News from the Tennessee Valley Opinion


Plight of displaced workers could easily have been ours

Numbers lie.

Just ask any of the 100 Cargill employees who, as of Jan.1, will no longer have a job.

Numbers lie.

Just ask any of the 2,000 employees at Delphi Steering Systems in Limestone County who find themselves in a money-losing plant owned by a bankrupt company.

Newspapers have to include the number of workers whose jobs are lost or at risk because those numbers are relevant to the community. Governmental officials need to know the impact on the tax base. Retailers need to gauge how steep the coming loss of sales will be. Prospective employers need to know how many workers suddenly need a job.

But the numbers are still a lie. Human anxiety does not work well with multiplication tables. Misery is personal, not general. Every lost job has its own story, its own pain. Many at Cargill and Delphi have worked hard most of their lives for these companies. They have fed and sheltered their families, contributed to their churches, found pleasure with the money they earned through their hard work. They have used their jobs to teach their children the value of hard work and self-sufficiency. In America, they have communicated, hard work brings rewards.

For employees at Cargill and Delphi — Solutia, too — that Norman Rockwell dream has crumbled. They have worked hard, yet suddenly they face the prospect of no income. They have no confidence that they can keep feeding their families, that they can keep their houses or their cars.

We appropriately extol the virtues of capitalism. More than any other economic system, it rewards those who work hard. It distributes resouces with more efficiency than any other system. On average, it raises the quality of life enjoyed by its participants more than any other economic system devised.

But it can also be arbitrary and cruel. It punishes the employee for the mistakes of the employer. Cargill is closing not because of its workers, but because of a poor executive choice on its location and because of international trade barriers. Solutia's textile division closed not because of its employees but because of a global economy that undermines the dreams of American workers. And at Delphi, the most recent casualty, sweaty laborers were penalized for the failures of unrealistic executives.

The lesson here is not to give up on capitalism. Cruel and crude, it is still the best economic system the world has found. The lesson, rather, is one of humility. Just as the workers at Cargill, Solutia and Delphi did not control their fate, the rest of us do not control ours. Factors beyond our control can erase the rewards of hard work and ingenuity.

The members of our community who have lost their jobs have no reason for shame. Those of us who have had the good fortune to keep ours have every reason for generosity. The same economic system that benefits some devastates others.

We live in a wonderful community. Those who recently lost their jobs have already paid their dues to be a part of it. They deserve our assistance. They deserve our sympathy. Most of all, they deserve our recognition that their misfortune could just as easily have been ours.

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