A quarter-century ago, the United States embarked on an economic crusade to "downsize" its working class, to eliminate millions of jobs by outsourcing employment abroad and to push millions more middle-class employees into low-wage jobs.
The argument advanced by U.S. corporations was that in an age of global economic competition, American workers were simply "overpaid" and weren't as productive as their European and Japanese competitors. By cutting salaries and benefits, terminating pensions, eliminating jobs and forcing workers to pay for their own health care, U.S. corporations could stay competitive in global markets.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, the vast majority of layoffs occurred within the working class, especially skilled labor and manufacturing jobs. Blue-collar workers were pushed into the service sector, frequently earning less than one-half of their previous salaries. Airplane mechanics and factory foremen were counseled to learn basic computer skills to compete for $10-per-hour jobs that couldn't cover their mortgage payments or children's college tuition bills.
An important new book by New York Times economics writer Louis Uchitelle, The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences, fully documents the disastrous consequences of downsizing and mass layoffs. According to Uchitelle, between 1984 and 2004, approximately 30 million Americans were involuntarily "laid off" or fired. Millions more who feared losing their jobs either took early retirement or agreed to accept significant cuts in their wages or benefits.
Surprisingly, layoffs nationwide rose faster in the early 1990s than the early 1980s, as President Bill Clinton aggressively preached that labor had to lower its wage demands for American businesses to be competitive in global markets. As Uchitelle explains, "As much as anyone, [Bill Clinton] disconnected the Democratic Party from its past, specifically its New Deal concern for job security and full employment."
Throughout the 1990s, the layoffs spread into the ranks of white-collar professionals — managers, technicians, information technology employees and engineers. In the early 2000s, workers in manufacturing took another round of devastating layoffs, by which African American workers were particularly hard hit. In 2004 alone, overall union employment in the United States declined by 304,000, and African Americans comprised 55 percent of that drop, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Between 2000 and 2004, the number of Black American union members plummeted from 2.5 million down to 2.1 million, a decline of 14.4 percent.
In those few unions in which African Americans still comprise significant percentages — such as the American Federation of Government Employees, with Blacks accounting for nearly 25 percent of its 211,000 members — federal jobs are being lost through the Bush administration's policy of privatization.
The bitter irony of the downsizing mantra that politicians and corporate executives proclaim is that there is growing economic evidence that destroying jobs is actually bad for both the economy and for worker productivity.
In The Disposable American, Uchitelle notes that many of the American corporations that show the highest rates of growth over the past decade have not downsized at all. Workers who have greater workplace satisfaction, flexibility and comprehensive benefits for health and their post-employment security are far more productive.
So the great political question of our time is whether both Democrats and Republicans will mindlessly continue to permit the predatory corporations and privatizers in government to continue mass layoffs, downsizing America's future.
The government's currently low "official" unemployment rate deceptively masks the fact that between 2001 and 2005 over 1 million Americans left the work force and aren't even counted as "unemployed." Another 4.2 million who are "part-time employees" today cannot get full-time jobs. As millions more are pushed toward unemployment lines, and elderly workers without pensions gravitate toward fast food and Wal-Mart employment, how long will it take until the electorate explodes with anger about the disappearing promise of a middle class lifestyle?
How long will it take even millions of white-collar managers and professionals — "yuppies" and "buppies" alike — to understand that they, too, are increasingly expendable in the brave new world of globalization and downsizing privatization?
Manning Marable, Ph.D., is professor of public affairs, political science, history and African American Studies at Columbia University.