D.W. Gibson: Who’s to blame if you lost your job?

10/11/2012 5:00 PM

10/11/2012 5:00 PM

When people are out of work, there’s a lot of blame to go around. President Obama faults the “failed policies of the past,” which he says Mitt Romney would bring back. Romney says Obama had four years to fix things and couldn’t.

So Democrats blame Republicans, Republicans blame Democrats, libertarians blame the Federal Reserve, businesses blame regulations, regulators blame Wall Street, and everyone blames China. But whom do the unemployed themselves blame?

I spent the summer and fall of 2011 driving across the country and interviewing jobless Americans. Those out of work do not need belated coaching on where to direct their anger. They began pointing fingers long ago – the moment their jobs were taken away against their wishes, through no fault of their own.

Most people I interviewed knew they shouldn’t blame themselves, even if they couldn’t resist. Wendy Hamilton, a 33-year-old with a master’s degree, lost her job at a nonprofit organization in Omaha just weeks before we spoke.

“I believe it doesn’t matter how confident you are, how old you are, what class you’re in,” she told me. “When you get laid off, there will be a moment of, ‘It’s my fault.’”

Most emphasized that they did not blame an immediate boss – or, really, anyone they worked with. More often than not, the person delivering the bad news of a layoff did not make the decision.

“It was like this thing out there in the universe had done this to me,” said Sue Whetten, a 55-year-old horticulturist from Fort Collins, Colo. She had worked at the botanic gardens in Cheyenne, Wyo., until she lost her job to budget cuts in 2010.

In the global economy, we accept a brand of capitalism that disconnects corporate leaders from the employees affected by their decisions. This geographic, civic and economic separation is what many unemployed people blame for their joblessness.

In DeWitt, Neb., William Petersen patented Vise-Grip locking pliers in 1924. For 60 years, the Petersens owned and operated the plant that manufactured the pliers. They lived in the town of 500 or so, buying uniforms for the Little League team, helping build the ballfield and paying for a five-bay firehouse. When the family made tough business decisions, they knew the people who would be affected by them.

“The Petersen family, basically, they were this town,” said Randy Badman, a 62-year-old former supervisor at the plant who, on the day he was laid off in 2008, received a security escort across the factory floor where he had worked for 36 years. He told me that he and his wife expected the end when, in 2002, the Petersens announced that the company had been sold to a conglomerate headquartered in another state, governed by shareholders scattered across the globe.

“You could hear this sucking sound in the United States,” Badman said. “All these companies going to China and Mexico.”

But Badman did not blame his layoff on Chinese workers. He pointed out that low-wage earners in China would probably seek a better quality of life – higher wages, better living conditions – in return for their hard work. Badman, like most of the unemployed I met, knew that workers overseas did not steal his job. He blamed his unemployment on people “at corporate” he couldn’t name who, on the day after he was laid off, met with his former subordinates to ask what he did every day. Executives were so disconnected that they no longer knew what they had paid Badman to do.

Sometimes anger and blame are directed at political leadership – anger that supersedes party allegiances or catfights between Candidate A and Candidate B. I found that jobless folks thought Democrats and Republicans had synthesized into a single, unresponsive entity.

In Reno, Nev., I spoke with Scott Cooksley, a 46-year-old former casino restaurant manager laid off in early 2008 as gamblers and homebuyers started fleeing the city. Jobless and homeless, he lived in a park off of McCarran Boulevard in nearby Sparks. He told me about two important people in his life: Jesus Christ and Ronald Reagan. The latter might not have agreed with Cooksley’s call for government to intervene on behalf of workers.

“My grandparents went through the Depression, and they had the jobs programs, all the social programs,” he said. “Maybe all they were doing is giving people a room and food, but, gosh darn, they were working, at least they felt better about themselves. Why can’t they do that here?”

Jessica Smith shared Cooksley’s desire for a government public-works program. She was laid off in 2010 from a sales position at an arts organization in Buffalo shortly after learning that she was pregnant. I met the 32-year-old in Birmingham, Ala., where she had relocated with her husband to be near family.

“Since you got all of these great, talented people that are underemployed or unemployed, they have time to go down to places like Occupy Wall Street and yell about it and maybe try to fix it,” she said. “They are angry, but they want to fix it. It’s not like, ‘Throw out the baby with the bathwater.’ It’s like, ‘How can we help this baby?’”

In Indianapolis, Nancy Lee, 53, was laid off from her position as a construction project manager in 2008. Discouraged by the experience, she left the business.

“I see so many people who have poured their heart and soul into their companies, and their companies just cut them loose,” she said. “I’m angry for them, too. You didn’t just do this to me, you did this over and over and over to so many people, just so that you could make your stockholders, this little group of people, really happy.”

Lee was not defined by her anger. Like many unemployed people I interviewed, she stressed that a corporation’s survival depends on employees just as much as it does shareholders and that both deserve equal esteem and financial security.

Jobless Americans are Democrats and Republicans. Whatever their affiliation, many blame our democracy for not confronting the malfunctions of capitalism. Waiting for corporate leadership to reconnect with the demoralized American workforce is not an option.

“Corporate’s not going to listen,” Badman told me just down the street from the shuttered Vise-Grip plant in DeWitt. “They wouldn’t listen to us. But who are we? Who was I? We weren’t anybody.”

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