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BOOKS & THE CULTURE As the World Churns BY BEATRICE EDWARDS “Job Churning” … this is an unfortunate phrase, isn’t it? It has connotations of nausea. The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences By Louis Uchitelle Knopf 304 pages, $25.95 11111 he Disposable American by Louis Uchitelle shows that layoffs have affected the U.S. work force in much the same way that arsenic poisons victims. The impact is incremental. Cumulative. First comes debilitation, then nausea, feeble-mindedness, paralysis, and death. The worsening condition occurs gradually, so that by the time the sufferer realizes something is wrong, it is too late to do anything about it. That is exactly the way in which the American labor movement has weakened. The application of the layoff as a legitimate management tool has taken place with increasing scope over 30 years, systematically and unilaterally. Neither the unions nor the government has administered an effective antidote. In the process, we have all acquired a savvy new vocabulary to describe the afflictiondownsizing, right-sizing, outsourcing, and offshoring. The Disposable American by New York Times economics writer Uchitelle adds more familiar terms to the layoff lexicon: depression and poverty. Uchitelle points out that there was a quaint era long ago when, for example, humans answered phones and Congress seriously debated legislation such as the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment bill. A time, in other words, when unions had the political power to oblige the government to intervene in the economy, from time to time, in ways that favored employment security and decent wages for U.S. workers, instead of promoting mergers and acquisitions for U.S. corporations. During this enchanted epoch in American history, the layoff was rare. When a company suffered a demand slump, workers were furloughedfor weeks, perhaps, or even monthsand then called back when factory orders rose again. That was bad enough. Still, Uchitelle reminds us, certain niceties were observed. A full-time worker at minimum wage could maintain a family of four above the poverty line. When strikes occurred, companies were bound by protocol not to fire strikers and hire replacements. Collective bargaining prevailed in manufacturing, and the U.S. Department of Labor represented the interests of workers and unions, at least part of the time. The 1980s brought Ronald Reagan and his entourage to the presidency, however, and they in turn brought us deregulation on the one hand and mass dismissal on the other. It was around this time that the American worker became “disposable.” It is true that American workers had been disposable before: throughout the 19th century and into the Great Depression. But the disposability of the 1980s was different: What has been happening since the late 1970s, on the other hand, is a long and dismaying fall back to the early days of the twentieth century, and the tragedy is that people know what they are losing and that the loss damages them. In the 1980s, factories did not sim ply suspend certain production lines, they closed down. Economic depression rolled over the Northeast and the Midwest. Steel moved from Ohio to Mexico and Brazil. Shoes went from Maine to Jamaica, and electronics from California to Peru. Since then, everything has gone from wherever it went first to China. The Disposable American chronicles the spreading reach of the layoff, from low-skilled to skilled workers, from blue-collar to white-collar, from manufacturing to services. The creeping poison of mass dismissal takes various forms, many of them invisible: the buyout and early retirement. Attrition, hastened along by lack of investment. The not-so-subtle kick in the ass with a goodbye package of measly unemployment benefits and a couple of coupons for computer classes. Because many layoffs occur without formally declared symptoms, the official figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics dramatically understate the extent of the damage. This book delivers a healthy correction to the shameless myth-making that has accompanied the destruction of U.S. labor and unions through layoffs. The perky cheerleading for globalization manifest in Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat is the most current example of this endless stream of drivel, generated to convince the laid off, the redundant, the summarily retired, and the 45-year-old trainee that “job churning” is good for the economy and for us all. This is an unfortunate phrase, isn’t it? Churning. It has connotations of 28 THE TEXAS OBSERVER AUGUST 11, 2006