Authors: Barbara Garson
by Barbara Garson
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
and the portrayal of an anchor with a dolphin are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
“The Mystery of the Missing Unemployed Man” was previously published in slightly different form on
Jacket design by Emily Mahon Cashier totaling grocery purchases © PhotoAlto/James Hardy/Getty Images; business people exiting Wall Street Station © Fuse/Getty Images; woman on cell phone © Blend Images/SuperStock; male factory worker © Corbis/SuperStock; seamstress, Hispanic small business owner © Bipolar/Getty Images; factory worker © Blend Images/SuperStock; cleaning up a theater © Pedro Castellano/Getty Images; auto factory worker © Cultura/Limited/SuperStock; petroleum workers © Corbis/SuperStock; Hispanic businessman working on computer © JGI/Tom Grill/Getty Images
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Down the up escalator : how the
percent live in the Great Recession / Barbara Garson.
. Income distribution—United States—History—
. Equality—United States—History—
. Global Financial Crisis,
. I. Title.
In order to protect the identities of most of the people I interviewed for this book, I did not use their real names. Money is such a sensitive subject that I eventually changed all names except for a couple of people who spoke in their official capacities and one media-savvy fellow whose own blog reveals far more intimate things about him than I do here. I also changed the location of a small town, and I regretfully concealed a few corporate names that it would have been fun to mention. Despite these bits of camouflage, none of the people you’re about to meet are composites. They’re individuals speaking in their own words.
I met a man about forty years ago and caught up with him on three more occasions. These four scenes, spanning four decades of his life, should have been enough for me to predict the Great Recession. But I didn’t put it together till now.
In the late 1960s I worked at a coffeehouse near an army base from which soldiers shipped out to Vietnam. A lot of the GIs who frequented our place were putting out antiwar newspapers and planning demonstrations—one group was even organizing a union inside the army.
But I often sat with a young man back from Vietnam who was simply waiting out the time till his discharge. Duane had floppy brown hair, lively eyes, a sweet smile, and was slightly bucktoothed. He was handy and would fix our record player or show up with a part that made our old mimeograph machine run more smoothly.
He rarely spoke about the war except to say that his company stayed stoned the whole time. “Our motto was ‘Let’s not and say we did.’ Me and this other guy painted that on a big banner. It stayed up for a whole day,” he noted with a mix of sardonic and genuine pride.
That was the extent of Duane’s antiwar activism. He didn’t intend to become a professional Vietnam vet like John Kerry. His plan was to return to Cleveland and make up for time missed in the civilian counterculture.
I enjoyed my breaks with Duane because of his warm, self-aware humor, but thousands of GIs passed through the coffeehouse, and I didn’t particularly notice when he left.
In the early 1970s General Motors set up the fastest auto assembly line in the world in Lordstown, Ohio, and staffed it with workers whose average age was twenty-four.
The management hoped that these healthy, young, and inexperienced workers would handle 101 cars an hour without balking the way longtime autoworkers surely would have. But the pace and monotony were just as oppressive to the younger workers. What GM got at Lordstown instead of balkiness, however, was a series of slowdowns and snafus aimed at the speed of the line. The management publicized this as systematic “sabotage”—until it realized that that could hurt car sales.
I visited Lordstown the week before a strike vote, amid national speculation about the generation of “hippie autoworkers” whose
talk about “humanizing the assembly line” was supposed to change forever the way America works.
On a guided tour of the plant (how else could I get inside?), I spotted Duane shooting radios into cars with an air gun. We recognized each other, but in the regimented factory environment we both instinctively thought it better not to let on. In lieu of a greeting, Duane slipped me a note with his phone number. At home that evening he summarized life since his discharge.
“Remember you guys gave me a giant banana split the day I ETSed [got out as scheduled]. Well, it’s been downhill since then. I came back to Cleveland, stayed with my dad, who was unemployed. Man, was that ever a downer. But I figured things would pick up if I got wheels, so I got a car. But it turned out the car wasn’t human and that was a problem. So I figured, ‘What I need is a girl.’ But it turned out the girl
was a problem. So I wound up working at GM to pay off the car and the girl.”
And he introduced me to his pregnant wife, of whom he seemed much fonder than it sounded.
The young couple had no complaints about the pay at GM. Still, Duane planned to quit after his wife had the baby. “I’m staying so we can use the hospital plan.” After that? “Maybe we’ll go live on the land.” If that didn’t pan out, he’d look for a job where he’d get to do something “worthwhile.”
To Duane worthwhile work didn’t mean launching a space shuttle or curing cancer. It meant getting to see something he’d accomplished like fixing the coffeehouse record player, as opposed to performing his assigned snaps, twists, and squirts on cars that moved past him every thirty-six seconds.
He also wanted to escape the military atmosphere of the auto
plant. “It’s just like the army,” he told me. “They even use the same words, like ‘direct order.’ Supposedly, you have a contract, so there’s some things they just can’t make you do. Except if the foreman gives you a direct order, you do it or you’re out.”
So despite the high pay, Duane and his friends talked about moving on. This wasn’t just a pipe dream. In the early 1970s there was enough work around that if a friend moved to Atlanta or there was a band you liked in Cincinnati, you could hitchhike there and find a job in a day or two that would cover your rent and food.
That made it hard to run a business of course. The GM management echoed many other U.S. employers when it complained about Monday/Friday absenteeism and high turnover among young workers. At just about that time U.S. manufacturers began feeling competition from German and Japanese products, and for the first time in decades they saw a slight dip in profit rates. In retrospect I wonder if this wasn’t the historic moment when many companies determined to do something about their labor problem.
But neither Duane nor I had any premonition of the outsourcing and off-shoring soon to come. For us it was a time when jobs abounded and Americans talked not about finding work but about humanizing it.
In the 1980s I spoke at a university in Michigan and spotted Duane in the audience. When the talk ended, I asked him to come out with
us—me and the professors who’d invited me there. But Duane had to collect his children from their schools and drop them with the sitter in time to get himself to his 4:00 p.m. shift. His wife would pick them up when her day shift ended an hour later.
“Complicated logistics,” I said.
“It’s a tighter maneuver than my company in Nam ever pulled off,” he quipped. But he and his family pulled it off every day.
In the minutes we had, Duane told me that he no longer worked in auto. “Too many layoffs.” In order to “keep ahead of it,” he’d become a machinist. And to keep ahead of that, he’d upgraded his skill to the point where “I program the machines that program the other machinists.” His shrug said, “What are you gonna do?”
At that time, computers were being introduced into machine shops in a way that took the planning away from the operators at their benches and centralized it in the office or planning department. Duane was helping to fine-tune the automation that would reduce many of his skilled co-workers to machine tenders. He understood that he was “keeping ahead of it” by rendering other men cheaper and more replaceable. Hence his apologetic shrug.
His wife apparently hadn’t managed to keep ahead of computer automation. She processed data at an insurance company and came home most evenings with a headache from staring into the era’s immobile, blinking CRT screens.
“Office work is getting to be worse than those factories you wrote about,” Duane told me. “By the way, I liked the book.” He meant my book
All the Livelong Day
, with a chapter on Lordstown in which he appears.
A Phone Call
In the summer of 2008 a man called to say that he and his sisters were contacting names in their father’s address book to let them know that he had passed away.