Five Questions for Louis Uchitelle

By Staff Report

May. 16, 2006

Louis Uchitelle
Author, The Disposable American:Layoffs and Their Consequences

Louis Uchitelle has been writing about busi­ness, labor and economics for The New York Times since 1987. In his new book, he discusses how employers, government and society as a whole have become too indifferent to the growing trend of layoffs in this country. Uchitelle spoke to Workforce Management staff writer Jessica Marquez.

Workforce Management: Why did you write this book?

Louis Uchitelle: People who are laid off are moving back into the workforce, but almost always at lesser jobs than they had before. I’m not arguing that we can stop the layoffs, but I am arguing that we are blaming the victims so much that they blame themselves. Rather than take responsibility for the layoffs, it’s easier for employers and the government to send the message to workers that it’s their fault and that if they keep trying, they will find the right job. Employers should be asking whether all the layoffs they are making are necessary.

WM: Why should employers be concerned about this?

Uchitelle: For one thing, lots of public health studies show stress from job insecurity might be the cause of physical illness. Companies should measure the costs of layoffs beyond the immediate dollars and cents. Employers may not be able to stop layoffs altogether, but at least we can take into consideration that damage is being done. Also, companies that don’t have major layoffs seem to be successful. Southwest Airlines is the most notable example of that. Harley-Davidson has agreements with the union to do staged limited layoffs, and they are doing well too.

WM: Why do you believe that the retraining programs offered to laid-off employees don’t work?

Uchitelle: Too often, laid-off employees are just trained for whatever happens to be available, and often that is below their education and skill level. There are training programs that instruct participants that if they commit themselves, they can do a certain job at a certain wage. That’s more helpful.

WM: What does the trend of layoffs say about the state of the labor movement?

Uchitelle: The labor movement seems to have lost its ability to withstand the problem, and I don’t think it will regain it so easily. If there is hope, it is with employee associations, where members of the community—including labor and religious groups—come together to represent the community. So if, for example, Levi Strauss has a plant in a certain community and is facing layoffs, the community organization can put pressure on the company to stem layoffs in that region.

WM: What implications do you think the situation at General Motors may have on this trend?

Uchitelle: We have forgotten that when (Chrysler) went through this 25 years ago, it was viewed as a social problem. As a result, the government helped it get back on its feet. But today the discussion is all about high labor costs and we are blaming the workers. The role of the government isn’t even on the table. That shows how society’s perspective on layoffs has changed.

Workforce Management, May 8, 2006, p. 14Subscribe Now!

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