Wednesday, February 6, 2008
Now nearing 61, his hands shake a little when he works, but he's still faster than any two younger men. He's been at the same station in the same factory for around 30 years, rarely taking a sick day, never complaining and always getting the job done.
He never said much and barely lost his smile when I told him last week that his job had been eliminated. Perhaps he didn't blame me and knew that I'd fought hard for him. But in the end he was out of work, facing uncertain prospects and a frightening future no matter what had been done on his behalf.
Everyone understands that bad things happen to good people all the time. By their very nature, bad things would not in fact be so bad if they only happened to evil folks, meaning they pretty much have to happen to good, or at least tolerable, people.
For example, were an anvil to fall on Osama bin Laden's head few people would consider that a bad thing. Similarly, you would be upset if your friend had to declare bankruptcy, but might not shed quite as many tears were financial misfortune to fall on Simon Cowell or Barry Bonds.
Generally, however, I'm not the person carrying out those bad things and afflicting them on the aforementioned good people. That changed this week when I was forced to tell a half dozen men, most of them good workers, that they no longer had jobs.
Like most American factory workers, they probably saw their layoffs as inevitable. Most of them likely never thought much about whether their jobs would go to a handful of Chinese workers or to Americans "lucky" enough to live someplace where minimum wage was the going rate.
When something bad happens to you, the "why" tends to not matter nearly as much as the "what next." It seems that knowing the reason for your misfortune does not make you any less unfortunate, so it's not really worth wasting your time searching for answers.
As the person who had to be the bearer of bad news, however, I'm a little more concerned with the "why" and what I could have done to stop this from happening. Unfortunately, the scene that happened in my office this week has been repeated in countless others around the country.
It's simply impossible to make many products in the United States because for too many people quality no longer matters. Why buy a well-made product produced by American workers when an inferior imported knockoff costs so much less at the local giant box store?
Everyone likes saving money and few people think about the impact of their purchasing decisions on the overall economy. Unfortunately, our short term savings at the cash register has long-term ramifications that have devastated the U.S. economy.
First, we started shopping at box stores and devastated our downtowns, pushing local merchants out of business. Next, we pushed the competing giant stores to continually lower prices, driving down the quality of merchandise, forcing production to be sent overseas and ultimately dooming the American factory worker.
Last, I suppose, those of us lucky enough to still have jobs get to sit in a room and tell dedicated employees that the only job they have ever known no longer exists. Most likely they will end up working for a box store, making less money, forcing them to buy the cheapest goods they can find, which will probably put a few more Americans out of work.
Daniel B. Kline's work appears in over 100 papers weekly. His new book, a collection of columns, "Easy Answers to Every Problem," can be ordered at Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com. Daniel B. Kline can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.