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Reviewed by:
  • The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences, and: Communities and Workforce Development
  • Michael J. Polzin
The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences. By Louis Uchitelle . New York: Knopf, 2006. 283 pp. $25.95 hardback.
Communities and Workforce Development. Edited by Edwin Melendez . Kalamazoo, Michigan: W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, 2004. 499 pp. $25 paper.

Jobs and employment security are topics prominent in much of the public discourse about what the future does and should hold for the United States' economy and the American worker. These two books contribute to different, though related, aspects of this conversation.

Louis Uchitelle's book focuses on the dissolution of the social contract between employers and employees. He asks the reader to reconsider the angst [End Page 93] of those who struggle with layoffs and their aftermath. Interestingly, Uchitelle focuses attention on several cases involving solidly middle-class individuals who, though they did not face imminent financial disaster, struggled in myriad other ways, illustrating how layoffs take their toll regardless of the individual's skill level or position held with their former employer.

The pain and injustice are no less significant today simply because we have heard the story before. Perhaps because we have been hearing this tale for over thirty years, Uchitelle feels compelled to provocatively ask, "Are we going to once again be a community of people who feel obligated to take care of one another, or are we going to continue as a collection of individuals, each one increasingly concerned only with her or his well-being?" Of course this is a question that has motivated unions and labor educators for many years.

Uchitelle recounts the factors that contributed to the creation of the social contract initially and then turns his attention to those that brought about its demise. He suggests that the practice of extensive layoffs has proliferated in part because the public has come to believe and acquiesce to employers' claims that worker dislocations are simply another cost of doing business. This is compounded by the fact that the voices of some traditional opponents of mass layoffs, particularly unions, have been quieted due to declining numbers.

But that is only part of Uchitelle's message. He argues that although employer claims of necessity to better ensure competitiveness are largely unsupported by available data, they go unchallenged. He emphasizes that those remaining in a firm following a layoff or downsizing, even though still receiving a paycheck and benefits, suffer a trauma themselves that ultimately has a negative effect on the effectiveness and profitability of the firm. He also suggests that layoffs waste worker knowledge and capabilities in a way that ultimately hurts our collective ability to sustain economic competitiveness. In its final chapter, The Disposable American offers a number of solutions and practices that have the potential to foster a gradual increase in job security augmented by policies that will reduce the impact of layoffs on workers.

While Uchitelle focuses on phenomena surrounding job loss, the authors in Melendez' edited volume look at ways that community-based organizations have adjusted to changes in workforce development policies in order to facilitate job entry and retention among disadvantaged workers. Two federal laws, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which placed time limits on receipt of public assistance and added work requirements to maintain eligibility, and the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, which granted greater authority to states and local governments and de-emphasized training and education in favor of work-first strategies, "redefined the underlying philosophical foundations and program structure of the [End Page 94] employment training system in the United States." Melendez stated that these "policy shocks" forced many community-based service providers to revamp and engage in partnerships with others in order to survive as organizations and effectively serve their traditional constituents.

Much of this book will be of interest primarily to those engaged in workforce development research or service delivery, although two chapters may be of particular interest to unions and labor educators. The first of those describes three union-sponsored programs—the San Francisco Hotels Partnership Project, the District 1199C (National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, AFSCME) Training and...


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Print ISSN
pp. 93-95
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2007
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