Peter Pringle's America: The Cold War is over and the bosses won

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The Independent Online
In television sitcoms, popular characters go through the argument-homily-hug routine always to emerge more or less intact. They are never dropped unless the actor playing the role dies, or leaves for a career in the movies or asks for too much mon ey. But not so in The Larry Sanders Show, about the backstage world of the late-night talk show.

Alone among the sitcoms, the show depicts the unhappy world of the American workplace. Important characters can be fired (Jerry, the show's head writer was replaced by an underling) and other harassed employees are carpeted by department heads if they spend too much time on the phone trying to make their virtually non-existent private lives mesh with their ludicrously long working hours. Paula, for example, the show's talent booker, took time off to sort out problems with her boyfriend who was demandingthat she choose between him and her work. Work won.

There is nothing but work and ruthless bosses in Larry Sanders' frantic office - a familar enough theme for Americans these days. Despite good-looking economic indicators, we read about workers, young and old, who have been laid off, who are worried about their jobs or who are working harder for less pay and fewer benefits.

Employment is up, inflation down - a mere 3 per cent. But the pay for new jobs is lousy. Over the past six years inflation has increased almost 27 per cent against a 19 per cent rise in wages.

Americans are working longer hours to make up the difference. Manufacturing employees work 320 more hours a year than their European counterparts. In the past decade they have added 17 days to the work year. Many are burnt out as well as disillusioned. And when Americans can no longer see the "dream" around the corner, they panic. Last November, they threw a bunch of old rascals out of Congress and brought in a raft of new ones.

Some panicky liberal Americans think the underlying reason for all this is the end of the Cold War. In the era of Communism, a key element of the ideological divide was for American managers to declare proudly that the United States had the highest standard of living and the lowest level of unemployment. Company budgets bloated by the Cold War economy encouraged bosses to inflate their payrolls and boast about how many people they had working for them.

With the increase in global competition for jobs, first from China and now from Russia, Americans are hard-pressed. Automation has cut jobs in banking and construction. And all companies are being "downsized", "right-sized" or "re-engineered".

In today's America, bosses boast about how many people they have fired, laid off, retired in advance of vested pensions, and how they have turned full-time staff into contract employees with no benefits at all. In the boardroom, to be a master of downsizing brings a badge of honour. The writer Nicholas von Hoffman has dubbed today's new boss the "bizbrute".

At the McDonnell Douglas aerospace corporation, one of the foremost profiteers of cold warfare, the recent cutting of retirees' health insurance benefits received wide coverage in the media and provoked shock and outrage on the editorial pages. But such summary slicing of the workforce or the workers' budget continues in the most ingenious ways the lawyers can invent to avoid lawsuits. The CEOs close down plants and chop and cut and slice away at jobs, leaving millions who had good jobs scrambling for poor ones.

The blue-collar workers and their unions are big losers. During the Cold War, countervailing was a word used correctly by the military planners to describe the Pentagon's intercontinental missile strategy. It could also have been applied to the trade unions' power to get a fair deal, or more, for their members. During the height of the Cold War the United Automobile Workers, for example, was rarely defeated, or even forced to compromise. But no longer.

Today, white-collar workers are being bounced from job to job. In a December issue, the Wall Street Journal portrayed the problem for white-collar workers going through their second lay-off with a drawing of a man in a business suit balancing on the blade of an axe. To keep up your confidence, the Journal advised, ask your employer why you lost your job. In many cases the answer is not poor performance but the high costs of employer health insurance, pension plans and the fact that young people will do the job at half the price. But lawyers won't allow bosses to say so, of course.

President Clinton and others urge workers to keep competing: competition is the way forward in a world of low tariffs. Americans must grab the hi-tech jobs. But it's not happening. Edith Holleman, counsel for the House of Represenatatives' committee on science, space and technology, told a meeting of American technicians that, "as international corporations move their facilities to cheaper locations, jobs in the field such as product design, process engineering and software development are moving with them".

No one feels this trend more than the young, especially the science PhDs. In the 1980s they could expect to move instantly into one of the 7 million new affluent households with incomes over $50,000 created during that decade. The government said the nation could not have enough scientists. But it was a cruel myth. With the defence industry being melted down and health care reform looming, these scientists and technicians can barely find a job washing test tubes, let alone using them for experiments.

It turns out they would have been no better off had they become airline flight crew, doctors, nurses - or lawyers. Prospects for law graduates are the bleakest for a decade. One out of six new attorneys were unemployed six months after graduating in the summer of 1992, the most recent year for which figures are available.

Perhaps they can all get jobs as bond traders. One thing they should avoid, obviously, is aspiring to high salaries like those of earlier generations. The key to protecting your job during downsizing is to keep your income low, refuse all raises and other forms of additional compensation. Also, if you're over 40, lie about it.

In life, as in The Larry Sanders Show, the Cold War is over and the bosses won.