What to do about work? In age of downsizing even politicans are talking like CEOs

January 28, 1996|By C. Fraser Smith

The USA's CEO reported proudly last week that he has chopped 200,000 federal jobs since he took over in 1992.

In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Clinton offered success at downsizing as a principal argument for his re-election.

The Congress applauded.

"The era of big government is over," he declared.

Wall Street applauded, too. Prices moved up handsomely the next day in response to the leaner federal workforce -- just as they do when private industry leaders thin their ranks: Less spending, lower taxes -- falling interest rates?

A day later, the president's advisers must have applauded when his political stock rose: polls showed the American people trust Mr. Clinton to handle their problems more than they trust the Republican Congress.

Surely this was a remarkable moment in national history. Haven't presidents, particularly Democratic presidents, spoken exclusively about jobs they will create or have created? ("The best social program is a job." "My platform is jobs, jobs, jobs," etc.) In what previous year would a president have boasted about eliminating jobs of any kind?

In the New World Order of high-level business and politics, jobs can be the enemy: too many employees, too many fringe benefits, too little profit.

For the rest of us, there is too little discussion, too little grappling with a disturbing reality: the withering away of work. Mr. Clinton and all of his potential Republican opponents in this election year seem trapped by their strategies, their ideologies. Both sides speak of jobs and the economy from the same starting point and seldom go beyond it: Government can't provide solutions. If there is some other way of thinking about the rolling thunder of corporate layoffs, we seldom hear it.

When he visited Maryland a week ago, Sen. Phil Gramm, Republican of Texas, called the loss of 600 jobs in Western Maryland "a disruption" to those affected.

"Instead of worrying about how to commiserate with people who've lost their jobs," he said, "we have to get about the business of creating new jobs."

Some state leaders say a better business climate might have helped Maryland hang onto to the departing Bausch & Lomb Inc., but the company seemed content until it abruptly pulled up stakes. Its bosses told Garrett County commissioners nothing would have changed their minds. Now, the county faces the reality of its remote existence yet again: Creating jobs anywhere is difficult and doubly so on the threshold of Appalachia.

Should the state spend tax dollars to attract a replacement firm? Should some sort of guarantee come with the inducements, or will that make Maryland less attractive? Would a government demand for such assurances be meddlesome?

These are among the questions that leave some American workers unimpressed with statistical proof of a strong economy. The president offered no more answers than Mr. Gramm.

In his response to the State of the Union address, Republican Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas said Mr. Clinton's liberal allies had hijacked" the government.

The people may feel someone hijacked plain talk and leadership.

Mr. Clinton has been chided for rummaging about in the identity bin, looking for just the right fit, and the process seems to be continuing. Now he's a corporate exec.

If he was talking about the nation's health, how could he leave out the profound changes in America's workplaces? Newspaper business pages chronicle the erosion of good jobs -- the sort of jobs Mr. Clinton promised to multiply when he was first elected in 1992. Instead, they are blown away in their abstract thousands.

Three days before he spoke, a dramatic one-month surge of joblessness in New Jersey was attributed directly to downsizing and restructuring. In 30 days, the unemployment rate there rose from 6.1 percent to 7.3 percent. About 48,000 jobs were lost in a month -- and the figures did not include an expected 7,000-person cutback by AT&T, which currently has a large presence there.

Analysts for New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman hoped the alarming uptick was an "anomaly." Others said it was part of a 10-year regional trend in which global competition, automation and the pursuit of lower-cost labor overseas have ravaged the workforces of industrial states.

And less than 24 hours after the President's speech, California-based Wells Fargo & Co. announced it would merge with First Interstate Bancorp to create a huge operation that will close branches -- with as many as 7,000 fewer jobs. The company says it must downsize or die.

But neither party's assessment of the federal Union's health addressed the increasing gap between the very rich in America and the poor -- a gap made wider by these adjustments, necessary or not. If government cannot be relied upon for help, what can? An unfettered marketplace? That may be the unavoidable answer. In the coming months, perhaps, Mr. Dole and Mr. Clinton will venture their answers.

The future of the country may indeed depend upon short- or even medium-term economic pain. Americans are proving they can endure. Husbands and wives and children, too, are taking up the slack created for them in the corporate boardrooms.

The work ethic is alive. Where is the work?

C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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