Work Life

Tea Time in Cedar Rapids

Hay Bales
Hay Bales

CEDAR RAPIDS— A friend is saying her long goodbyes to Iowa before moving to Florida, so I broke from the tomato canning extravaganza to have coffee with her at a shop in Cedar Rapids. We exchanged gifts. I brought summer squash, cabbage, tomatoes and other produce. She brought an arrangement of Hydrangea for my spouse. We had just an hour before I had to leave for the farm, so we were concise, something that can often be difficult among people of a certain age with much in common.

We covered a lot of ground, including her recent attendance at the Democracy Convention in Madison, Wis. However, the substance of our chat was the systemic dismantling of the union movement in our post Reagan world, coupled with the decreasing relevance of today’s union leaders. That’s a mouthful, but the upshot is that corporations have been working hard to reduce labor costs and shed union contracts. The result for our generation has been a large cohort of middle aged managers and specialists whose positions have been systematically eliminated through outsourcing, reorganization, or the work of human resources consultants like Towers Perrin and Hay Group. What’s a person to do?

For a long time, I chased the available labor from downsizing and off-shoring, hoping to find over the road truck drivers. The idea was that as long term factory workers, they would possess behavior that was stable and well suited to the boredom and long hours a truck driver’s job entailed. What I found was people who would do almost anything to preserve their way of life, get their children through high school and continue living in the community they worked so hard to create. During those years from 1987 until 1993, I had some of the toughest conversations of my life, with people who were desperate to go on living and had the rug pulled out from under them so workers in Mexico, and later China and South Korea, could manufacture the appliances, auto parts and other goods they made for so many years.

A return of unions in private companies seems unlikely, mostly because workers who will accept less than a living wage dominate the unskilled labor pool. There is no shortage of people who will work for an hourly wage around $9 per hour. In some communities, like Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minn., service industry companies have included minimum wage labor availability assessments in their expansion plans, and it has not been a substantial constraint. There are plenty of people willing to work in the unskilled market, which is what most non-professional jobs are.

When a person takes a job, there are inherent compromises. For a while, I supervised fuel purchasing where our company spent more than $25 million per year. Knowing what we know about the impact of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere, burning fossil fuels in heavy trucks contributes to global warming. I also knew that if I didn’t want the job, someone else would. This created an institutional bent toward doing things we know are wrong despite our self-consciousness about the behavior.

Politicians say they want to help create jobs, but during our conversation, we were not so sure. What people want is to live with economic security and the promise of American life. Few, if any corporations have that in mind when they lay out a business plan. What’s most important is maximizing return on investment, and that includes laying off highly paid, long-term employees, then hiring two low-wage workers for the same money. I’m not complaining. I’m just sayin’ that’s the way it is. And how progress will continue in our turbulent world.