Working at Kodak then and Apple now

Corporate headquarters of Apple Computer and Eastman Kodak

Neil Irwin of the New York Times wrote a good article about Eastman Kodak, Apple Computer and how the economy has changed for working people.

Gail Evans and Marta Ramos have one thing in common: They have each cleaned offices for one of the most innovative, profitable and all-around successful companies in the United States.

For Ms. Evans, that meant being a janitor in Building 326 at Eastman Kodak’s campus in Rochester in the early 1980s.  For Ms. Ramos, that means cleaning at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., in the present day.  [snip]

The $16.60 per hour Ms. Ramos earns as a janitor at Apple works out to about the same in inflation-adjusted terms as what Ms. Evans earned 35 years ago. But that’s where the similarities end.

Ms. Evans was a full-time employee of Kodak. She received more than four weeks of paid vacation per year, reimbursement of some tuition costs to go to college part time, and a bonus payment every March. When the facility she cleaned was shut down, the company found another job for her: cutting film.

Ms. Ramos is an employee of a contractor that Apple uses to keep its facilities clean.  She hasn’t taken a vacation in years, because she can’t afford the lost wages.  Going back to school is similarly out of reach.  There are certainly no bonuses, nor even a remote possibility of being transferred to some other role at Apple.

Marta Ramos and Gail Evans

Yet the biggest difference between their two experiences is in the opportunities they created. A manager learned that Ms. Evans was taking computer classes while she was working as a janitor and asked her to teach some other employees how to use spreadsheet software to track inventory. When she eventually finished her college degree in 1987, she was promoted to a professional-track job in information technology.

Less than a decade later, Ms. Evans was chief technology officer of the whole company, and she has had a long career since as a senior executive at other top companies.

Ms. Ramos sees the only advancement possibility as becoming a team leader keeping tabs on a few other janitors, which pays an extra 50 cents an hour.

Eastman Kodak Co. in its heyday was just as dominant as Apple Computer today.   It made its founders rich, and employed highly educated, highly paid scientists and engineers.

Unlike Apple, it also paid two generations of wage-earners enough to support a middle-class life.   Kodak employees were not unionized.   Kodak provided them with enough security and benefits to win their loyalty.   The company was paternalistic, in both the good and bad senses of that word.

The story of Gail Evans is highly unusual, but employees who started in a low-level job weren’t necessarily stuck there for the rest of their careers.

Kodak, for most of its history, chose to do most of its work in-house, while Apple follows the current business philosophy of concentrating on its “core competency,” while outsourcing the rest.   But as Irwin pointed out, there is no law of nature that says contract employees cannot enjoy good wages and permanent employment.

The problem is that, in 1987, Kodak had begun the long decline that led to Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings in 2002-2003 and left the company a shadow of its former self.

I am not so bold as to predict that Apple Computer is on the same path, but it has some serious problems that will not be solved by underpaying its work force.


To Understand Rising Inequality, Consider the Janitors at Two Top Companies, Then and Now, by Neil Irwin for The New York Times.

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