America's Big Speed-Up: No Wonder the Jobless Rate is Staying at Depression Levels

My wife Joyce and I were renting a car for the week this morning at a Hertz office just outside Philadelphia. There was a line of people either waiting to pick up a vehicle, or to return one.

The harried clerk behind the counter — the only guy in the office — was fielding calls while trying to serve the first guy in line, who was trying to rent a car for a vacation trip with his wife to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. No sooner would the poor clerk sit down at the computer to start typing in the information from the man’s driver’s license than the phone would ring — a phone that was located on a desk in a cubicle behind him, requiring him to get up and run around to the back cubicle.

The man at the counter, and others in the line, sighed audibly.

The clerk rolled his eyes in apology as he explained to the caller that he was backed up in the office, and would have to call her back. There was a pause, and he said into the phone calmly, “Within the hour. I promise.”

Then he came back to the counter, apologizing. The phone rang again. He ran back to the phone and fielded this second call, again saying he’d have to call the person back.

The man at the counter, likely a college professor judging by his baseball cap, which had embossed on the side “Penn Relays Official,” observed to no one in particular, “Here it is: the New American Economy.”

I said, “You got that right!”

Later, after four people had been taken care of and it was our turn, as we were inspecting the vehicle for dents and scratches before signing off on the rental, I asked the guy why the office was so short-staffed. “They cut us back to one person on Saturdays,” he said. “But there’s way too much work for one person.” (He had just had to leave four people in line in the office to run out across the parking lot, wearing his crisp office uniform, with its long pants, in 90-degree heat, to retrieve a sun-roasted black car for us and bring it to the front of the office.)

I asked him if he had some wall that he could beat his fist against when he got home. “I go straight to the gym after work,” he said with a wry laugh.

This incident happened on the same day that the local paper, the Philadlephia Inquirer, reported on its front page that Merck, the pharmaceutical giant, is planning to lay off 13,000 of its employees over the next four years.
US Companies aren't hiring, they're making existing workers work harderUS Companies aren't hiring, they're making existing workers work harder

That’s one-sixth of the company’s total global workforce, and you can bet that the vast majority of those laid off will be workers in the United States.

The announcement of the layoff plan comes as the $46-billion sales company announces second-quarter sales rose 7 percent to $12.15 billion, and that net income had nearly tripled to $2.02 billion over the year-earlier three-month period.

Two years ago, Merck acquired competitor Schering-Plough Corp. for a price of $41 billion, and subsequently laid off 16,000 people, or roughly 15 percent of the combined workforces of the two merged firms. Now it’s heading for a new round of layoffs.

Merck’s CEO and President Kenneth C. Frazier, said of the new layoff announcement, “For our people this won’t be easy, but the realities of our environment dictate the need to operate more flexibly and nimbly from a cost basis.”

The realities of that environment, among other things, include $4 million in pay, bonuses and other compensation for the year for Frazier.

I have spoken with at least one Merck researcher who says that the company has gutted research departments, which seems an odd thing to do, given that the company has problems with finding and winning Food and Drug Administration approval for new drugs in its pipeline to replace big earners that are nearing the end of their patent protection. You would think the thing to do would be to use some of those record profits to hire more researchers.

Unless you realize that this is the “New Economy,” and like the over-worked employees in Hertz rental offices, managements everywhere–at Hertz, at Merck, and just about everywhere else, knows that their employees are so frightened about losing their jobs that they will work twice as hard, especially if the person in the next office or at the next desk is given the axe.

Another word for what is happening is a speed-up.

Another might be serfdom.

It’s the reason that the economy is staying in a state of depression (not recession, which just refers to the size and direction of the gross domestic product). Instead of hiring more workers as profits rise, companies, which have reportedly piled up an astonishing $1.2 trillion in profits, instead of spending that money are making existing smaller workforces just do more work in the same number of hours (overtime is actually down, and paychecks are shrinking). They are even figuring, “Hey, we’ve got these people working harder for less pay, so why not make them work even harder?” and are laying off even more people, like Merck says it will be doing over the next few years. (If they do spend any of their cash hoards, they spend it abroad in cheap-labor countries, not here in the U.S.)

We are on a downward spiral. Wages are going down, people are working harder for less. That means nobody can buy cars and houses, or even, increasingly, needed healthcare. Tax revenues are also falling, which is why the federal deficit has been rising so much (Note to President Obama, to the Democratic Party hacks in Congress, and to the hopelessly inept and inane corporate media journalists: not because of so-called “entitlement” spending!).

This is not a situation that is going to get better. It is going to get worse, unless and until people wake up and retake the government. Corporate America is going to keep squeezing American workers until the government starts creating enough public sector jobs to remove some of the understandable fear people have now about being sacked, until labor unions can organize successfully without being undermined by unpunished illegal anti-union actions by managements, until attacks on critical programs of support like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and Unemployment Compensation are ended, until the rich and the corporations stop getting a free ride on taxes, and until the country stops engaging in endless wars and in blowing over half the national budget on the military.

Meanwhile, try not to be like the jerk in the Hertz office who started badgering the poor clerk over his bill being a few bucks more than he expected it to be.

We all need solidarity, not undermining, by our fellow citizens. There is a class war underway in America, and anybody who isn’t a capitalist or a well-paid executive, or a politician on the take from those capitalists, is the enemy. The rest of us need to start working together.