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Kodak: The End of an American Moment

The health imaging segment faced major pressures in 1983 as other medical processes appeared, including CAT scans and MRIs, among others, that had been done by x-rays, but were being substituted with electronic imaging.

Matteson was running Kodak's Elmgrove plant at the time and recalls the company reduced employment in 1983 to about 17,000 from 23,000. The cuts were actually even deeper than Matteson remembers: According to a Associated Press article published the following year, 1984, the Rochester workforce had been cut by 7,000 employees, or 11.6%.

Sweeping layoffs were unheard of at Kodak. When asked if they could remember the first serious round of cuts, former Kodak Park employees and others interviewed for this story repeatedly mentioned 1983.

Recalling the layoffs are Phil Argento, 76, and Jack Borrille, 77, who sit at a corner booth at the back of a diner located 10 minutes west of Eastman Business Park, where the two used to work when it was called Kodak Park. A blue ball cap with a white-colored capital "K" stitched on the front covers Argento's jet-black hair. Argento says he had this replica cap made for the interview because he wore out the original one. Thick black plastic-rimmed glasses rest on his weathered face.

"Morale began going down," Argento says in a deep western New York accent. "It was not good."

When Kodak started to let go employees in 1983, the company called in Argento and others to offer them severance packages. Argento says he had the option to remain, but the woman offering his severance warned the deal may not be as sweet the next year.

"I think we were misled a little bit," Borrille says in a muffled tone, brown ball cap resting atop his long face.

Kodak continued to offer severances to employees well after the 1983 cuts. (Some employees who were asked to leave in 2011 before the bankruptcy were offered a year's salary and a bonus.)

You'd get hired and they'd take care of you, says Shanebrook, who because of his years working in Kodak's photographic film division, met many famous shutterbugs, including Ansel Adams who he used to visit at the photographer's cabin in Yosemite.

Kodak's custom of having offered all employees -- from the executive board to the janitors -- the most competitive salaries, benefits and bonuses dated back to its founder, George Eastman, who was known for taking care of his workers. Eastman saw it as necessary to keep the best talent in Rochester, and to keep talent from leaving and directly competing against his business. (He famously offered more than $1 million to the Rochester Dental Society in 1915 to endow a Free Dental Institution and construct a building for free dental care to anyone who couldn't afford it.)

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