September 22, 2006

Journalist Discovers Layoffs Cause Victims to Feel Guilty

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Employment conditions for millions of Americans working in corporations are as unstable as they were in the 1920’s, and are getting worse, according to Larry Uchitelle, who lectured in support of his new book The Disposable American — Layoffs and Their Consequences. As a long-time business writer for the New York Times, Uchitelle received the prestigious Polk Award for his work in “The Downsizing of America” series in 1996.
Both the size and importance of layoffs in corporate America have changed how we perceive layoffs as a strategy for management, and have caused psychological damage to millions, according to Uchitelle. While researching for his book, Uchitelle drew upon interviews and meetings with dozens of highly-skilled blue-collar as well as white-collar employees, all laid off during the corporate re-structuring campaigns of the 1990’s. Following the subjects in some cases for years, Uchitelle has developed a strong thesis about the role that corporate layoffs have produced.
According to Uchitelle, his most surprising, and troubling finding, is that “people laid off blame themselves,” even though the company’s actions are always beyond their control.
The way government and society has reacted to large-scale layoffs has also enforced that guilt, said Uchitelle.
“Reagan and Clinton pushed the idea,” he said, “that if you don’t make it, it’s your fault.” The government response, instead of encouraging investments in infrastructure and institutional changes to help create better jobs, has only called for job training programs.
While describing the experience of a former United Airlines mechanic laid off from a highly skilled job in a maintenance center, Uchitelle describes the response from local and federal government.
“The programs dealing with layoffs are to re-train you,” Uchitelle said. “And what do they re-train you for? Jobs like driving trucks, or repairing air-conditioners. These are not great or wonderful high skilled, high paying jobs.”
The fundamental damage to Americans, besides the loss of jobs, Uchitelle said, was the psychological damage that, in some cases, changed behavior.
“Not everyone has the same experience. Job security was an important part of our industrial success starting in the late 1800’s,” he said. “Now we tell people that they don’t have value, that people who attach themselves to a company or skill suddenly are told they don’t matter.”
For Uchitelle, the question of what to do about the eroding role of job security in the American work force requires a complex response. One step, he said, is to make sure the government actually measures the statistics regarding layoffs.
“If you measure layoffs accurately, “ he said, “in my opinion … you will come up with a number around 7 percent a year, and that’s significant.” He pointed out that a more fundamental question to ask is whether the private sector can employ everyone who wants a job. Uchitelle’s response is that the answer is clearly “No.” He added that governments should step in and instead of merely investing in job training programs; that they should invest in public infrastructure to create more, and better, jobs for the future.
Finally, Uchitelle urged the crowd to “push back because job security is an essential element to a successful economy.”
One audience member, an employee in the New York Department of Labor, in the crowd spoke about his concern over giving tax breaks to companies that occupy formally vacant industrial sites and than watching as those same companies leave when the incentives run out. “We need more moral outrage,” he said “especially from our unions and spiritual leaders.”
Prof. Rebecca Givan, collective bargaining, said Uchitelle’s speech was “an important insight in to the trauma of layoffs in a time when corporate layoffs are rampant.”
Similarly, Alana Buckner ’08, commented that Uchitelle “presented a picture that America needs to be more emphatic that layoffs are harsh and in reality we don’t have to [always] use them.”