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ON CALIFORNIA / PETER H. KING

Lost Jobs and Other Glad Tidings

October 25, 1995|PETER H. KING

SAN FRANCISCO — A bank has swallowed up the bank that swallowed up my bank. It condescends to smaller banks that it will now outrank.

--Calvin Trillin, in the Sept. 25 edition of The Nation

The sun doesn't shine much on California Street, at least not in those blocks where it flattens out at the bottom of Nob Hill. That is where the big banks are found--Wells Fargo, First Interstate, BankAmerica, Great Western, BankCal and the rest. Their tall buildings are squeezed in together, shoulder to shoulder, creating a tight canyon that tends to keep the sidewalks below covered in shadow and cold. Banker weather.

Cable cars run up and down California, but in this so-called Financial District the shivering tourists find little use for their cameras. The good snapshots are up the line, in Chinatown and on sunny Nob Hill. Monday was an exception. On Monday a cable car jerked to a stop in front of the Wells Fargo main branch, and one by one the shivering passengers began to remove hands from pockets and aim cameras. Photo op!

Their prize was that most pathetic of images, the solitary picket. He was a thin old man dressed in shabby shoes, black polyester slacks and a faded plaid sports coat. He had missed many spots while shaving. His blue eyes held a certain fire. He looked, in fact, like the standard sidewalk prophet, of the kind the cartoonists typically depict in sandwich-board signs, warning of doomsday.

Not this one, though; his cause was current, topical. He hoisted his hand-printed placard aloft for the tourists. "Stop the Wells Fargo Merger," the front of his sign demanded. He twirled it around. "Big Mergers uproot families and doesn't save jobs." The cable-car riders giggled and waved, and then away they went, lurching up the hill. And that was it--the high-water mark of the only public demonstration to date against a hostile merger intended to eliminate 7,500 jobs from the California economy.

*

It is perhaps the most amazing trend of these times. Every month, a few of the big companies will announce the cutting of thousands more jobs. The cuts can come through merger or plant closing or the transfer of work overseas. They can be described as downsizing or outplacement or buyouts. The result, and purpose, is all pretty much the same. A layoff by any name is still one more applicant for arc welding class.

According to one recent study, in last August alone U.S. firms announced plans to eliminate 32,262 jobs, up from the 23,283 trimmings in July. "I don't think the cuts are going to slacken off," a Harvard economist elaborated. "Employers have found out that cutting workers is a good thing in terms of the bottom line." A good thing, yes. And this is where the going gets weirdest of all, at least for the worker bees straining mightily to dodge the Great Jobswatter.

These reductions, while bad news for the squished bees, uniformly are greeted on Wall Street as splendid news. "The market has given its vote of confidence," the CEO of Wells Fargo said last Friday after the merger attempt was announced and, predictably, sent stock in both banks skyward. "The numbers and economic benefits are compelling."

By "numbers," it is assumed, he meant the 7,500 jobs predicted to be whacked if the merger goes through. By "economic benefits" he was referring to shareholders, and in this vein the final paragraph of the San Francisco Chronicle report on the takeover bid was noteworthy: "The big winners in the deal," the story concluded, "would include Nebraska billionaire Warren Buffett, who owns 13.3% of Wells Fargo's stock [and] publishing tycoon Walter Annenberg, who owns 8.8% . . . " The 7,500 losers, of course, were not named.

*

Now there are complicated explanations offered to address this seeming disconnect between the money people's joy and the worker people's dread. Employers will talk wisely, soothingly of international markets and skills-based economies and such. A friend writing a book on the subject suggests something far simpler: "They are creating profit for themselves at the expense of jobs."

R. R. Miller took a similar view. "It's just greed," the 69-year-old retiree said. He had been surprised to find himself on a picket line of one. "I thought there might be some tellers out here or something," he said. "They must be scared."

This made sense: The worker bees most likely to be swatted are those that buzz the loudest and fly in the light. If nothing else, the threat of wholesale layoffs makes a great motivational tool. Most of the bank employees who brushed by Miller at the building door refused even to look at him. No, no time for that. Got to work. Busy. Busy. Busy.

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