The ugly truth about the layoffs

When I think about the careers of many of those working in the auto industry in these parts today, I can't help but think of Louis Slotkin.

You may never have heard of him. He was an early atomic scientist who was working with two small hemisphere of deadly plutonium on a spring morning in New Mexico exactly 60 years ago. He was keeping them separated with a screwdriver — until it slipped, and they touched, setting off a deadly chain reaction. Slotkin threw himself across the experiment, to shield others in the room, then wrenched the plutonium apart.

He felt fine, except for a little nausea.

But he knew he was a dead man. The radiation in his body would destroy his cells and kill him nine days later.

These days, there are still a lot of people walking around Michigan whose automotive careers are a lot like Slotkin's body after he received the radiation. They are doomed men and women.

They are still walking around, going to work at General Motors or Delphi or Ford in Wixom. Yet the layoffs will come, and there will be no going back, and they will likely never have jobs as good again.

We've gotten very used to layoffs in a way we never were before. This is partly because we've been brainwashed by a quarter-century of right-wing ideology. Once upon a time, companies valued loyalty and continuity and sought to foster a family atmosphere.

That started to change, beginning with Ronald Reagan's permanent firing of the striking air traffic controllers in 1981, and has steadily gotten worse down through our present, "have to be globally competitive" era.

We accept it docilely now when corporations callously shed themselves of workers who toiled for them for years. Sorry about that, old bean; can't be helped, clean out your desk and try to get some retraining.

What's most appalling is that we've come to see all this as normal. Fortunately, there's a new book out there that brilliantly lays out what the real meaning, cost and consequence of these layoffs are.

The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences (Knopf, $25.95) was written not by some left-wing theorist, but by Louis Uchitelle, the sober, balanced economics reporter for The New York Times.

Last month, I interviewed him about the book, which was an eye-opener for me. I wasn't surprised by his accounts of the enormous psychological, as well as economic, toll layoffs have had.

What did startle me was the clear indication that so many of these layoffs were not necessary, and the proof that they also radically change — not for the better — the companies that do the layoffs.

When I talked to the author he told me that, sure, some layoffs are necessary, and can't be helped. But, as he says in the book, "without the easy and frequent use of layoffs, there would not have been so many wasteful mergers, or so much outsourcing of production to foreign competitors and to the overseas subsidiaries of American companies."

The culture of layoffs has also helped weaken resistance to the dismantling of company-paid health insurance and pensions.

Or, as Uchitelle says, "If we have no value as employees beyond what we can produce in a day or a week or a year of work, why preserve the trappings that go with careers?"

Why indeed? Most reviews of his book follow predictable lines; yes, the reviewers concede, he does have a point about what layoffs do to people, and yes, some companies have been callous and greedy.

Yet they still think it can't be helped; that we have to lay off all these people to stay globally competitive, whatever that means.

What it does mean is that, yes, William Clay Ford Jr. may have to lay off all sorts of people to preserve the millions he gets in compensation every year. But he seems to have forgotten something his great-grandfather knew when he started pumping out Tin Lizzies:

Unless workers make enough money to buy your cars, you aren't going to be able to sell very many of them for long.

By Louis Uchitelle's count, 30 million full-time American workers — three times the entire population of Michigan — have lost their jobs since the 1980s. Many of them, and many of us, have been sold a myth: that because of these layoffs, good things are eventually coming.

"Be patient, this myth goes. A revitalized corporate America will emerge, once again offering job security, full employment, and rising incomes. Rebirth and stability will surely follow the current destruction," Uchitelle says.

But "the promised payoff is not on the horizon. The layoffs continue unabated. If there is a new equilibrium today, it is one that ... perversely produces many more layoffs than the changing economy requires."

The Disposable American offers some sensible solutions, such as legally requiring companies to file annual reports detailing how and why each employee left the company. Uchitelle also would require people working in what purport to be American firms' call centers to say where they are calling from, e.g., India. Most of all, he would require companies to regard the people who work for them as more like partners and less like pawns.

Right now, however, I see the odds of this happening anytime soon as distinctly low. Unless things change, someday this is going to produce a society that is as potentially explosive as poor Slotkin's plutonium ball.

What happens then is anyone's guess. But as I have said before ...

Wouldn't it be ironic if the globalization greedheads of the 21st century finally — through their outrageous and irresponsible behavior — brought about some version of the revolt against predatory capitalism that the 19th century Marxists foresaw?


I'm such an old warmonger: A couple weeks ago (March 29) I said that while the current war in Iraq was criminal and doomed to failure, "some wars are terribly necessary." I was thinking, as you might imagine, of Adolf Hitler, who had to be stopped.

This brought me a raving letter from a member of the St. Clair Shores intelligentsia, who wrote, "I don't know who taught you that violence and bloodshed was acceptable for human beings, but that is false." After adding that "human beings interact in a society only for each other's mutual benefit," he added, "while you continue to hold tyrannical convictions you are my enemy. Do me a favor and go fuck yourself."

Naturally, I took him off my vice-presidential list, but was mystified by his ignorance, until I realized it was the flip side of the people I run into every day who continue to believe the lies and support this war.

Anyone who knows any history can see that we are making the same mistakes in Iraq as we did in Vietnam, or worse ... except that so few of us know any history. Once recently, I asked some swaggering "we're-gonna-win-in-Eyerak" guy why he thought it was different from Vietnam.

"What we did in Vietnam was run away before we were there long enough for our military to have a chance to win," he said.

Fancy that. If you don't know what I am talking about, drop that iPod and get to a library. Those who don't know the past may be happy morons, but they condemn us to ruining lives and nations, including our own.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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