George F. Johnson and the Square Deal

Please keep your ears open on Wednesday, December 1, for a  story on NPR’s All Things Considered called “The Legacy of George F. Johnson and the Square Deal.” The 13-minute piece was produced by Joe Richman and Samara Freemark of Radio Diaries and Homelands’ Jonathan Miller.

George F. Johnson (1857-1948) was president and owner of the Endicott-Johnson Corporation, once the largest shoe manufacturer in the United States. The company employed as many as 24,000 people in upstate New York’s “Triple Cities” of Binghamton, Endicott and Johnson City, and supplied much of the footwear for American soldiers during both world wars.

Johnson was a leading practitioner of what came to be known as “welfare capitalism,” in which corporations provide a wide range of benefits to workers and their families (job security, low-cost housing, subsidized health care, recreation, etc.) in exchange for loyalty and labor peace. A former factory worker and socialist who bought the company with a loan from his boss, Johnson told his workers that they didn’t need unions. What he offered instead was a “square deal.” The work would be hard, but profits were shared, management jobs were filled from within, and the president’s door was always open for those with suggestions or complaints.

Some workers bristled at this arrangement, but most did not, and unions never flourished. Townsfolk loved the company-sponsored parks, carousels, sports leagues and picnics. When George F. Johnson died in 1948, tens of thousands of people came to pay their respects in one of the biggest funerals in US history. But today the company is gone and Johnson is all but forgotten outside the Triple Cities.

“The Legacy of George F. Johnson and the Square Deal” airs at the 35-minute mark of All Things Considered’s first hour (the actual time will depend on your local station’s schedule) and will be available online after that on the NPR and Radio Diaries websites.