Lessons from GM

At the end of World War II, 13 million or so American men streamed home from the services into America’s businesses and industries, eager to go to work and live normal lives again.
Thousands of them found jobs building cars or the parts that went into them. The veterans also had the GI Bill of Rights that would pay them to get a college education and pay their education bills, too. But why study for four years when they could step into the world of General Motors and gain security for the rest of their lives?
Blue collar workers never had it so good. They earned wages high enough to pay for a house. Their wives could stay home and raise the kids. They could quit work in 30 years — before they were 55 — assured of a generous pension and paid-up health insurance for the rest of their lives.
That dream world slipped away into history’s fog before many of those veterans feasted on milk and honey. The demise of General Motors — the symbol of Blue Collar Heaven — last week was a grim reminder that the world of work has changed permanently.
Today few blue collar workers earn enough to buy a house and pay the bills without another income in the family. Pensions are still to be had but even buttressed by Social Security checks, families without substantial savings face an austere retirement. A growing number stay on the job after 65 and the not-so-healthy depend on supplemental insurance along with Medicare.
A study cited by The Economist last week showed that median wages for men in their 30s actually fell 12 percent between 1974 and 2004 when adjusted for inflation.
And the current recession is hitting blue-collar Americans much harder than it has the financial workers who have grab-bed the headlines. The Economist reported that 70 percent of the 6 million jobs lost since late 2007, when the recession began, came from blue-collar ranks.
As for the political punch the overalled worker ranks used with such effect in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, organized labor enjoyed its last hurrah when Ronald Reagan shrewdly crafted a coalition of Republicans and Reagan Democrats, co-opted the working man and left union leaders without the army of followers they once led to the polls.
The 2008 election told a new story:
“ ... Sarah Palin, the hockey-mom candidate, issued repeated appeals to Joe Six-pack. Hillary Clinton presented herself as the candidate of ‘hard-working Americans’ against Barack Obama and his army of egg-heads. But Joe Six-pack concluded that he had been given little by the Republicans but an endless culture war. And Mr. Obama triumphed where previous pointy-headed candidates such as George McGovern had failed. The truth is that the Democratic Party is now much more a party of educated professionals than a party promoting the interests of the working class.”

THE TRUTH also is that today’s secure workers, both men and women, work both with their minds and their hands; that the key to their security is education and training; that the future is as bright with hope and possibilities as it ever was.
Perhaps America’s in-dustries will never again be paternalistic giants offering workers life-long security as General Motors did for a few shining decades. As an alternative that many will find more attractive, the best jobs today and in the future will require thought, imagination and broad-based skills and learning while avoiding the stultifying repetition of the assembly line.
That’s the new world of work. Youngsters should prepare themselves for it; parents should do all in their power to see that they do.

— Emerson Lynn, jr.