If the Economy's Good, Why Are Workers So Anxious?

by Marc Oliver

Industrialized nations adopted NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) because they thought their economies would benefit more than suffer from it.

Each agreeing nation performed a "Yelp v. Help" analysis - perhaps with flawed or incomplete data - and then they looked their citizens in the eye and declared, "We're for Free Trade!" President Clinton and most of our Congress said this.

Knowing, then, what was to come from trade deregulation and knowing also that other de-regulation was to come for telecommunications and for gas and electric utilities, the largest of America's corporations began planning their restructuring to be more competitive at the World Class level. They did not know they needed to, but they began implementing their plans anyway.

Restructuring involves focusing on core products to increase competitiveness and decreasing material and labor and other overhead to make production costs most competitive. In developed higher-wage countries like the U.S., automation and computerization are applied with zeal to cut labor costs. Through this savings brought about by technologies, it is said, our more productive reduced labor force, though better paid, can compete with third-world cheap labor.

One argument for this restructuring is that average wages (for those who still have jobs) would plummet even more without it.

But isn't it obvious the same automation and computerization used by developed countries is available to the third-World as well? There are no technology secrets or prohibitions. The combination of automation and computerization using cheap labor will be unbeatable, but no one admits to this.

American workers aren't dumb, however. They can smell the stink of what's coming. Call this worker anxiety.

Robert Reich, our Secretary of Labor, sympathizes with the plight of laid-off workers, but his reasoning behind the causes for it is flawed. He says American workers aren't "trained for the future." They need to be "retrained," he claims, if they want to have good jobs.

Does Mr. Reich know how to do Windows? Corporations synonymous with technology are the very ones laying off the most people. Here are just a few:

The layoff trend can be found in such Baltimore Metro companies as Westinghouse Defense Electronics, Bell Atlantic Telecommunications, and BGE's Gas & Electric Empire (which alone accounts for about 1,500 layoffs and forced early retirements so far, and more to come with the Pepco merger).

In the face of the reality that 4.5 million American workers have been laid off in the past few years, with most layoffs occurring since Clinton took office, Secretary of Labor Reich continues spewing his flawed "retraining" logic to every audience. Rather, he should move beyond the myth.

The dirty little truth, Mr. Reich, is that the most revered technology corporations are laying off tens of thousands of middle-aged middle-managers. These people are aging baby boomers who have already learned and changed over and over as technology has evolved, and they would have done it again had their companies asked them to do so. But they were also relatively highly paid, and their health benefits were going to be skyrocketing, and their pensions were looming on the horizon. They were therefore let go, saving their employers the most dollars per layoff.

Do you need some IBM systems engineers, Mr. Reich? They'll do MFT, VM, MVS, DOS, OS/2, Unix, etc. They're readily available, sustaining quick printers with their orders for copies of their impressive resumés. which they've been sending to hundreds of companies-to little avail.

Though your boss Mr. Clinton is considered a "young" President, some of the most able people in America are finding they are "too old" before they're 50. Thousands of these people could do your job, Mr. Reich, plus they undoubtedly know more about technology and "retraining" than you do.

Have you been to McDonald's lately, Mr. Reich? There are some older, very intelligent-looking people flipping burgers there. And for every family devastated by layoffs and long-term un(der)-employment, there is less money spent in the economy.

Because there's less of their money in the economy, more small businesses (especially retailers) can be expected to fail.

Here's a question for you, Mr. Labor Secretary: when a small business is losing money, at what point is its owner counted as unemployed? And if an engineer is unemployed for years, but is not now filing for or collecting unemployment, is he counted as unemployed? Let me help you here, Mr. Reich: these people are not included in your Department's unemployment figures. Does the government count these people as "retired," or what?

What are the real unemployment numbers, Mr. Reich? Where are the advocates for American workers, Mr. Reich? Why aren't you counseling corporations to inventively utilize "extra" employees, rather than lay them off? How about an incentive program to encourage retaining such employees? Or do you secretly believe it's impossible for our corporations to expand product lines or export more, Mr. Reich?

As we Americans hunker down for the duration,we should shun those corporations that award obscene salaries to executives who savage their workforces. We should divest ourselves of stock in businesses whose policies we cannot respect. And in case you are still not offended enough, here are MORE LAYOFF CHAMPS TO WATCH - and do less business with:

Further, we can vote - and not for Pat Buchanan, who talks a good game in behalf of the American worker but continues to hold stock in greed-driven companies.

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This story was published on March 7, 1996.