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Meg Jacobs, a professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, noted that Filene, like Henry Ford, believed workers needed to have living wages in order for them to be consumers. But the similarities end there, primarily because as a retailer Filene was intimately involved with his customers on a daily basis while industrialists like Ford were isolated from the actual marketplace.
“This whole idea with the bargain basement really sort of spoke to the surroundings he came from,” Jacobs said of Filene. “He saw the need right there before him and had a perception of who his customers were.”
In addition, Jacobs said, though Ford paid his workers living wages, he believed they should rely on a thrifty, austere and almost Victorian lifestyle. Filene didn’t see it that way. He believed that the immigrant who shopped at his store deserved to enjoy the material comforts one could find in America but not back in Europe.
“Pariah might be too strong a word, but [he was] definitely a maverick, particularly as politics evolved and changed,” Jacobs said of Filene. “It put him beyond the bounds of where most businessmen were.”
While the company is liquidating, Filene’s ideas do live on in the Century Foundation. Founded by Filene in 1919 as the 21st Century Fund, it was a think tank that, as Jacobs explained “lent academic credibility and legitimacy to the National Labor Relations Act and also to Social Security,” along with other aspects of the New Deal.
Like other bargain retailers, Filene’s was forced out by a crowded market, with Wal-Mart and Target the ruling kings. But the mission of these stores does not include raising communities up the class ladder. Wal-Mart’s business today remains a target for anger from unions and women’s rights activists, who claim that the company practices workplace gender discrimination.
“Stuff is cheap at Wal-Mart and Target, but the other side of the equation is to have higher wages and a voice for the working class,” Lichtenstein said. “That is not what Wal-Mart or Target or Home Depot [are] interested in, the way Filene was.”
Contact Ari Paul at email@example.com