The human toll of worker displacement

Book Review
The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences
By Louis Uchitelle
Vintage, 2007
Softcover, 304 pp., $14.95

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, at least 30 million full-time workers in the United States have been laid off since the start of the Reagan administration.

It was this administration, readers will recall, that announced an open and aggressive alliance of the federal executive branch with corporate interests when it dealt a crippling blow to American workers by busting the Professional Air Traffic Controllers strike in 1982. Margaret Thatcher did the same to British unions when she broke the miners’ strike a few years later.

The BLS’s official figure of 30 million-plus layoffs is conservative, since it does not factor in the millions who have been forced into early retirement or who have seen their jobs “part-timized” rather than eliminated altogether.

But this book’s focus is not the abstract statistics. Rather, it is the individual people, families and communities upon whom those statistics have had a devastating impact. Uchitelle’s examples of lives destabilized by layoffs give the lie to the neoliberal argument, first championed by Reagan and Thatcher, that, if unconstrained, “free market” forces will eventually raise all boats, however much devastation they may initially seem to unleash.

Uchitelle roots his compassionate analysis in the experiences of several highly skilled workers in several types of jobs.

He interviews a shift leader at a manufacturing firm in New Britain, Conn., who, along with her husband, loses her job when the firm decides to move production to Thailand to cut labor costs.

He writes about an airline mechanic who was laid off with many others after United Airlines fired thousands and broke many of its union contracts in order to “restructure.”

And he tells the story of a Citibank human resources executive who, before being laid off herself, has struggled to be sure other long-term employees are transferred to other positions rather than laid off.

In each of these cases, the most destructive effect of the layoffs is not the financial impact, although in each case that is considerable. What is worse is the emotional and psychic damage, and the extent to which these workers internalize their employers’ failure to reward them justly for their skills and commitment. Even if the workers understand the layoff as the cruel result of a management practice encouraged by an economic ideology, they nonetheless feel it as a personal, individual failure.

Thus — as in the case of the shift leader in New Britain realizing that her husband’s 30 years of commitment to the job mean nothing to his employers, or several of the mechanics seeing that the high level of skills of which they are so proud is actually what cost them their jobs (because the skills justify a good wage) — the lasting impact is a loss of self-confidence and a sense that one is being punished somehow for having aimed too high or expected too much.

The BLS uses the term “worker displacement” instead of “layoff” in its reports. Although this is intended as a euphemism, it is actually a much more accurate term for the experience of losing a job — the individual feels acutely the loss of a place where (in the case of the shift leader) her skills belong and are valued, a social place where she belongs and is valued for what she brings to the larger, common effort. She feels, as Uchitelle’s title puts it, “disposable,” and this sense of valuelessness has a disabling impact on her family and community as well as her sense of self.

When Margaret Thatcher declared, contemptuously, that, according to her worldview, “there is no society, there are only individuals,” she clearly understood the extent to which the “free market” was willing to cut individuals loose from the social fabric.

Both Reagan and Thatcher were flamboyant champions of the “free market,” but Uchitelle is adamant in pointing out that this ideology, and the pro-corporation government policies that enable it, have been supported by every U.S. presidency since.

“Layoffs [have become] the measure of our national retreat from the dignity that had been gradually been bestowed on American workers over the last 90 years,” Uchitelle writes. (I’d modify this to “won” by American workers, through their militancy and the power of their union contracts.)

And while the book’s focus is the United States, the questions it raises about the wanton destruction of individual, family and community stability could be asked of any context in which capital has abandoned skilled and committed workers in order to temporarily appease stockholders and allow the “free market” to run its course.