffs from 1956-57 claimed more than 1,200 jobs. Major layoffs at GE came during a nationwide manufacturing decline in the 1980s and early 1990s, and the 1986 closure of its transformer plant shrunk the Pittsfield workforce from 7,000 to 3,600 over a five-year period.
GE sold its aerospace division to defense giant Martin Marietta in 1993, leaving only 530 employees in Pittsfield at GE Plastics. The sale brought uncertainty over the futures of the 2,650 who had worked for GE Aerospace, but Martin Marietta chose to keep 1,900 employees in Pittsfield.
The 1990s ownership changes and fluctuations in employment reflected broader turbulence in the defense industry during the post-Cold War years.
“Yesterday’s expressions of relief that Martin Marietta will remain in Pittsfield were tempered by the sober realization that defense continues to be a highly competitive business with shrinking appropriations,” The Eagle wrote on Oct. 1, 1993.
Martin Marietta was the city’s largest employer when it merged with Lockheed in 1994 to form Lockheed Martin, becoming the nation’s largest defense contractor.
The 1,850 workers at the time of the merger fell to about 1,650 — that was a result of lost contracts and the industry’s shift from arms production to research and development — by the time General Dynamics acquired Lockheed Martin’s Pittsfield operations in 1997.
Then-Mayor Edward M. Reilly’s “one great concern” in 1997, he told The Eagle that year, was “the future of General Dynamics.”
“We want to make sure we meet with them and tell them that we have worked with Lockheed Martin and will work with [General Dynamics] to do everything we can to assure that they will be successful in Pittsfield,” he told an Eagle reporter.
But, that September, General Dynamics announced plans to slash 650 jobs, shifting its land combat and artillery work to other facilities. When completed, the layoffs left about 1,000 workers — that was slightly more than anticipated when the cuts first were announced — who focused on software development and electronic systems.
Union leaders, left feeling “betrayed,” said the more than 200 union jobs that were lost paid $30,000 to $40,000 per year, the equivalent of about $60,000 to $68,000 in 2021. The membership of Local 255 of the International Union of Electrical Radio and Machine Workers dropped from 249 to below 50 when the layoffs were completed. Owners of surrounding restaurants even feared for hits to their business.
“It will be a ghost town,” Local 255 Business Agent Dick Williams told The Eagle. “General Dynamics was the jewel of Pittsfield.”
Gerry Doyle, then president of the City Council, also blasted the cuts, claiming that the company “lacks a social conscience.”
“This wholesale displacement of 650 working people and their families is absolutely immoral,” he said.
Doyle struck a different tone in 1998, when he was mayor and General Dynamics announced plans to hire 75 engineers in Pittsfield.
“This is the first time I can remember a major employer inviting the community to bring talented people back to the Berkshires,” he said.
The company since has grown into the county’s largest for-profit employer — it is the second-largest employer, behind Berkshire Health Systems, a nonprofit. Changes in U.S. foreign policy after the Sept. 11 attacks have brought growth for the company and other defense contractors focusing on high-tech equipment.
General Dynamics has expanded its Pittsfield workforce in all but one year it has spent in the city, according to Carlo Zaffanella, General Dynamics’ vice president and general manager of maritime and strategic systems. While business leaders of late have identified a “skills gap” — that is, when open jobs do not match the skills of those looking for work — locals with the desired education and skills backgrounds have found a home at General Dynamics.
About 80 percent of the 1,800 workers in Pittsfield come from within a two-hour drive of the city, Zaffanella said in March 2020.