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April 5-11, 2006

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Book Box

'The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences'

The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences
REVIEW (By Louis Uchitelle; Knopf; 283 pages; $25.95 cloth)
—Michael S. Gant

In a bland March 28 announcement, GM informed anyone who cared that it was cutting some salaried jobs. The employees were being sent home immediately, but the release added, as solace, that placement assistance would be provided,because, "Our aim is to treat the employees being separated with dignity and respect." Associated Press and New York Times reporter Louis Uchitelle, in his important new jeremiad The Disposable American, traces the dismal course by which layoffs, once thought to be exceptions to the workplace norm, have become commonplace—at great cost to individuals and to the nation. Over the last 20 years, Uchitelle notes, "At least 30 million full-time workers ... had been permanently separated from their jobs and their paychecks against their wishes." In today's boot-strap economy, everyone, from CEOs to impotent union leaders, accepts the notion that workers only need some extra schooling to move on to even better jobs in a dynamic economy. In other words, the "laid-off must save themselves." Drawing on the painful experiences of airline mechanics and other downsized skilled workers, Uchitelle shows that training programs are minimal and that laid-off employees generally end up working at lower-paid jobs. He also revives interest in the so-called second New Deal, which arose after World War II. Republican Thomas E. Dewey even signed on, with what sounds like radical rhetoric by today's standards: "If at any time there are not sufficient jobs in private employment to go around, then government can and must create additional job opportunities because there must be jobs for all in this country of ours." The Employment Act of 1946, however, did not require the government to be the employer of the last resort, and the postwar boom put the problem on the back burner. The debate resurfaced with the Humphrey-Hawkins Act of 1978, which again posited, but finally rejected, the idea of government employment for the laid-off. A few years later, Reagan busted the air-traffic controllers' union, and layoffs became just another management tool. Uchitelle's analysis is trenchant, but his solution just indicates the depth of the problem. "Layoffs won't decline," he writes, "until workers—and whole communities—regain bargaining power." One tactic might be "persuading state legislatures to act." That has about as much chance of succeeding as nationwide strikes by the youngest and most vulnerable employees—hey, maybe we can learn something from the French after all.

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