Team Unemployed

In the chapter entitled “Casual Day, U.S.A.” Thomas Frank shows how the business world managed to spin deteriorating working conditions as “new opportunities” and as the “democratization of industry.” Often real losses in the workplace were camouflaged as new “freedoms” for workers.

Not only were workers in the new industries freed from arbitrary dress codes, they were urged to become “part of the team:”

Whatever recommendations individual gurus might make regarding the structure of the workplace, the management literature of the nineties almost universally insisted that its larger project was liberation, giving a voice to the voiceless, “empowering” the individual, subverting the pretensions of the mighty, and striking mortal blows against hierarchy of all kinds. Even as the lot of the worker deteriorated and political candidates came to resemble one another ever more closely, the American business class, having ascended to new levels of social dominance, was announcing that democracy was thriving in the nation’s factories and office buildings. Captains of industry were they no longer: Now they were the majestic bearers of the popular will, the emancipators of the common man.

In these new companies, workers were no longer mechanical drones, they were “team members,” though it was seldom mentioned that more and more they were a “dispensable” part of the team as downsizing and outsourcing increasingly took precedence over team building. And while bosses tried to persuade workers that they needed to speak up to help the company prosper, one wonders how much input workers had in moving their jobs overseas or in deciding that “temps” were a better investment than full time workers.

Strangely enough, some financial writers apparently even tried to spin downsizing and outsourcing as “new opportunities” for workers:

Charles Handy, who invented so many happy analogies for the new-style corporation in which most work is outsourced and most “employees” are temps, was by 1989 already setting up downsizing as a victory for the downsized, as some sort of populist fait accompli to which the corporation was being forced to accede. “Organizations have to get used to the idea that not everyone wants to work for them all the time even if the jobs are available,” he wrote. ‘The ways of the core [the central, full-time corporate employees] cannot and should not be the ways of the flexible labor force, for while some may hanker after full-time lifetime jobs, many will not.” Extending the logic only a little further, it became plain to Handy that, in the freewheeling new corporate world, most of us have chosen our class position. “Temporary work,” for example, ‘is a choice” for many people. Even the unemployed can be held accountable for their fate, Handy wrote, since their real failing is in lacking the “urge or energy to turn that wheel of learning,” in having failed to embrace uncertainty, unreason, change, and all the rest of it.”

Strangely enough, while I think that increasing job flexibility and extended leaves may be worth considering, having observed the generally disastrous results of being laid off because of outsourcing and consolidation, usually through no fault of their own, I can state unequivocally that these are only “opportunities” if the person affected has had a real chance to make the decision for themselves. Downsizing seldom benefits anyone but the top executive whose stock options rise when investors immediately raise stock prices after a company “cuts costs.”

As Frank points out, the worse the economy became, the harder business tried to convince the public that the economy was better than ever and that workers had new opportunities to advance themselves now that they had been freed from the restraints of unions and old-fashioned industries:

While it was true that unions had been rolled back so comprehensively that economic democracy basically ceased to exist, Fast Company, along with an entire industry of social thinkers, energetically assured Americans that they had nothing to fear. The market, if we would only let it into our hearts and our workplaces, would look after us; would see that we were paid what we deserved; would give us kind-hearted bosses who listened, who recycled, who cared; would bring a democratic revolution to industry that we could only begin to imagine.

While unions may well have helped to bring about their own demise by concentration too singly on their own well being at the cost of others, it seems na”ve to believe that businesses are truly concerned with anyone other than executives and stock holders. In fact, if unions truly disappear then we will need to rely more, rather than less, on the government to ensure that workers are treated fairly and that working conditions are not eroded to the detriment of society in general.

If a political party is truly concerned with “families,” then it ought to be concerned when parents have to work longer and longer hours, often at two jobs, in order to survive. First, it ought to ensure that the children of disadvantaged parents have safe, adequate daycare, and not just until they reach school age. It ought to ensure that families have adequate medical care when workers are set adrift between jobs when companies downsize or outsource. It ought to ensure that there is better unemployment so workers won’t be forced to deplete 401K’s and other retirement programs that will be even more vital in a world where Social Security is treated as a motherless child. To me, that’s where the real opportunities for the Democratic Party lie.

One thought on “Team Unemployed”

  1. This reminds me of the time I was fired (because my boss wanted an “executive-type secretary”) and he told me that this would be best for me because I was overqualified for my job, and it was time for me to move on. He was, of course, a big fat Republican, and a liar (though I guess these days they go hand in hand).

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