The Road Not Taken
"ROSEVILLE LOSES 590 jobs," said the headline on last Wednesday's paper--and beneath it, the familiar lament: "Unisys tries to stay competitive by closing local manufacturing site." The news was really no surprise. Unisys handed out some 12,000 pink slips over the last decade as it shrank from one of Minnesota's largest employers to an also-ran.
For Claudette Munson, the sting doesn't stem from losing a job--her own layoff notice came last summer--as much as from the nagging feeling that it didn't have to happen. At one time, Munson and her union local at Unisys were at the forefront of a groundbreaking effort at economic conversion. They tried to convince Unisys to work with labor and community groups toward a future without defense contracts and clunky mainframe computers. What happened instead is something of an American corporate parable.
When Munson went to work at the then-Sperry Rand plant in 1971, the company was riding high on the first computer wave. The pay was $4 an hour and the benefits were decent. A woman with three kids and a high-school education could expect to spend a lifetime putting together circuit boards, or so Munson thought. But in 1986, Sperry merged with the Burroughs Corp. in what management called an attempt to build a rival to IBM. Layoffs followed, and then more layoffs followed as the new company buckled under its debt load. Unisys had 120,000 employees worldwide when they merged, but only 90,000 remained in 1989. In Minnesota the workforce shrank from 15,000 to 10,000.
It was around this time that members of Local 2047 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers heard about efforts in Sweden and Britain to move threatened defense plants into innovative civilian technology. The local did a membership survey, which yielded some 200 ideas for new products. With funding from the state, a coalition between the union and community groups such as Jobs with Peace began an in-depth study of the possibilities.
The conversion drive hit its peak in 1992, when the coalition's final report was released. It named a dozen new products Unisys could develop--things like "smart agriculture" computer technologies and highway traffic-control systems. But the conversion drive, like the vaunted post-Cold War "peace dividend," went nowhere. Unisys management dismissed the union's ideas, pronouncing them well-meaning but unrealistic. The company couldn't get into the "grocery cart" business, one executive noted. Meanwhile the company watched its business crumble, the decline hastened by the Pentagon's Ill Wind contract fraud investigation and the advent of the PC, which supplanted older mainframes. By 1994 Unisys had closed several of its major plants, and the rest were undergoing layoffs as the firm went from $10 billion in annual revenues to just over $6 billion.
In announcing the latest plant closing, Unisys talked the usual talk about moving with the times, adapting to technology, and discarding the outdated. Ironically, though, some of their latest product ideas--like agricultural management software systems--sound remarkably like the union's old proposals.
What's important to understand, says Jamie Markham, who prepared the union's conversion study, is that the workers Unisys has been letting go are not dinosaurs; they are highly skilled, a fact management acknowledged on the front page of the Wall Street Journal (and which, ironically, was driven home again when Unisys officials told reporters that the Twin Cities didn't have to worry about losing its status in the computer industry--because there was a terrific "labor pool" around here). They had learned to run expensive and very complex machines, to perform a huge variety of operations, and to adapt to changing technologies. In short, they were the kind of workers that New Management professes to love. "What Unisys is doing," Markham says, "is throwing these resources away. And I don't care who does it, but we can't afford that kind of waste."
Munson has done relatively well for herself. She's running for her second term as mayor of Willernie, a St. Paul suburb, and has gone back to school. As for the other people laid off, she notes that most of the production workers are women, many of them single mothers. Some have found other jobs in circuit plants or at grocery stores. Some have gone back to school. A few have passed away. She won't elaborate on that last point. "You're just not a spring chicken anymore," she says. "It's very hard to start all over again."
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