Surplus labor

We usually think of the effects of downsizing on those who get laid off. The blizzard of pink slips hits not because the company is in trouble or even because its profits are down, but because downsizing is the corporate vogue. The company's stock goes up, the shareholders are happy, and there are another 10,000 people on the street.

According to The Wall Street Journal, 3 million jobs during the last seven years have been "downsized" or merged out of existence, leading many American workers to a semipermanent state of anxiety and insecurity.

White-collar and management workers are just as subject to this mass dumping as blue-collar workers used to be during recessions, so even politicians are now trying to address the pervasive anxiety.

Journalism has produced some fine accounts of how downsizing affects individuals--a July Harper's magazine piece by G.J. Meyer, "Executive Blues," and a recent "60 Minutes" piece on downsized managers--but few of us have thought to check with the workers who are kept on after a downsizing.

A fellow Texan who has been fixing a certain kind of machine for the same company for 17 years now has an interesting tale to tell.

"I rotate on call now," he says, "one week on, one week off. It used to be one week out of four, then one out of three. Now, it's every other week. When I'm on call, I work from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week: 98 hours. If I get a late call, by the time I get home and eat something, I get maybe five hours of sleep.

"When I'm on call, I can't put a roast in the oven for a few hours--don't know if I'll be there to take it out. I can't take my clothes to the laundromat--I'm just tied to this pager. I'm burned out.

"My job is not like being a doctor or a nurse or an airline pilot or a railroad engineer, but there is stress just working the long hours. I know they get stress, and there's a lot written about how they can make bad decisions under stress. I'm just a regular person, but I'm telling you, I'm on medication for anxiety and depression both. My industry has been downsizing across the board for a long time now, and it's to a point where we're too tired all the time.

"Yeah, I get overtime, but what good is that gonna do me if I die of a heart attack?"

Family values, anyone? How much time do you think our fellow Texan has to devote to his kids?

Downsizing doesn't make much economic sense. New studies show that the stock-market bump that companies get from downsizing is only temporary; their stock soon winds up at pre-downsized levels or lower.

Labor Secretary Robert Reich, one of the few people left in Washington who gives a damn about American workers, points out that corporate executives in the 1950s and '60s felt that their role was to balance the demands of workers, shareholders, and community. The advent of "electronic capitalism" is wiping out all sense of corporate responsibility to workers or communities; corporations are becoming more and more shortsighted as they concentrate on the next quarter's profits, period.

This week, Reich even proposed giving tax reductions or eliminating some corporate taxes for companies that meet responsibilities to their workers. These would include employee training, health insurance, pension benefits, profit sharing, and "outplacement" programs (helping fired workers find new jobs).

The reason I think that's a lousy idea is that it plays into the old Republican ploy of claiming "double taxation" on dividend income. The R's have always claimed--Steve Forbes is doing it now--that coupon clippers shouldn't be taxed because the corporations that provide the income are already taxed. What hooey.

I might just as well claim that my salary shouldn't be taxed because the corporation that pays me has to pay income tax--or at least the alternative minimum tax.

Why not cut corporations that maltreat their workers off Aid to Financially Dependent Corporations--all the corporate welfare that the Republican Congress so obligingly left in its deficit-balancing budget?

We all know there's nothing new under the sun, so why not look at what other countries are doing? Germany has an extensive company-run worker-training system, tied closely to the high schools and vocation-education schools.

According to Reich, the Eastern telephone company, Nynex, now offers employees one paid day a week to receive advanced training so they can move up in the company. Nobody had to bribe Nynex--it just needed the skilled workers.

At least Reich is offering an idea in the right direction; the only contribution of the Republicans so far has been to cut money for training programs for job skills.

This ain't some debate among pointy-heads, Bubba--this is your life. Unless you've got some silver bullet against being downsized, like your brother-in-law owning the company by which you're employed, you need to pay attention to this debate.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Copyright 1996 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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Molly Ivins