July 2006

nonfiction

The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences by Louis Uchitelle

Louis Uchitelle’s book, The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences, is another one of those great books that none of the right people will read.
 
It will of course be read; it’s published by Knopf and Uchitelle is an award-winning journalist with the New York Times. He’s been writing business and economics news for more than three decades, and he clearly knows his stuff. But a book in which the author demands that both the easy “myths” of layoffs and the true achievability of the American dream be carefully considered may not be particularly appealing to your typical “buy low, sell high” business readers.
 
Uchitelle wastes no time enumerating what he feels are the three primary myths that have lead to layoffs becoming accepted as a normal consequence of doing business: that they offer a payoff in the form of a “revitalized corporate America;” that those employees in danger of being laid off can and should save themselves through education and training; and that layoffs are a purely financial proposition, rather than personally traumatic experiences that damage both employees and companies by “undermining the productivity of those who survive but feel vulnerable, as well as the productivity of those who are laid off and get jobs again.”
 
In addition to his concise and exceptionally easy to understand writing style (honed, no doubt, by a long career or writing to both time and length restrictions), the author combines historical research, statistical analysis, and personal interviews to great effect. Detailed case studies of such companies as Stanley Works (makers of Stanley tools) and United Airlines are followed by chapters examining American labor and political history, and throughout the author offers insight he gained from speaking with laid-off workers, as well as with those who laid them off, those seeking to re-train them, and those simply trying to live with them (as is the case when he interviews both laid-off mechanic Erin Breen and his wife, Stacy). He also, to his credit, concludes with a chapter of possible solutions that might lessen the frequency of cutbacks, even in a global economy that will not be denied.
 
The book is not perfect; it starts a little slow and the labor and political history might be a bit overwhelming to some readers. But it is extremely well done, and impressively even-handed. Unlike many other writers who have examined the plights of the working poor (David Shipler and Barbara Ehrenreich among them; both, interestingly enough, provide blurbs on the back of this book), Uchitelle mentions that, although the current system is imperfect, workers themselves must also take responsibility for their financial standing. The most telling example of Uchitelle’s ability to be sympathetic but not blind is found on page 19: “faced with all these signs that their factory was in its death throes, the Siroises nevertheless refused to cut back in their personal lives… Although they commuted to work together and were companions in almost everything else they did, they maintained two SUVs: a 1994 GMC and a 2001 Tahoe, which they had purchased new for more than $30,000.”
 
Read this book. Then send it on to Jack Welch, one of whose many claims to fame (and not really the good kind) is that, under his leadership, GE laid off 118,000 workers between 1980 and 1985. I doubt very much that he’ll be going out to buy his own copy.
 
The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences by Louis Uchitelle
Knopf
ISBN: 1400041171
304 pages