Understanding Americans: The New Social Contract
by Gene Griessman, Ph.D.
Competitiveness is the mantra. For American companies to keep up with Chinese operations that get workers for a few dollars a day, American workers have grudgingly accepted the view that they will have to do more for less.
Plant closings, mergers, downsizing and outsourcing have eliminated entire industries. Americans often blame it on unions. If it hadn’t been for union demands, they say, the plants wouldn’t have closed. But that doesn’t square with the reality that entire industries that weren’t unionized, or barely unionized (like textiles), are no more.
It’s not uncommon to see laid-off executives doing clerical work. And some do virtually nothing, but call themselves “consultants,” even though they have no clients.
Attitudes have shifted. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. “Workers are becoming more entrepreneurial in their career paths,” a partner in an executive search firm by the name of Jerry Bump told me. “Your job belongs to your employer, but your career belongs to you. The employee-employer relationship has been ruptured. It’s utilitarian. ‘I need you as long as I need you.’ That’s as true of employers as of employees.” Jerry Bump
We are witnessing the birth of what is sometimes called “the free-lance society.”
There are more and more “independent contractors,” which is advantageous for employers because they don’t have to pay benefits. Many of these independent contractors work out of their homes, which is another savings for the company.
And then there are the virtual corporations. These organizations pride themselves in being able to staff every position in a business. The host company pays virtually no benefits to the contract workers, and has to do damn little paperwork. A very neat trick. Almost magic.
Unions have grown much weaker over the past few decades, and no revival is in sight. Which brings up the question, who speaks for what used to be called “working people”?
That term has become a euphemism for hourly workers and blue-collar laborers—in other words, individuals who have little or no stake in the management or ownership of the companies that hire them.
The courts have sometimes spoken for workers. But, judging from recent Supreme Court decisions, there has been a shift away from workers rights to the claims of business.
What about politicians? Not a lot of hope there. Ordinary individuals cannot afford the $1000-a-person fund-raisers where they can chat with important politicians. But isn’t the United States a government “of the people?”
It depends on which of the “people” you’re talking about. The Republican Party typically tilts toward the interests of business, of management and capital, especially big corporations and finance. Not exclusively, of course, but generally.
The Democratic Party tends to hold positions somewhat similar to moderates in the Labour Party in the UK. But there is one group of American politician, virtually all Democrats, that does represent ordinary workers, and the poor—African American politicians with urban consistencies.
It doesn’t take a detective to figure out why they pay attention to the needs of working people. It is in their best political interests to vote for the needs of those who live in their districts.
To sum up, the unions, though weakened, still have some influence. The courts, from time to time, do side with little people, but justice is usually slow in coming, almost always expensive, and sometimes bitterly disappointing. The media, is a kind of fourth branch of government, and has been able to help correct some of the worse abuses. It’s power is though the ability to embarrass, and the capacity to arouse moral outage.
But the old social contract is virtually a thing of the past. Life-time employment is a relic. Even universities, with their hallowed tenure system, are hybrids with scads of contract instructors and teaching assistants who do a big chunk of the teaching, get little respect, cannot expect life-time employment, and work for low wages.
It’s all in the name of survival. The new social contact is based on expediency, it demands efficiency, and motivates by slogans, pep talks, and fear.
With all these changes, should we look for a revolution of American workers?
Americans workers by and large believe they are better off than workers in other lands. Americans are the truest believers in exceptionalism. Life may be hard, but it is far worse elsewhere. If the company they worked for cheated them, or closed down and left them with nothing, they still are not revolutionaries.
Never have been. Probably never will be.
–from the forthcoming book “How To Do Business With Americans”
Gene Griessman is an award-winning professional speaker, actor, and consultant. His video “Lincoln on Communication” is owned by thousands of corporations, libraries, and government organizations. He has spoken at conventions all over the world. To learn more about his presentations, contact us at 404-435-2225 or [email protected] Learn more about Gene Griessman at presidentlincoln.com and atlantaspeakersbureau.com
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