Imagine a world where losing your job wasn't scary
December 18, 2009 - 11:33am ET
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Can you imagine a union leader talking about the end of a major, historical industry in their country and their not seeming to mind it? Well, I did see that here in Copenhagen and it well and truly blew my mind.
Marie-Louise Knuppert, the Confederal Secretary of the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (LO i Danmark) spoke about this week about the closing of the last Danish shipyard. "We have been shipbuilders since the days of the Vikings," she said, but now the shipbuilding trade that had produced some of the world's largest container ships was looking forward to the new jobs that were coming.
As I mentioned, she didn't seem very bothered.
I asked Bob Baugh, Executive Director of the AFL-CIO Industrial Council, how it was possible. As far as I've ever known, when American unions talk about job sectors closing out it's always with regret. He chuckled.
Baugh said in part it was because they had so many safety nets in Denmark, just as in many other European countries. He said they never have to worry about health care or losing their homes, and they can expect many years of education. But there was more, because he said that even if such safety nets were instituted in the US, he still wouldn't feel the same way.
"They have, as a country [Denmark], put money into developing new industries. It's not just happenstance," said Baugh. "The other economies of the world engage in industriial policy and planning. We don't and it's killing us."
Baugh referred to the US' infrastructure debt of over $2 trillion. "It could be green," he said, "it could be spent to create good jobs." He said if the US didn't think about it strategically and promote certain industries, money could be spent to fix one problem only to make the employment situation worse.
As an example of how a job-promoting infrastructure policy could work, Baugh said that instead of simply purchasing transportation technology from a country such as France, the US government could pay to license that technology and bring the manufacturing work here. He said this would build capacity in the US as workers and engineers learned from the production and innovation cycle.
(The way innovation and research follow manufacturing was well and previously explained by Carolyn Bartholomew, Vice Chair of U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.)
For every country, Baugh said that "people are worried about who's going to get all the green jobs. There are plenty of green jobs just meeting the needs of your own country."
If we had a good safety net and a national commitment of meeting our clean economy needs at home, that does sound like a vision of a world where layoffs and company shutdowns might eventually stop being so alarming. it even sounds like a world that's an orthodox free trade dream of business flexibility. But the United States has a long way to go before US workers have every reason to be as mellow about getting a pink slip as the Danish.
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Views expressed on this page are those of the authors and not necessarily those of Campaign for America's Future or Institute for America's Future