Workers cheer for day off/union's stand

March 14, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

From Broening Highway, where they made General Motors vans until 4:42 Tuesday afternoon, we learn of cheers splitting the air when the plant closed. Also, we learn of worries. The cheers reportedly came from young guys, who welcomed the day off. They'll learn. The worries were expressed by veterans, who know better.

A 10-day strike against two brake plants in Dayton, Ohio, thus begins to touch pieces of the rest of America: not only the 3,000 workers on Broening Highway who make up this city's biggest manufacturing outfit, but 21 vehicle assembly plants and eight parts plants and about 70,000 GM workers around the country finding themselves out of work because of the troubles in Dayton.

Across the American workplace, wages fall and layoffs rise. The gap between rich and poor widens. On the same day production ceased on Broening Highway, it was reported that the top five executives of T. Rowe Price, the Baltimore-based mutual fund company, received a combined $6.5 million last year in bonuses. On Broening Highway, there might have been five or 10 or 3,000 folks who were worried about their next mortgage payment pondering just how much the top GM executives made in such bonuses last year.

It's the American way. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the top-earning 1 percent of American families saw their income rise by 78 percent over the past 20 years about $250,000 a year. For most Americans, though, wages have either fallen or stagnated, even though productivity and profits and stock prices generally have soared in the past several years. Who's making these uneven cuts in the nation's economic pie?

In the past 17 years, more than 43 million American jobs have been erased. (Such numbers gave Pat Buchanan his momentary blip on the presidential primary radar screens. Before the various neo-Nazi flaps drowned out everything else, Buchanan's was the loudest Republican voice decrying the plight of the working class. On Broening Highway and elsewhere, they're still waiting for someone else to pick up the cry. )

While 43 million jobs have been disappearing, millions more have been created. But the disappearing jobs tend increasingly to be positions that pay. The new jobs, not so much. Here's a cheerless thought: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently took a look at future job trends and listed the 10 occupations expected to add the most jobs in the next decade. This'll cheer all you folks paying $20,000 a year to put your kids through college.

The coming boom jobs are: retail sales people, registered nurses, cashiers, general office clerks, truck drivers, waiters and waitresses, nursing aides, orderlies and attendants, janitors and cleaners, food preparation workers, computer systems analysts.

Seven of these occupations had average weekly salaries (in 1993 dollars) of $350 a week or less. The other three (nurses at $687, truck drivers at $445 and computer analysts at $821) will account for only 1.9 million new jobs combined.

But at least those people will be working, which is more than they're doing at Broening Highway. Maybe those young folks doing the cheering weren't just happy for a day off. Maybe they were happy nobody's given up the fight out in Dayton.

It's so easy to cave in now. The threat of economic doom hangs like a poised knife and makes cowards of us. The house has to be paid off, and that out-of-town bank holding your mortgage doesn't want to hear excuses for late payment. The newspapers carry stories about corporate big shots bumped off who wind up running the sweat suit section at the local Wal-Mart for a quarter of their old pay. Or a food store like Farm Fresh goes under, and those who hold onto their jobs with the new owner face pay cuts and vacation loss because they're suddenly considered "new hires."

A "New York Times" poll this month revealed that nearly three-quarters of all households have had a close encounter with layoffs since 1980. In one-third of all households, a family member has lost a job, and nearly 40 percent more know a relative, friend or neighbor who was laid off.

We don't want to be in that boat. The waters are choppy, and the craft seems to be sinking. Merry-Go-Round shuts its doors, but its former chief executive officer, Richard P. Crystal, manages to stay on the company payroll, where he draws $54,000 a month. Meanwhile, thousands of former employees are out of work.

Where's the fairness? So, on Broening Highway, when we hear there's cheering when the plant closes, maybe it's young folks happy for a day off. Or maybe they're just looking at the confrontation in Dayton and cheering a tiny sign of courage in the endangered American labor force.

Pub Date: 3/14/96

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