Help Wanted Job insecurity: Visitors read between the lines at historical exhibit on labor, see their own lives and wonder when the fear and the downsizing will end.

March 05, 1996|By John M. Biers | John M. Biers,STATES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- In a spiral notebook at the Museum of American History, one frightened professional after another scrawls his or her fears about the future of the American workplace.

"I'm always afraid of when it will be my turn for the cut," writes a social worker. "Where did our security go? I put in 100 percent so I can have a home, car and education for my children. Who can help us stop the madness?"

"We have cut employees by 30 percent since 1980," complains a Social Security Administration employee. "Automation was supposed to take up the slack; it hasn't. The pressure on employees to produce is intense and causes much stress and illness."

"Tremendous pressure is turning a professional occupation into a factory occupation," notes a director of a medical research lab, who suggests the fast pace of work could affect the quality of the research.

Each had just seen "Who's in Charge: Workers and Managers in the United States," a new Smithsonian exhibit on labor history, and stopped on the way out to record their thoughts in the spiral notebook on a small table near the exit.

Although the show focuses on the country's first textile mills, immigrant sweatshops and other significant shifts in the workplace, the people pouring out their anxiety before they leave aren't writing about some dusty period of history.

They are reflecting on 1996 America, a time when companies like AT&T and IBM eliminate thousands of jobs in one fell swoop and government agencies slash their work forces by 10, 20 or 30 percent. They are writing about the current chapter of labor history: downsizing.

The emotional reaction has surprised the exhibit's curator, Peter Liebold of the Smithsonian's engineering and industry division. He didn't expect the comments -- nearly 100 of them, most written anonymously -- to be so plentiful, personal and filled with pain.

"It demonstrates the fact that we're go- ing through a time of great transition," says Mr. Liebold, who plans to archive the notebook after the show ends April 7. "People's values are being shaken, and we've almost provided them with a cathartic opportunity to talk about it."

Although the exhibit touches on current issues, its overwhelming thrust is historical. "Who's in Charge" looks at the issue of control in the workplace, the dynamic between workers and managers in determining working conditions, hours, pay and other issues.

Curators chose to not to highlight strikes, which, while dramatic, are not representative of labor relations, Mr. Liebold says. The exhibit is otherwise conventional in focusing on the history of labor through blue-collar workers. It tells their story through photographs, posters and objects. In the 19th century, brass knuckles were used to keep workers in line. Factory gates and time clocks, what Mr. Liebold calls "icons of early control," served a similar, though more subtle purpose. So did cash registers, which were invented in the 1800s to allow managers to check up on workers. Only the manager could access the paper tape and check whether everything added up.

Historical perspective

The show demonstrates that there is little new about the current anxiety. Wild shifts in the American economy have terrified workers for years.

But unlike previous shifts in the workplace, the phenomenon of downsizing is affecting college-educated, white-collar professionals instead of blue-collar factory workers. Never before has the middle class been the object of such an assault in such numbers.

"There's no question people are hurting terribly," Mr. Liebold says. "People will lose houses over it, marriages will break apart, there will be suicides. There's no end of really serious results. It's a question of morale -- of people left in their jobs, and people thrown out of jobs, both being in turmoil."

Although the exhibit does not mention the word "downsizing," many museum-goers seem to see it in the show anyway.

Mike Flaherty, a federal worker who lives in Bethesda, was stirred to write about his father, who was president of Alcoa Local Union 105 in Iowa. His job disappeared when Alcoa shut down two aluminum plate mills while expanding operations in China. "They used the money they could have invested here to join in a joint-partnership in China," Mr. Flaherty says. "It's just sad to see those jobs go away. They're good jobs."

Mr. Flaherty expects to keep his job despite government downsizing, but he wonders if his union will survive it.

"I don't think reorganization is going to cost us our jobs," Mr. Flaherty says. "It's just going to cost us some of our job security."

Like teachers, federal employees are among the few white-collar professions to belong to unions.

Fighting back?

One possible impact of downsizing could be a resurgence of the labor movement. But even tough middle managers and professionals are overwhelmingly the victims of downsizing, white-collar unions have yet to take hold.

Mr. Liebold would not speculate on the reasons for this, the lack of unionization, but observes that workers are scared of speaking out. "The threat of downsizing is a very effective cudgel to keep the work force quiet," he says. "It makes people unwilling to blow a whistle, unwilling to suggest that things aren't appropriate, unwilling to back people up who are being laid off."

Angelo Turtorro, a Food and Drug Administration scientist from Little Rock, Ark., came away from the exhibit with a much different feeling. Mr. Turtorro, who considers himself to be vulnerable as a middle manager, expects disillusioned white-collar workers to fight back before long.

"This is not the first time we -- of my background -- have dealt with this issue," he says. "Most of my relatives are construction workers. There will be a management union sooner or later. We'll have the same fights we had 20 or 30 years ago."

Pub Date: 3/05/96

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