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Talking About Jobs, Thinking About Corporate Profits

Labor: With arms subsidies, we hear 'job gains,' but when it's mass transit, education or health care, the mantra is 'affordability.'

September 02, 1996|DONELLA H. MEADOWS | Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College

For some reason we still celebrate Labor Day, though corporations are downsizing, labor unions are losing membership and the stock market rises when people get fired. Those of us who still have jobs, or want to, wonder whether anyone in charge cares about labor any more.

"Of course we care," our leaders say, and indeed they talk about jobs all the time. They defend everything they want to do (or not do) on the basis of jobs. We have to clear-cut the forests to save logging jobs. An energy tax would eliminate 200,000 jobs. NAFTA, the free trade agreement with Mexico, will produce 400,000 U.S. jobs.

But do these job promises ever come true? Is 400,000 jobs a lot or a little on the national scale? Should we believe the constant "job talk" or is it just hot air?

When I start wondering about questions like these, I turn to the numbers.

There are 127 million working people in this country, of whom 7.6 million hold two jobs. About 38 million jobs are only part time. And 35 million year-round full-time jobs don't pay enough to support a family.

The official number unemployed is 7.3 million, but the real number is about twice that, if you count folks who have given up looking and those who can only find part-time jobs. Thirty million of us hold professional jobs, including 1.8 million engineers, 401,000 scientists, 871,000 doctors, 2.3 million other health care workers, 765,000 college professors, 3.9 million teachers, 756,000 lawyers.

Farming, forestry and fishing occupy 3.4 million of us.

Eight million are machine operators and assemblers. Average real wages for these production workers in 1993 were less than what they were in 1973.

In retail trade, there are 19 million of us, who earn less than $10,000 a year, mostly with no benefits. Our 1.1 million bank tellers and clerks earn an average of $8.19 per hour and are rapidly being replaced by machines.

Numbers like these raise doubt about the assertions that welfare recipients can just go to work. It would take 5 million jobs to get all able-bodied adults off welfare. Two million adults already work full-time and remain at poverty level. If work is the solution to poverty, and I hope it is, then it's going to take more than preaching and punishment to get everyone to work.

We hear constant talk about how big government is, but only 3 million people--two of every 100 workers--hold nondefense federal jobs, and only one in eight of them work in or around Washington. The rest issue passports, process Social Security checks, patrol national parks, ensure aviation safety and so forth, all over the country.

Nine million people work on the military side of the government, but they aren't targeted when loud voices say there is too much government. In fact, those loud voices have a strange selective perception of "jobs." They think it's great, for example, to spend tax dollars to subsidize weapons exports. Every $1 billion in such subsidies creates 16,000 jobs. But spending that much on mass transit would create 30,000 jobs, spending it on housing would create 36,000 jobs, on education 41,000, on health care 47,000.

Have you noticed that when the discussion is about mass transit, education or health care, the loud voices stop talking about jobs and start talking about affordability? We can afford weapons jobs, but not jobs fixing up schools. We can afford $300 billion a year in subsidies to roads and drivers, but almost nothing for railroads. (When Congress last cut the Amtrak budget, it destroyed 5,500 jobs.)

Just wait, growth will make jobs, they say. But we've had enormous economic growth since 1979, while one-third of American households experienced at least one job loss and two-thirds of the fired workers could only find another job at lower pay.

That's OK, they say, downsizing increases profits, which makes growth in the future. And so in the last five years, our large companies have fired on average 10% to 20% of their work force. Just five companies--IBM, AT&T, GM, Sears and GTE--laid off 324,650 workers between 1991 and 1994. Each of those unemployed workers cost the government an average of $29,000 in benefits and tax loss.

And, guess what, not even half the downsized companies realized increased profits. They realized headaches. The corporate press is now full of articles about how to deal with the remaining workers, who tend to be inexperienced, overloaded and--surprise!--not loyal to the company.

NAFTA seems to be producing a net loss of U.S. jobs, and when enviros stopped much of the logging in Oregon, the unemployment rate went down.

I'm sorry, but I've stopped listening to what people in power say about labor. I think they knowingly use "jobs" as a code word, meaning "money for me, but I'm pretending it's money for you." And I suspect that they haven't any idea how, really, to put to use the energy and talents of the people of America so we can do what just about every one of us longs to do--produce work we can be proud of while earning enough to support ourselves and our families.

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