Stressing your system

December 8, 2007

He was a first generation Canadian and was deeply proud of his Scottish background. Whether saying a prayer, making a presentation or telling one of his many jokes, it all sounded better with his Scottish brogue. When I read letters or emails from him I still hear it. He seemed somehow to embody so much of Herman’s portrayal of his country as described in How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It. We were twenty years younger but we became lifetime friends inspite of physical distance and long lapses in communication. Not long ago we were there beside her hospital bed when his wife died of cancer. He was still involved in the local community and in masters’ athletics.

He worked for many years as mechanical engineer with mining companies in remote and northerly areas. His was the first story of the American-style firing I heard and perhaps for that reason I felt it so deeply. Perhaps it was how and where we learned about it that made it seem so ominous. In the 1980s we were living in a third-world country in a youthful self-imposed minimalist lifestyle that suited the idealism of those who experienced the 1960s. In comparison to where we were living, so much of the Canadian socio-economic, political structures seemed like a mirage, a goal towards which our adopted home could aspire to, perhaps 50 years in the future. When the letter arrived we read it together in disbelief. If he was vulnerable to being fired, to being almost cheated out of a pension, how could others survive? How could this happen in Canada? He talked about a colleague who arrived at work one day and without warning was met at the entrance by Security who accompanied him to his office and observed as he emptied his personal belongings from his desk into a cardboard box. The man left in a daze and was found hours later wandering off along the highway with his box in his hand unable to grasp what had happened to him.

During the 1990s when we were back in Canada, the American-style firing became common practice. Companies learned to use financial incentives to ensure the silence of people they fired. Our Scottish friend eventually landed on his feet, started a successful second career and rarely seemed to reveal any bitterness about the experience. Other friends and family members have not been so fortunate. Were we indeed acquiescing, as Uchitelle (2006 [2007]) suggests and therefore encouraging the counterproductive process of layoffs, mergers and acquisitions and outsourcing, that destroyed the notion of job security and dignity of work in North America?

So as I read synopses, excerpts and reviews from the book entitled The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences (2006 [2007]) by economist, journalist and professor, Louis Uchitelle, it brought me back to that 1980’s letter, like an old postcard that slipped from between the virtual pages of Uchitelle’s book making this story so intimate, personal and timeless.

Timeline of related social events

1950s and 1960s Economist, journalist and professor, Louis Uchitelle described this period as the heyday in the rise of job security in the United States (Uchitelle 2006; Uchitelle 2007).

1966-1988 Donald W. Davis was CEO of Stanley Works for twenty two years in New Britain, Connecticut, the city’s largest employer. These two decades spanned the city’s largest employer best days to the beginning of the layoffs (which he initiated) and plant closings in the 1980s. Like many chief executives of his era, he had been deeply involved in the life of the city that had supplied thousands of Stanley’s workers. The Davis children attended public school in New Britain where he served on the Board of Education including a stint as president of the Board (Uchitelle 2006; Uchitelle 2007).

1975 Foreign competition made its inroads into the North American economy. Corporations panicked with a knee-jerk reaction by implementing the first major layoffs which eventually spread and multiplied, in time destroying the notion of job security and the dignity of work in North America (Uchitelle 2006; Uchitelle 2007).

1987 Economist, journalist and professor, Louis Uchitelle covered economics for The New York Times since 1987, focusing on labor and business issues.

1988 Donald W. Davis retired on schedule, a wealthy man. He sold his bright yellow Dutch Colonial home in New Britain, Connecticut, and moved with his wife to Martha’s Vineyard, where their summer house on seven acres of rolling lawn became their main residence (Uchitelle 2006; Uchitelle 2007).

1996 Economist and journalist Louis Uchitelle shared a major award for its 1996 series “The Downsizing of America.” He also taught journalism at Columbia University’s School of General Studies.

2006 Former CEO of Stanley Works, 81-year-old Donald W. Davis was running a leadership seminar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This was his final public platform where he could present his explanation of the layoffs and plant closings at Stanley Works in the 1980s. Somewhere between 1988 and 2006 he became too uncomfortable to make the four hour trip between his comfortable home in Martha’s Vineyard to New Britain, Connecticut. His former employees had lost their jobs against their wishes. Although he admits to initiating the layoffs he maintains that no one blames him.


Business & Economics >> Economic Conditions

Keywords, folksonomies:

Business, Economics, Economic Conditions, layoffs, job security, wasteful mergers, mergers and acquisitions, wage stagnation, outsourcing, Business Ethic, labour, labor, downsizing,

Webliography and Bibliography

Herman, Arthur. How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It.

Uchitelle, Louis. 2007. “Le coût psychique du licenciement.” Le Monde diplomatique. Octobre.

Uchitelle, Louis. 2006. The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences. Random House. 2006-03-28. ISBN: 1400041171

Uchitelle, Louis. 2007. The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences. Knopf Publishing Group. Apr 2007. http://www.ereadable.com/scripts/browse.asp?ref=5551619605&source=P25

CC Flynn-Burhoe, 2007. Stressing your System. >> Speechless. December 7.

CC Flynn-Burhoe, 2007. Stressing your System. >> Google Docs. December 7.


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