Thursday, December 11, 2008

Are the Eighties Finally Over?

Yes, I know, one look at Rod Blagojevich's hairdo and you'd think that the 1980's were still going strong, but there's at least one small, sweet indicator that the Me Era, the Gordon Gecko 'greed is good' era, may be ending.

The small, sweet indicator is from the response to one of the questions asked in a poll WSJ-NBC conducted last week. The question was whether or not you'd be willing to take a 5% pay cut in order to save jobs. I've heard this variously reported as "save jobs" and "save your own job" - which makes a really big difference -  so I went and looked at the source . The question was:

Would you be willing to take a five percent pay cut if it meant saving jobs at your place of work?

And 64% said that, yes, they would be willing to do so.

Okay, okay: talk - even 5% pay cut talk - is cheap.

And, with so many people fearing for their jobs, this is also a case of hoping that everyone would be willing to save yours.

And for all I know, people answered the same way in the 1980's.

Still, it's heartening to see this little bit of altruism emerging from the current crisis, and I'd like to see some of the places slashing jobs - with cuts of whatever magnitude - give a little thought to putting something like this into operation.

Taking a 5% pay cut wouldn't translate into saving 5% of jobs, of course. "Fully loaded" employees cost a lot more than just their direct salary. And in companies where there's a lot less production work, it might not make sense to have a lot of people hanging around with nothing to do.

Yet there are plenty of creative ways that companies could use the willingness of employees to take a hit, to benefit the employees who are getting hit. Maybe in the "less work" places, everyone works a few fewer hours. Or maybe the 5% gets thrown into a kitty used to supplement unemployment insurance benefits for workers who do get pink slipped.

In Massachusetts, unemployment benefits are pretty good. They may not make up for a lost paycheck, but they're reasonable. The highest rate, based on your salary, used to be $500+, with other +++'s for dependents. But in some states, the benefits are really trivial. Having another source of income to draw on would no doubt be welcomed. And what a nice "It's a Wonderful Life" little overlay if the money's coming from your former colleagues.

Of course, you'd want to make sure that the voluntary pay cut was actually going for an uncommon common good, and also that, when good times returned, the 5% pay cut would be restored.

It's a nice thought....

The one and only time I was in one of these pay cut situations, the pay cut was restored after the crisis passed.

I don't think the 10% cuts we took were to save anyone's job, and it wasn't voluntary. The company I was working for was quite flaky and volatile, and I think this was a matter of us not being able to make payroll.

As he always did, our Mighty Mouse of a CEO flew off somewhere and found some investor to sucker in for a few bucks to keep us going for a few more months.

I was with this company for many years, and we eventually became more self-reliant, managing to live within our paltry means, and even eking out a modest quarterly profit for a few years.

But we only got clean and sober after our investors put in a stop loss order when they hit $40M in with no hope of anything coming out  - other than BS and promises - in sight. They brought in a turnaround guy who actually managed to turn the place around. (So long, Mighty Mouse!)

So I know that money doesn't magically solve a company's problems.

Still, it's nice to think that people would be willing to pull together a bit to get use through hard times.

Sure, many people are living so close to the edge that 5% less might put them over. But everyone  doesn't really need a new smartphone, or a Wii, or another cashmere sweater, and plenty of people have a lot more than 5% fat in their budgets.

And if expressing a willingness to give a little means that there's a possibility that we're going to shake off the consume-at-all-costs culture that's helped get us into the mess we're in, what's not to like?

(Would someone please hand me a hanky so I can dab my eyes a bit?)


And speaking of Rod Blagojevich, I'm "half-Chicago" and dropped a w.t.f. e-mail to my cousin Ellen, who grew up on the South Side and lives just outside the city.  She told me that Blago lives right around the corner from Grandma's house on North Mozart. Grandma's long gone, but just the thought of old Rod being in the 'hood our mothers hailed from....

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