Off the Layoffs
Knopf, 226 pages, $25.95
impossibly bad hair, sprawling lapels, and risk-taking Hollywood
films, mass layoffs never quite died with so many late-1970s
hallmarks. In fact, the phenomenon of large corporations radically
shrinking their rosters while simultaneously being rewarded
by surging stock prices is greeted much the same way as a
plane crash in Namibia.
As South Park’s Eric Cartman might say with a shrug,
“Yeah . . . kinda sucks.”
To Louis Uchitelle, it more than “kinda sucks.” The veteran
business reporter for The New York Times has written
a quiet, thoughtful screed against the layoff phenomenon.
The Disposable American is at once a narrative history
of American layoffs, with profiles of workers bearing the
brunt of the trend, and a broader polemic against job cuts
and the politics that offer them no resistance.
Uchitelle smacks down many of the big myths about layoffs:
that companies who engage in them will always come out stronger
for trimming the fat; that they’re as inevitable as the weather;
that bipartisan prescriptions for “retraining” the downsized
are even relevant.
Uchitelle also makes much of the psychological damage of layoffs—especially,
but not exclusively, for male breadwinners who took home not
just a paycheck, but an entire identity from their work.
Much of this book brims with a nostalgia for economies of
yore. Uchitelle is most sentimental for the 1950s and 1960s,
a period when median incomes increased faster than in the
previous 50 years. Who can blame him?
Perhaps more interesting than the shift in employer-employee
relations is the change in political consequence. Layoffs
were once a stain on a company’s public image, Uchitelle argues,
evidencing, among other examples, the case of a New Hampshire
textile plant that threatened to close in the late 1940s.
The announcement that 3,000-plus jobs would be eliminated
triggered hearings in the U.S. Senate. The company quickly
reversed its decision. Nowadays, GM says it’s phasing out
thousands of high-paying jobs and IBM retards its pension
plan for new workers, and there’s barely a sustained squawk
from the chattering class.
While the old Clintonista refrain went “It’s the economy,
stupid,” Uchitelle’s might be “It’s the jobs, stupid.” Actually,
he’s a bit more judicious than that, but his numbers add up
to a very different scenario than those championing globalization
as the ship to lift all boats. From the spring of 2003 to
the spring of 2004, Uchitelle notes, 55 percent of the hiring
was at wages capping out at $13.25 an hour, which is roughly
the poverty line income for a family of four. According to
the Labor Department, 70 percent of the fastest-growing jobs
are expected to be in this earning bracket between now and
There’s many a beef to be picked with The Disposable American.
For starters, the economy has been in the global-restructuring
phase for so long that arguing against layoffs often feels
a bit like going point-counterpoint on hurricanes. The container
ship has sailed, folks. Uchitelle’s idea that unions should
be given a shot at coming up with counterproposals for keeping
manufacturing plants in the U.S. is interesting, if a lot
Our author has a faith in organized labor that doesn’t jive
with recent history. The notion that unions might step in
on this fight seems tired if only for the fact that they haven’t
been effective in stifling the “great sucking sound” for the
better part of the last three decades. Why is this suddenly
viable now, especially since labor is considerably less powerful
now than it was 30 years ago?
The end result of this narrative probably won’t be a return
to cushy, career jobs known to previous generations. However,
if workers have to be more flexible, and if cradle-to-grave
job security is no longer “realistic,” then clearly that big,
bad entity of government must step in and function: for health
insurance, wage insurance for those displaced by globalization,
and other (yikes!) social programs.
With employer-paid health insurance showing no sign of getting
more affordable, and gas prices pinching the pockets of the
working poor, there seems to be no other prescription. Just
ask Massachusetts Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, who recently
passed legislation mandating health insurance for all workers.
He understands the problem, and it might even make him president.