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The Last Word Losing Sight

May 21, 2009
Related Topics: The HR Profession, Career Development, Employee Career Development, Retention, Featured Article, Recruitment, Staffing Management
This is what qualifies as good news these days: Last week, the Conference Board Employment Trends Index, which is an aggregation of eight labor-market indicators, reported a drop of “only” 0.7 percent in April, the smallest decline in nearly a year.

“The outlook for employment is much less negative than in prior months,” noted Gad Levanon, senior economist at the Conference Board, “but still it is not likely that employment growth will resume before the final quarter of the year.”

And this is what it’s come down to in the Year of the Endless Cutback: Economic indicators that aren’t over-the-top horrible get spun as a positive trend. It’s why the Labor Department report of “only” 539,000 jobs lost in April gets the stock market moving upward and everyone breathing a sigh of relief, when in fact, the same number a year ago would have been viewed as a terrible catastrophe.

With the seemingly endless cycle of buyouts, layoffs, downsizing, furloughs and pay cuts that keep on coming every day, it makes me wonder: Why are union and management negotiators squabbling over the notion of lifetime job guarantees at The Boston Globe?

The background is pretty simple. The Globe, New England’s largest newspaper, is losing bucket-loads of money—projections for this year are $85 million—and its owner, the New York Times Co., has asked its unions for some $20 million in givebacks or else face the prospect of the newspaper shutting down.

Given the terrible state of the newspaper business, The Globe’s unions pulled together and came up with the cutbacks, but one issue remained that the Newspaper Guild refused to give in on: getting rid of lifetime job guarantees for 190 union members. Both sides made a lot of noise over this issue, but it finally got settled for a hard-to-fathom payoff of just $33,000 to each of those workers who held a “lifetime” job.

Former newspaper editor Alan Mutter hit this issue square on the head when he wrote in his blog that “the idea of lifetime jobs seems hopelessly quaint in this era of Darwinian globalization, continuous technological disruption and profound economic uncertainty.” Another blogger noted, rightly, that “even Japanese government workers don’t get [lifetime job guarantees] anymore.”

Don’t get me wrong; I love the concept of a job for life, but I put it in the same category as winning the lottery. It’s a wonderful fantasy—and nothing more.

With all that’s going on in the American workplace these days, with everyone scratching for any kind of positive economic news, no matter how tenuous, it makes me wonder: How can we possibly be having a debate anywhere about the notion of lifetime jobs? Isn’t this the workforce management equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns?

It is, of course, but it just confirms in my mind that organized labor is focused on all the wrong things for all the wrong reasons. Rather than debating “lifetime” jobs, or the Employee Free Choice Act, or the organized labor issue du jour, I’d rather we had a discussion about the real issues workers care about. Things like, “How do I keep my skills relevant for today’s workplace?” or “How can I transition to a new career path?” or even “What can I do to keep me going until I can afford to retire?”

We need to have a serious public debate in this country about jobs, careers and the nature of the modern American workplace. This economic downturn and the ongoing flood of bad news make everyone think about these issues, but then we get sucked into the sideshow topics that both management and labor seem to want to debate instead.

Yes, a recession is a terrible thing to waste, as some have noted. Here’s hoping that we aren’t distracted by the noise of the labor-management midway and lose the singular focus everyone seems to have right now on workplace issues. We should channel that focus into a national discussion that will, perhaps, help us to avoid this nightmare the next time the economy turns down.

Workforce Management, May 18, 2009, p. 50 -- Subscribe Now!

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