Society

Protecting America's Middle Class

Trude Diamond describes herself as "your typical corporate person".  At least that's how she saw herself when she was an information technology (IT) specialist for GTE, USA, in the early 1990s.  With a Ph.D. in education and years of experience as a manager in public and private sector organisations, Diamond thought her professional future was secure.  Then she had an Aha! Moment.  "Businesses were going for increased efficiency by reducing their head count," she says.  That's when she - and a number of other savvy midlife women she knew - jumped ship to look for mergers or start-up companies that might be looking to hire experienced managers. 

Diamond joined a dot-com company, with more responsibility and a higher salary, but shortly afterwards the company was sold.  Suddenly, she found herself, at age 51, unable to find work.  "I was a woman of a certain age," she recalls ruefully.  So she started her own business and began working as a training consultant for several clients, including her old company, GTE, which had become part of Verizon. But soon, she says, the company stopped caring about training its staff; it was cheaper to hire consultants ad hoc to do the work.

Now a technical communications manager for a small woman-owned software company in Tampa (Florida), Diamond is also one of five directors of a newly formed non-profit membership organisation called United Professionals (UP).  The brainchild of writer and social activist Barbara Ehrenreich, its mission is "to protect and preserve the American middle class, now under attack from so many directions, from downsizing and outsourcing to the steady erosion of health and pension benefits." 

The idea for UP came from Ehrenreich's research experience while she was writing her latest book, 'Bait and Switch' (2005), an exploration of midlife, middle-class job searching in corporate America.  A voluntary effort since its official launch in September 2006, UP's officers and advisors believe that "education, skills and experience should be rewarded with appropriate jobs, liveable incomes, benefits and social supports."  The organisation's leadership is deeply concerned about "unemployed, underemployed and anxiously employed workers - people who bought the American dream that education and credentials could lead to a secure middle-class life, but now find their lives disrupted by forces beyond their control."

Modelled on the highly successful American Association for Retired Persons (AARP), an information, advocacy and service organisation for the country's senior citizens, UP has three immediate goals: universal health care (the number one priority of people UP polled online); revised unemployment insurance (so that more people qualify); and debt relief (through fairness in lending). 

It has received a seed grant of $100,000 from the Service Employees International Union. Although UP is a membership organisation, not a union, it is establishing regional and local chapters and dues are $36.50 a year, which comes to around 10 cents a day.

In the long term, UP hopes to tackle larger, legislative issues relating to the continuing erosion of America's middle class such as student loan debt; rising costs for healthcare; housing and energy; and outsourcing layoffs. Diamond puts it this way, "We're not advocating the IBM cradle-to-grave model [of employment].  Businesses do what they have to because it's best for business.  But white-collar workers become disenfranchised.  The nation jeopardises its intellectual capital and its productive capacity.  The Congress must address this instead of letting people go off to Bangalore to find work.  That is an egregious failure on the part of government."   

In an interview with The New York Times when UP was launched last year, founder Barbara Ehrenreich said her model for the organisation was the women's movement of the 1970s.  Drawing a parallel between the shame abused women feel and the shame of being unemployed, Ehrenreich said talking about the situation with others of similar experience brings relief, reduces guilt and offers help.

Putting UP's launch into a larger perspective, Ehrenreich had this to say about poverty in America and its shrinking middle class:  "We see UP as part of the broader movement for economic justice in America and a vital partner to ongoing crusades for a living wage and adequate benefits for the working poor.  By focusing on the troubled middle class, we help make the point that poverty, far from being a matter of 'bad choices' or character flaws, can happen to any of us.  The educated middle class has a special role to play.  It's the core of any modern society ... without a viable middle class we become a society ever more divided..."
 

03-Mar-2007

More by :  Elayne Clift

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