Sunday, April 05, 2009

American Labor, Sensible, not Docile?

Tibor R. Machan

Some are comparing American workers to European ones quite unfavorably because in the face of the marked economic downturn many workers in Europe are throwing a major fit, while American workers, on the whole, remain calm and try to solver their problems like adults.

This counts as “docility” on the part of the Americans, at least for Steven Greenhouse of The New York Times. He reports, in his essay in the Week in Review section of The Sunday Times titled “In America, Labor Has An Unusually Long Fuse” (4/5/09, p. 3) that “in the United States, where G.M. plans its biggest layoffs, union members have seemed passive in comparison [to workers in France and elsewhere in Europe]…” How is this to be explained?

Mr. Greenhouse’s proposes that “American workers have increasingly steered clear of such militancy,” the kind shown earlier by “Mother Jones, John L. Lewis and Walther Reuther...for reasons that range from fear of having their jobs shipped overseas to their self-image as full-fledged members of the middle class, with all its trappings and aspirations.” According to David Kennedy “taken together, guilt, shame and individualism undercut any impulse to collective action....”

Well, maybe. But perhaps the good sense of most American workers explains it all much better. Perhaps most American workers know well and good not to look for some scapegoat and rail against it in the street. Maybe they realize that while some people surely bear responsibility for what has transpired in the American economy that has left them jobless for now, this wasn’t a conspiracy by their employers. Maybe they even suspect that the responsible party was America’s federal government, what with all its artificial methods of making everyone a homeowner, even those unable to afford a home, and the ensuing fiasco in the financial markets. Or they may even adopt the principle that one should find the actual culprit, if there is one, before one goes on a rampage breaking windows, burning cars, and risking death and destruction just to vent.

Ah, but that would fail to be misanthropic for the likes of Mr. Greenhouse and Professor Kennedy. Nor would it portray American workers as a bunch of helpless pawns being pushed around by forces they are unable to cope with. While there may be some such workers, my experience indicates that many do not fit this caricature. For example, back in 1957 American experienced a recession, if memory serves me right. I was a young man working as a draftsman at Carrier Air Conditioning Corporation in Cleveland, Ohio, and got laid off. The “demand” for my work disappeared very suddenly because the company got fewer and fewer contracts for its services. I knew well and good that it wasn’t some ill will on the part of my boss that brought this about so it didn’t even occur to me to throw a fit, to go after the firm with some kind of hostile action, to gather with others who were let go and perpetrate some form of revenge.

Instead I decided to take a few weeks of unemployment benefits and prepare to move someplace where I could find work. This happened to be a small town in Pennsylvania where friends of mine informed me that work was available. No, it wouldn’t be drafting but something less interesting yet sufficiently income generating for me—namely, working at an Army Depot unloading boxes from freight trains—so as to justify making the move. I had to leave my girlfriend behind, as well as friends and some family, but I need to earn a living and collecting unemployment payments rubbed me the wrong way even back then. And there were others in my situation who dispersed around the country so as to find new work. The idea of getting bailed out, as it were, just didn’t occur to most of those I knew who faced what I did, namely, need for new work.

I am willing to bet that many workers in America meet the challenge of needing a new job, line or work, even career, without thinking immediately of resorting either to protest marches or to docility. No, they are probably doing the sensible thing of looking for some alternative to the familiar and preferred work they can no longer count on by which to earned their living.

But it looks like the prominent commentators and analysts, of how people are supposed to cope with economic adversity, are oblivious to the approach taken by all those who make the requisite changes in their lives instead of venting their frustration and disappointment on the streets. That would be to give other than our politicians credit for doing something, anything, about the economic downturn we are experiencing. Maybe not everyone in dire straits is looking to be bailed out by President Obama & Co.

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