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Working Over Time : WHEN WORK DISAPPEARS: The World of the New Urban Poor. By William Julius Wilson (Knopf: $26; 352 pp.) : RESTORING PROSPERITY: How Workers and Managers Are Forging a New Culture of Cooperation. By Wellford W. Wilms (Times Business: $25; 288 pp.)

September 01, 1996|Verlyn Klinkenborg | Verlyn Klinkenborg's books include "The Last Fine Time," a book about a workingman's bar in Buffalo, N.Y., and "Making Hay," about farming in the Midwest and Montana. He teaches writing at Bennington College in Vermont

I wonder what presidential candidates will see when they look out upon the audiences that will gather to hear them speak on Labor Day. President Clinton and former Sen. Bob Dole will likely share the stump with workers and perhaps even march in union parades. Union leaders will pretend to have a power, a voting bloc, they no longer possess. There will be the pretense, shared for just one day, that politics at the national level is really a blue-collar affair and that presidential politicians have more in common with labor than they do with the nation's overcompensated CEOs.

And, in the peculiarly entrapped rhetoric of their stump speeches, both Clinton and Dole will no doubt endorse change, which, in political terms, is like endorsing the inevitable return of the seasons. But when the candidates look into the crowd, they will be looking into the face of change itself, change more sweeping and unsettling than anything ever dreamed of in a Republican or a Democratic caucus. Will they see it?

The two books under review here--"Restoring Prosperity: How Workers and Managers Are Forging a New Culture of Cooperation," by Wellford W. Wilms, a professor at UCLA's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, and "When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor," by William Julius Wilson, the Malcolm Wiener Professor of Social Policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government--are books about the changes inscribing themselves across America. Their subjects are very different, but they share important assumptions and conclusions. Each is essential reading for candidates and voters alike.

Wilms and a team of graduate students spent five years working off and on at four manufacturing companies: Douglas Aircraft, Hewlett-Packard's Santa Clara division, USS-Posco (a joint venture between USX and the South Korean steelmaker Posco) and Nummi (a joint venture between General Motors and Toyota). "Restoring Prosperity" is a highly readable, often dramatic report on the extent to which those companies were able to overcome the adversarial culture that is traditional in manufacturing and to create a new working partnership between labor and management.

In "When Work Disappears," Wilson's research was conducted over eight years among "ghetto poverty census tracts" in Chicago. His rather more stately book begins with the same scenario as Wilms'--a steady loss of manufacturing jobs in America and the fact that "economic growth today does not necessarily produce good jobs." But Wilson's larger purpose is to correlate those changes with what he calls "the world of the new urban poor" and to demonstrate that "joblessness is more strongly associated with poverty than in previous years."

There is an apparent ambiguity in that last sentence of Wilson's. On the surface, it seems to state the obvious: When you're out of work, you're out of money. But his point is a subtler and more meaningful one, and it reveals a shift in the character of this nation's poorest neighborhoods. "In the 1950s," Wilson writes, "employment rates were high. People were poor, but they were still working. Ghetto neighborhoods were as highly segregated as they are now, but people were working." Today, those same districts are characterized not only by chronic poverty but also by chronic joblessness. Among the working poor, all the bonds that reinforce a community remain intact. But among the jobless poor, Wilson suggests, community simply dissolves.

Overwhelmingly, the jobs that have been lost to city dwellers over the last few decades are manufacturing jobs. Some jobs have moved to the suburbs, some have moved overseas and some have been eliminated by new technologies. One group left unemployed by this loss of jobs is young black males, many of whose fathers worked in the kinds of industries Wilms has studied. Saying that 3 million manufacturing jobs have disappeared between 1979 and 1992, Wilms concludes, "The facts are that there are simply not enough high-wage manufacturing jobs to go around and that the impact of this predicament has been absorbed mainly by the young and poor families."

Both Wilson and Wilms argue that these are broad systemic changes, so deep and pervasive that they essentially defy the will of an individual to overcome them. What really hinders America's ability to accommodate change successfully and equitably, Wilms and Wilson suggest, is this nation's belief in individualism. The central message of both books is that the social costs of our faith in individualism are too high and that the rewards of individualism are by no means greater than the rewards of cooperative enterprise.

In fact, from their very different perspectives, "Restoring Prosperity" and "When Work Disappears" offer closely reasoned attacks on what one might call the argument for individual initiative.

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