A few years ago when Northwest Airlines mechanics were striking, the unemployment rate in the Twin Cities was in the respectable single-digits. At the time, motorists traveling W. Highway 62 near the airport were treated nightly to the klieg-lit sight of a lone mechanic standing on a bridge embankment with a sign proclaiming, "You’re Next."
The gainfully employed averted their eyes from the open wound on the side of the road, dismissing the mechanic as one more disgruntled "End Is Near" prophet of doom, while the un- and under-employed shuddered in solidarity: If the powers that be can do it to me, they can and will do it to you, unions and the enduring entrails of the American dream be damned.
Happy days are here again. As the unemployment rate now hovers around double digits and as the Wall Street tsunami hits Lake Street, I think about that man and his family and all the rest of the cutback casualties, from Minneapolis to Detroit to sea to shining sea. I think about the psychic damage that the act of firing and of being fired does to the collective human condition, and I wonder if a wounded workforce ever truly recovers. To wit:
Gathered around my Thanksgiving table last week sat two of the finest workers you could ever hope to hire, both of whom were laid off this month; another who is under-employed and fighting for the scraps of his profession; two who work two jobs to make ends meet; and the rest, who go to sleep many nights worried about the hand-to-mouthness of it all.
At the head of the table was my father, whose profession before he retired was as an employment counselor, but who fully admits that the times we’re living through are beyond the ken of most counsel. Still, I called my boy Stephen Anderson Smith, a partner in Nicols Kaster who has represented employees in all sorts of situations for the past 13 years, to get some advice for the legions of folks who will be canned in the coming year.
"I tell people there’s no shame in [getting fired], that it happens to a lot of people," he says. "It’s a private thing, and people don’t like to talk about it. But especially in this climate, people fear resumé damage from being fired, but telling your next potential employer you were laid off because of the economy is a very common thing. What I try to tell people is, ‘Give me a call in six months when you’ve landed at your new job, which turns out to be a much better fit for you because you’re out from underneath that boss or situation that’s causing you trouble.
"’Mourn the loss of the job, but get up in the morning and treat the job search like a job itself. It helps you not stay in bed all day.’ Again, there’s no shame in it, but I get calls every day from people saying, ‘I can’t believe this happened to me,’ and I expect those kinds of calls to about double in the next year."
That is a hell of a thing to leave you with this Thanksgiving season, at a time when there’s so much to be grateful for. I make myself remember as much these days and nights, specifically last night, as I sat in the bleachers with my wife and a bunch of other parents, watching our 10-year-old girls play volleyball.
Our daughter, playing in her first volleyball game, was a revelation. She looked happy, excited, athletic — like she was having the time of her life. Her uniform shimmered on her like a superhero costume, her knee pads gave her stop-drop-pop confidence, and to not acknowledge that moment would be the definition of sin, for as long as I live I will testify that images like that are as significant as any pending pink slip or Dow report, and it reminded me of something I’ve wanted to pass along since it happened this summer. Now’s as good a time as any.
In late August, she and I were swimming at a friend’s pool. We were alone in the water, the late afternoon sun silhouetting her tan body as she jumped up and down, head in and out of the water. She was the picture of carefree.
"Hey. Dad," she bobbed. "Guess. What. I’m. Doing."
"I’m. Thinking. About. All. My. Friends. And. Family. And. How. Handsome. My. Dad. Is. And. How. Awesome. My. Life. Is."
Try gobble-gobble gobsmacked.
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.