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The Disposable Americanby Louis Uchitelle
Synopses & Reviews
The Disposable American is an eye-opening account of layoffs in Americatheir questionable necessity, their overuse, and their devastating impact on individuals at all income levels. Yet despite all this, they are accelerating.
The award-winning New York Times economics writer Louis Uchitelle explains how, in the mid-1970s, the first major layoffs, initiated as a limited response to the inroads of foreign competition, spread and multiplied, in time destroying the notion of job security and the dignity of work. We see how the barriers to layoffs tumbled, and how by the late 1990s the acquiescence was all but complete.
In a compelling narrative, the author traces the rise of job security in the United States to its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, and then the panicky U-turn. He describes the unraveling through the experiences of both executives and workers: three CEOs who ran the Stanley Works, the tool manufacturer, from 1968 through 2003, who gradually became more willing to engage in layoffs; highly skilled aircraft mechanics in Indianapolis discarded as United Airlines shut down a state-of-the-art maintenance facility, damaging the city as well as the workers; a human resources director at Citigroup, declared nonessential despite excellent performance; a banker in Connecticut lucky to find a lower-paying job in a state tourist office.
Uchitelle makes clear the ways in which layoffs are counterproductive, rarely promoting efficiency or profitability in the long term. He explains how our acquiescence encourages wasteful mergers, outsourcing, the shifting of production abroad, the loss of union protection, and wage stagnation. He argues against our ongoing public policyinaugurated by Ronald Reagan and embraced by every president sinceof subsidizing retraining for jobs that, in fact, do not exist. He breaks new ground in documenting the failure of these policies and in describing the significant psychological damage that the trauma of a layoff invariably inflicts, even on those soon reemployed. It is damage that, multiplied over millions of layoffs, is silently undermining the nations mental health.
While recognizing that in todays global economy some layoffs must occur, the author passionately argues that government must step in with policies that encourage companies to restrict layoffs and must generate jobs to supplement the present shortfall.There are specific recommendations for achieving these goals and persuasive arguments that workers, business, and the nation will benefit as a result.
An urgent, essential book that tells for the first time the story of our long and gradual surrender to layoffsfrom a writer who has covered the unwinding for nearly twenty years and who now bears witness.
"In 1997, the board of directors of the Stanley Works, a Connecticut tool company, lured its new chief executive, John M. Trani, away from General Electric with a compensation package that was two or three times those given to any of his predecessors since its founding in 1873. Like many of his peers at other U.S. companies at the time, Trani closed plants, cut costs, downsized and outsourced the company's... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) operations. Six years later, 5,500 Stanley employees had lost their jobs. This story is one of several that Louis Uchitelle, a New York Times economics reporter, uses to argue that there is something fundamentally wrong with the tolerance that this country has developed for large-scale layoffs. His 'The Disposable American' is a nostalgic, anxious book. Uchitelle writes longingly about a time when corporate layoffs were seen as a stain on a company's reputation and when job security was a reasonable expectation — a time when the worries of American workers had nothing to do with the vagaries of a globalized economy or the outsourcing of jobs to India or China. The author often relies on an idealized view of the employment practices of the past to sharpen the contrast with the more volatile and insecure present. Still, despite the book's occasional exaggerations ('a layoff is an emotional blow from which very few fully recover'), it is impossible not to be touched by Uchitelle's many real-life tales of sacked workers who, through no fault of their own, were thrown into an economic and psychological maelstrom with weak or nonexistent safety nets to help them and their families. The problems Uchitelle highlights are important, and some of the solutions he proposes make sense. It is clearly wrong, for example, to give huge tax breaks to the wealthy when working families must struggle with limited health insurance or none at all. Cutting outrageous corporate-welfare programs and using the savings to improve health and education for workers is also an unassailable proposal. Unfortunately, not all of Uchitelle's prescriptions are so easy to defend. Government regulations that would make it costlier for employers to fire workers, for example, are good news for the workers who already have jobs but hurt those who are unemployed and looking for work because higher firing costs reduce companies' propensity to hire. 'The Disposable American' is too often silent on what could be done to avoid the well-known downsides of the policies it champions. Though Uchitelle knows better than to hold Europe up as a model, many of the policies he favors have a strong European flavor — even though the usual European cocktail of welfare and labor conditions contributes to chronically high unemployment, sluggish economic growth, unfunded public programs and low productivity. Moreover, Europe's rigid labor markets especially penalize the poor, the unemployed and the unskilled, favoring instead a 'labor oligarchy' of securely employed workers already ensconced in jobs. The above-average unemployment rates among Europe's youth and its impoverished immigrants are a factor behind the rising criminality, rioting and social turmoil that disproportionately afflict these groups. It is also surprising that Uchitelle, who in his day job reports on the U.S. economy, could write a book so neglectful of America's distinct advantages. Although massive layoffs have important economic and social costs, the relative ease with which U.S. companies can trim their payrolls to adapt to changing conditions also has benefits. Millions of jobs regularly disappear from the U.S. economy, but with equal regularity, millions more are created. Indeed, no other industrialized country systematically creates as many jobs as the United States. The problem is that while the job losses resulting from plant closings and downsizing are highly concentrated in time, location and industry, the new jobs appear broadly dispersed throughout the nation, over different sectors and over time. True, workers who lose jobs often must accept new ones at lower salaries; true, all of that is traumatic and undesirable. But the fact remains that, between 1980 and 2002, the U.S. population grew 23.9 percent — and the number of jobs increased by 37.4 percent. And the painful private-sector restructuring that has taken place in the United States since the mid-1990s, like the one epitomized by the Stanley Works vignette, has created stronger companies that are the backbone of one of the world's most prosperous, competitive economies — one that continues to create jobs while all other industrialized economies are growing too slowly or stagnating. Last February, for example, New York Times readers learned that, 'in one of the strongest job reports since the start of the recovery in late 2001, the government reported yesterday that the unemployment rate fell to 4.7 percent, its lowest in more than four years. The nation's employers hired workers in nearly every industry.' The author of the article? The same Louis Uchitelle who in 'The Disposable American' claims that labor conditions in the United States are a 'festering national crisis.' The Uchitelle who wrote this passionate but flawed book would correctly insist that we should be alarmed about the poor quality of the jobs being created, rather than being mollified by their quantity. Unfortunately, his compassionate desire to improve the quality of American jobs makes him too eager to experiment with policies that in the long run are known to hurt those whom he seeks to help. Moises Namm is editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine and the author of 'Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers and Copycats Are Hijacking the Global Economy.'" Reviewed by Moises Namm, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Emphasizing the hidden psychological toll that layoffs take on the individual, Uchitelle examines the entire issue in a sympathetic yet realistic light." Booklist
"Highly skilled aircraft mechanics, production workers, and middle managers share their stories of emotional exhaustion and economic downgrading in this heart-wrenching book." Library Journal
"Many readers know Mr. Uchitelle as a business journalist with an acute analytic bent. That is in this book, but there is a surprising passion as well. He urges...that Americans speak up: not to give empty speeches about how more of us should go to college, or 'skill up,' but to stop the layoffs from ravaging us all." New York Times
Book News Annotation:
Uchitelle (The New York Times) traces the rise and fall of job security in the United States and its impact on the American economy and society. True to his journalistic background, he switches his lens back and forth between telescopic discussions of wide historical trends and economic and societal processes to focusing in on the individual experiences of individual workers and companies. Arguing that the current situation is harmful to individuals and the wider society, he ends his book with recommendations of legislation that can minimize and mitigate corporate layoffs.
Annotation ©2006 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Book News Annotation:
Uchitelle (The New York Times) traces the rise and fall of job security in the United States and its impact on the American economy and society. True to his journalistic background, he switches his lens back and forth between telescopic discussions of wide historical trends and economic and societal processes to focusing in on the individual experiences of individual workers and companies. Arguing that the current situation is harmful to individuals and the wider society, he ends his book with recommendations of legislation that can minimize and mitigate corporate layoffs. Annotation Â©2006 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Layoffs have become a fact of life in todayâ€™s economy; initiated in the mid 1970s, they are now widely expected, and even accepted. It doesnâ€™t have to be that way.In The Disposable American, award-winning reporter Louis Uchitelle offers an eye-opening account of layoffs in Americaâ€“how they started, their questionable necessity, and their devastating psychological impact on individuals at all income levels. Through portraits of both executives and workers at companies such as Stanley Works, United Airlines, and Citigroup, Uchitelle shows how layoffs are in fact counterproductive, rarely promoting efficiency or profitability in the long term. Recognizing that a global competitive economy makes tightening necessary, Uchitelle offers specific recommendations for government policies that would encourage companies to avoid layoffs and help create jobs, benefiting workers, corporations, and the nation as a whole.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Louis Uchitelle worked as a reporter, editor, and foreign correspondent for the Associated Press until he joined The New York Times in 1980 as a business editor; he has written about economics for the Times since 1987 and was designated Senior Writer in 1994, joining a select group honored for achievement. In the early 1990s his reporting on the former Soviet Union's plunge into capitalism earned him a Pulitzer nomination, and he shared a George Polk award as lead writer on the seven-part Times series, "The Downsizing of America," in 1996. He taught feature writing at Columbia University and has been a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
About the Author
Louis Uchitelle worked as a reporter, a foreign correspondent, and the editor of the business news department at the Associated Press before joining The New York Times in 1980. He has been writing about business, labor, and economics for the Times since 1987. He was the lead reporter for the Times series "The Downsizing of America," which won a George Polk Award in 1996. He has taught at Columbia University and was a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation in New York in 2002?2003. He lives with his wife, Joan, in Scarsdale, New York.
Table of Contents
Myths that bind — The Stanley works — The rise of steady work — Retraining the mechanics--but for what? — The shock, part 1 — The shock, part 2 — Dismantling job security, 1977-1997 — A green light from Clinton — The consequences--undoing sanity — Solutions.
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