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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Disposable American’ Chronicles Loss of Job Security and How It Affects Workers and Their Families

Posted by kinchendavid on July 17, 2006

Reviewed By David M. Kinchen
  
Hinton, WV  – I can already hear the nay sayers belittling “The Disposable American” (Knopf, 304 pages. $25.95) by New York Times reporter Louis Uchitelle. They’re saying things like “sure the loss of a job after decades of devotion to it is traumatic, but that’s the price you have to pay for globalization.” Or “sure there are jobs lost, but look at all the ones being created…yes, it might be difficult for a 46-year-old banker to get hired when a 22-year-old newly minted college graduate is the hire of choice, but….” And so on, and so on, and so on.
 
I’m granting Uchitelle’s critics this much: It’s probably past the point of no return when it comes to worrying about the nation’s most productive people losing their jobs while recently retired Exxon chairman Lee Raymond is living large on his $400 million retirement package and “Neutron Jack” Welch, formerly of General Electric, is running around telling all and sundry how great things are in the U.S. job market. We’re even treated to Suzy Welch, Jack’s wife, weighing in on the Kaavya Viswanathan alleged plagiarism case, involving a well-off 19-year-old Harvard student “borrowing” from another author for her “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life” chick lit book.
 
With their outrageous retirement packages, Raymond, Welch and their compadres don’t have to wash windows or work in public school maintenance, as some of the people interviewed by Uchitelle were forced to do after losing their high-paying aircraft maintenance jobs in Indianapolis. As an occasional airline passenger, I want highly paid, skilled workers and inspectors maintaining and inspecting the planes I use – not the lowest cost provider.
 
Maybe we need some typically sanguine economists and psychologists suffering layoffs – Uchitelle is particularly hard on the mental health profession in the latter part of his book for not looking at downsizing and premature job loss as a trigger for mental problems. He posits that the major professional associations for mental health workers are loathe to add downsizing and layoffs to other causes of mental breakdowns, for fear of losing lucrative work with employers criticized for their layoffs.
 
Once you get past Lincoln Electric Co. of Cleveland, OH and Harley-Davidson of Milwaukee, WI, it’s difficult to find other companies with a no-layoff policy. While both the maker of welding equipment and the producer of iconic motorcycles are financially successful, even longtime anti-layoff companies like IBM and Procter and Gamble began major job-elimination surgery in the first years of the Clinton Administration.
 
If you believe it’s possible to have compassionate employers – largely an oxymoron these days – Uchitelle’s case for a return to the good old days is made with style and grace – along with some repetition. He obviously doesn’t want the restrictive European anti-layoff job rules that have stifled the economies of that continent, but he doesn’t want a return to the robber baron days when workers were considered disposable.
 
He deals with a wide variety of occupations that have yielded a middle-class or upper middle-class life for the men and women interviewed – and their families. The jobs lost at the Indianapolis maintenance facility of United Airlines or the Stanley Works in New Britain, CT provided enough income for the workers to live comfortably, if not lavishly. Thanks to a series of ruthless CEOs at Stanley – most recently John M. Trani, who took over in 1997 fresh from his service under Welch at GE – most of the manufacturing work has gone to Asia and other low-cost producers. For decades, Stanley was New Britain and vice versa.
 
Trani was briefly in the news more than four years ago when he tried to move Stanley’s headquarters to Bermuda to save a few bucks on taxes. OK, I’m kidding, the move would save more than a few bucks: Stanley, which later rescinded the move proposal, estimated in 2002 that moving to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean would cut its tax bill by $30 million a year, to about $80 million.
 
Uchitelle notes that the U.S. reached its manufacturing jobs peak in 1979 with 19.4 million workers. It had dropped to 14.3 million in 2005 – and many of those jobs lacked the higher pay and benefits of union contracts. Jobs that didn’t go overseas moved to the south and southeast, where Japanese, Korean and European manufacturers turned out Nissans, Hondas, Toyotas, Hyundais, BMWs and Mercedes – for much lower wages than traditional auto worker states like Michigan, Ohio and Indiana.
 
Uchitelle reserves much of his focus on individuals with jobs like the $160,000 a year editorial position held by a lawyer at a legal publishing firm in New York. Robert Halajian, 53, worked his own layoff, seeing the handwriting on the wall when Matthew Bender was sold by Times Mirror to the Anglo-Dutch publishing firm of Reed Elsevier. He knew his job was going to be phased out and devoted his leisure time to fly fishing. You’ll have to read the book to find out if this Izaak Walton of Westchester County is still casting for trout.
 
Another highly paid executive profiled by Uchitelle is Virginia Gibbs, who was a six-figure human resources executive at Citibank. She specialized in finding jobs for her bank’s employees who were made redundant – a British term that I find appropriate – by outsourcing or relocation to cheaper parts of the nation. When Citibank was acquired by Travelers Group in 1999, Gibbs, then 56, held on for a few years, watching all her staff disappear, before taking a take-it-or-leave-it early retirement package.
 
Baby boomers – those born between 1946 and 1964 – and my own pre-Boomer generation are the most affected by layoffs – and Uchitelle emphasizes the psychic shock of being made redundant in his subtitle: “Layoffs and Their Consquences.” He insists on using the word “layoff” even while some of his interviewees claim they’re taking “early retirement.” He even mentions an organization of Harvard graduates who’ve been laid off or downsized, showing that even the products of the most prestigious university in the nation aren’t immune to the workings of the “Neutron Jacks” and “Chainsaw Al” Albert Dunlaps (former CEO of Sunbeam, infamous for his drastic hacking down of careers) of the corporate world.
 
Those looking for government help in the form of retraining and skills programs are headed down a dead-end alley, Uchitelle argues. Decent paying jobs have departed in both Democratic and Republican administrations. In fact, NAFTA, Bill Clinton’s pet trade agreement, has resulted in the loss of 450,000 good-paying manufacturing jobs, the author points out. Uchitelle was the lead New York Times reporter for the 1996 series “The Downsizing of America,” which won a George Polk Award.
 
The man I voted for in 1992, Ross Perot, predicted a “great sucking sound” if NAFTA passed – and he was right on the money. Those seeking evidence of disappearing jobs in West Virginia should just look around. Even call centers like Applied Card Systems have departed from Beckley and most recently Huntington, where 400 workers were disposed of in a market that has few employment opportunities.
 
Those who take a Pollyanna view of life and those who believe in conventional wisdom of Keynesian economics will take a very dim view of Uchitelle’s book, but I believe it paints an accurate picture of the situation. Having been laid off and downsized myself, I can attest to the mental anguish and grief it causes – not to mention the financial strain of leaving a job paying an adequate salary for ones just above minimum wages – or below.
 
Yes, I know there are no guarantees in life – in the words of one of my former employers — “We’re all temporary employees at the ….” But there is such a concept as a social contract and employers can hardly expect loyalty if they don’t reward it with job security. Uchitelle’s book raises many of these issues and offers a number of solutions that – if I were a cockeyed optimist (I’m not) – would result in a better, more compassionate workforce.
 
Publisher’s web site: http://www.aaknopf.com

(Originally published May 21, 2006)

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