Tube City Almanac

October 27, 2009

Death of a Thousand Cuts

Category: History || By

After a long absence from stores, you can once again buy Westinghouse light bulbs and television sets and air-conditioners and even vacuum cleaners.

They bear the famous "W" logo that Westinghouse Electric Corp. introduced almost 50 years ago, and even carry the company's well-remembered slogan, "You can be sure if it's Westinghouse."

But those products have nothing to do with the old East Pittsburgh Works or even the company that Western Pennsylvania residents thought of as "Westinghouse."

CBS Corp. owns the Westinghouse trademarks and lets other companies rent them for a fee, for use on their own products. Pittsburghers --- unless they own CBS stock --- don't see a cent.

. . .

There's also still a "Westinghouse Electric Co.," which until recently employed several thousand people in the Mon-Yough area at research facilities in Churchill and Monroeville.

When it completes its move to a new office park up in Cranberry Township, one of the last remaining links to what was once called the "Westinghouse Valley" will be broken.

That "Westinghouse Electric Co." has nothing to do with the light bulbs and appliances being sold in discount stores. Its sole business is construction and maintenance of nuclear power plants.

Since 2006, it's been a subsidiary of Japan's Toshiba Corp. Like the manufacturers of those various appliances, it also has to rent its "Westinghouse" trademarks from CBS.

. . .

The "Westinghouse Electric" nuclear business is an institution that Pittsburghers can remain proud of. About 40 percent of the world's nuclear power plants are using technology that was developed here in Western Pennsylvania.

But the consumer gadgets that also bear the "W" logo are a mixed bag. CBS isn't particularly picky about who rents the trademarks. Some of the products bearing the "Westinghouse" label are good. Some of them are garbage that do nothing to help Westinghouse's legacy.

Seeing "Westinghouse" logos stuck on chintzy plastic junk imported from China and Taiwan must grind the gears of thousands of ex-employees still living in the Mon Valley. It's uncomfortable, like watching a punch-drunk prizefighter, years past his prime, who doesn't realize that he's embarrassing himself by stumbling around the ring.

And Westinghouse Electric indeed was once one of the world's heavyweights. As recently as 1974, it was the 21st-largest corporation in the world --- bigger than Toyota, Daimler-Benz, Siemens, Du Pont and Shell Oil.

By 1974, however, Westinghouse was already committed to the path that would ultimately lead to its demise.

. . .

Rather than remaining a manufacturer of durable goods, Westinghouse's executives decided they were going to peddle services. "Soft" operations like credit, real estate and broadcasting took precedence over actually making things and selling them.

The small appliance division was sold to Westinghouse's arch-rival, General Electric, in 1972. The large appliance division --- washing machines and refrigerators --- went to White Consolidated Industries two years later.

Philips bought the light bulb division in 1982. Profit margins weren't "satisfactory," Westinghouse Chairman Robert Kirby told reporters.

. . .

The East Pittsburgh Works hadn't produced light bulbs, appliances or radios for many years, but in the 1970s, the massive facility was also being treated like a bastard stepchild by its parent corporation. Like the consumer goods, products made in East Pittsburgh were being divested to former competitors as well.

Employment at the 244-acre plant dropped from 11,000 in 1976 to 4,500 in 1984. The circuit breaker business went to Mitsubishi. AC motors went to Reliance Electric. Power company equipment, like transformers, went to ASEA Brown Boveri.

Along with them went jobs in a thousand little cuts.

. . .

At the time, the world's attention was focused on the implosion of the steel industry, and the endless trickle of jobs out of Westinghouse Electric in East Pittsburgh wasn't as dramatic as the fight to save the Dorothy Six blast furnace in Duquesne.

Yet those product lines dated back to George Westinghouse's day, and dumping the corporation's one-time core businesses amounted to selling the family jewels.

By the time the last employees were punching out of the East Pittsburgh Works in 1988, the Mon-Yough area was already reeling from the loss, one after another, of Firth-Sterling, Fort Pitt Steel Casting, Duquesne Works and National Works.

Although East Pittsburgh is just three miles from McKeesport's city limits, shell-shocked residents of the Tube City didn't have time to grieve. It was a case of "don't tell me your problems, I've got problems of my own."

Westinghouse Electric had problems, too, although it wasn't immediately apparent. Along with its manufacturing businesses, it had also divested its ability to stay on top of trends. A 1981 survey by the research firm Technimetrics ranked the corporation dead last among competitors for innovation.

. . .

Tomorrow in the Almanac: "The Final Curtain," or, "Why Many Pittsburghers Still Think Bill Cosby Should Kiss Our Doughy Behinds."

Your Comments are Welcome!

Page 18 of the Post Gazette you referenced has a picture of Dorothy Six coming down with an article
Adam - October 28, 2009

Son of a gun, you’re right!

Man, it was depressing to live here in the 1980s!

Of course, 1990 through 2010 hasn’t been a tiptoe through the roses, either …
Webmaster - October 28, 2009

This whole Westinghouse story is symptomatic of what brought us to the financial meltdown we’ve been experiencing for the past couple of years. It is always about the money, and ways to make more of it without having to “work” for it. Yes, the Masters of the Universe will tell you they work like hell, but they aren’t creating anything substantive that puts real value back into the economy. Shuffling ones and zeros around the world like a spindizzie may seem to make someone a profit, but without some underpinning, it’s really emphemeral.
ebtnut - October 29, 2009

Congrats on the excerpt of this blog that appeared in the Post-Gazette “As Others See It” section in the editorial page this morning.
Bill - October 29, 2009

Jason that you very much for this very informative series of articles. It truly is maddening to see what has happened to American manufacturing. I take no solace in the fact that I am reading your articles and typing this response on a Westinghouse computer monitor. Although I wasn’t foolish enough to think I was buying a piece of equipment made in East Pittsburgh, I guess I just had no idea that it wasn’t made by the same Westinghouse that I had grown up to love and respect.

And of course, like seemingly everything else these days, it was made in China.
Bulldog - October 29, 2009

I worked for Westinghouse Nuclear back in the 80’s. Since then, I’ve had 12 different positions at various hi-tech industrial firms. And at EVERY one of them, I ran into ex-Westinghouse engineers/technicians/writers.
While steelworkers dealt with mill closings and pension theft, Westinghouse’s divestitures sent many of their technical people to other companies with ‘modified’ benefit packages. These companies were then bought out by other companies and that retirement package got smaller and smaller. Unlike the executive’s “golden parachutes” these guys were saddled with “lead handcuffs” that made changing companies too costly.
Unfortunately, even those of us who took heed of those machinations and structured our futures outside the company-sponsored pensions (401k’s, IRA’s etc.) took a big hit last year and are still scrambling to recover.

kinda like the light at the end of the tunnel, except that with this one, the closer we get, the smaller it gets.
tim - October 29, 2009

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