My experiences have made me sensitive to the affects of a global economy on some American workers.
Over the past few years, I have worked with several companies that came to the painful decision that to remain competitive, they must move their labor-intensive operation to another country. On one level, I know that our markets and economy have always been in a state of change. The loss of segments of the American worker’s jobs is not a completely new phenomenon. However, it seems to be so because of the speed of the change and the narrowing of the fields of employment.
In the 1940s, a hosiery mill in a small north Alabama town closed down. It had provided a rung-up on the economic ladder for many rural farm girls living nearby. The mill’s maintenance jobs for men were the best, highest-paying jobs in the area. A distant relative of mine lost his maintenance supervisor job when the mill closed. He was unwilling to move his family to areas where he could market his skills. He was bitter over the closing of the mill and lived unemployed or under-employed for the next 30 years. The closing of the mill affected him and his family into the next generation, perhaps beyond.
Farm workers, miners, steelworkers, apparel workers, neon sign makers, buggy makers and countless other past work opportunities have been lost to market demands, the changing economy and technology. Many lives are deeply effected by the loss of work opportunities. Some people never recover. Some choose not to, some never have the opportunity and others do not have the ability to make a successful transition because of age, physical or educational restraints.
There is more assistance for some of today’s workers that are displaced than there was in our past history.
Fortunately, some of our companies have a social conscience. They help the displaced worker in his transition by hiring counselors and budget planners, providing job search assistance and opportunities for additional training, early retirements and severance packages.
The federal government also lends some assistance. Impact monies are provided to communities that have lost a number of jobs due to NAFTA. Federal regulations require 60 days of “warn notice” before closure. COBRA health insurance is available for a period of time and unemployment benefits are extended for workers who lost their jobs due to NAFTA
Many people will still fall through the safety nets. It is incredibly sad to see a plant close, especially in the small towns of rural America where work opportunities are limited. Some people will be destined to have a lower standard of living in the future.
The personal stories are heart rending. Sometimes several generations of a family have earned their living in the plant.
One woman told me, with great pride, that only local high school graduates with the highest grades were hired at the plant 30 years ago when she began working there at age 18. Others with health problems worry about having health insurance in the future. Some are concerned about affording to keep their house, car or keep their kids in college. Single moms are fearful that they may not be able to provide for their children. One man said that he didn’t expect me to understand, but he was more worried about losing his Harley-Davidson than he was his mobile home. Moving away from elderly parents is not an option that some would even consider. The small plots of land that have sometimes been in the family for generations are almost sacred. Social lives revolve around plant activities, break time and lunch. Friends, family and sometimes spouses work at the plant. “I don’t worry about myself, it’s the others…” is frequently the beginning of a counseling session.
I was once in a group session with about 20 tough-talking men. They were angry at the government, their company, NAFTA, immigrants, their union and a host of others. The emotion of anger slowly changed to emotions of sadness, anxiety, fear and hurt. Seeing the tears and hearing the muffled, crying sobs of these proud, tough men brought tears to my eyes. These underlying emotions were quickly squelched when one said, “Hell, we done made the man cry, too.” After the laughter subsided, they returned to the safety of their anger.
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