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The White-Collar Blues
Published on Monday, December 29, 2003 by the New York Times
The White-Collar Blues
by Bob Herbert
 

I am surprised at how passive American workers have become.

A couple of million factory positions have disappeared in the short time since we raised our glasses to toast the incoming century. And now the white-collar jobs are following the blue-collar jobs overseas.

Americans are working harder and have become ever more productive astonishingly productive but are not sharing in the benefits of their increased effort. If you think in terms of wages, benefits and the creation of good jobs, the employment landscape is grim.

The economy is going great guns, we're told, but nearly nine million Americans are officially unemployed, and the real tally of the jobless is much higher. Even as the Bush administration and the media celebrate the blossoming of statistics that supposedly show how well we're doing, the lines at food banks and soup kitchens are lengthening. They're swollen in many cases by the children of men and women who are working but not making enough to house and feed their families.

I.B.M. has crafted plans to send thousands of upscale jobs from the U.S. to lower-paid workers in China, India and elsewhere. Anyone who doesn't believe this is the wave of the future should listen to comments made last spring by an I.B.M. executive named Harry Newman:

"I think probably the biggest impact to employee relations and to the H.R. field is this concept of globalization. It is rapidly accelerating, and it means shifting a lot of jobs, opening a lot of locations in places we had never dreamt of before, going where there's low-cost labor, low-cost competition, shifting jobs offshore."

An executive at Microsoft, the ultimate American success story, told his department heads last year to "Think India," and to "pick something to move offshore today."

hese matters should be among the hottest topics of our national conversation. We've already witnessed the carnage in manufacturing jobs. Now, with white-collar jobs at stake, we've got executives at I.B.M. and Microsoft exchanging high-fives at the prospect of getting "two heads for the price of one" in India.

It might be a good idea to throw a brighter spotlight on some of these trends and explore the implications for the long-term economy and the American standard of living.

"If you take this to its logical extreme, the implications for the entire middle-class wage structure in the United States are terrifying," said Thea Lee, an economist with the A.F.L.-C.I.O. "Now is the time to start thinking about policy solutions."

But that's exactly what we're not thinking about. Government policy at the moment is focused primarily on what's best for the corporations. From that perspective, job destruction and wage compression are good things as long as they don't get too much high-profile attention.

"This is a significant problem, much greater than we believed it was even a year ago," said Marcus Courtney, president of the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, an affiliate of the Communication Workers of America.

Accurate data on the number of jobs already lost are all but impossible to come by. But there is no disputing the direction of the trend, or the fact that it is accelerating. Allowing this movement to continue unchecked will eventually mean economic suicide for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of American families.

Globalization may be a fact of life. But that does not mean that its destructive impact on American families can't be mitigated. The best thing workers can do, including white-collar and professional workers, is to organize. At the same time, the exportation of jobs and the effect that is having on the standard of living here should be relentlessly monitored by the government, the civic sector and the media. The public has a right to know what's really going on.

Trade agreements and tax policies should be examined and updated to encourage the creation of employment that enhances the quality of life here at home. Corporate leaders may not feel an obligation to contribute to the long-term well-being of local communities or the nation as a whole, but that shouldn't be the case with the rest of us.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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