New Lobby Group Gives Harried Workers a Voice

In era of restructuring, 'Working Today' aims to fill a void

AFTER being ''downsized'' out of one job and ''restructured'' out of a second, Jim Bowers is ready for whatever AT&T has to offer him.

Mr. Bowers is one of 72,000 AT&T Corp. managers in New Jersey who were offered a voluntary severance package this past November and is among the 90 percent who turned it down. Now Bowers is hoping he won't be among the 30,000 expected to get ''involuntary buyouts'' later this year.

''I was angry the first time this happened,'' he says. ''I felt in control of my destiny then, but now I know there's just nothing you can do. It's the way corporations work. It's the way the economy works. There's not a thing I can do about it.''

Across the Hudson River in Manhattan, Sara Horowitz is trying to prove him wrong. Ms. Horowitz is the president of Working Today, a new employees' lobby modeled on the American Association of Retired People. The group's goal is to put jobs back on the public agenda by lobbying for political action on measures to save jobs, create new ones, and explore long-term solutions to the ongoing erosion of good jobs.

''The old rules no longer apply,'' Horowitz says. ''Globalization is changing the way companies work, technology too. We can't be Luddites about it, but it's affecting people. Profits and productivity are rising, but wages are down. Jobs and benefits aren't secure anymore. We have to create solutions.'' Labor unions have lobbied in Washington for years, but Working Today aims to represent all types of workers.

The group hopes to use the Feb. 20 New Hampshire primary to begin a public discussion about those solutions by inviting politicians to talk about wages, benefits, and other issues with local members of Working Today.

Labor economist Audrey Freedman says she doesn't think the employment issues Working Today wants to raise are being seriously discussed in Washington.

''Nobody's dealing with the real malaise in this country,'' she says. ''Nobody's dealing with practical things that can be done at the grass roots. Maybe this group can start that discussion.''

Since its launch almost five months ago, about 500 members have joined Working Today. The group, which is funded by grants from the Ms. Foundation and a private backer, hasn't begun to actively recruit members, but when it does, Horowitz says it will be open to all those who work or want to.

''We'll be a little like Triple-A,'' the American Automobile Association, she predicts. ''For $10 we'll offer members representation, information about employment issues, resume and career advice.'' Once the lobby is firmly established, Horowitz also plans to have the group act as a clearinghouse within a network of other employment-related groups. Working Today will refer members who want advice on financing or career planning to groups that specialize in those areas.

The idea for a lobby took shape in the winter 1993 issue of the journal Social Policy. Herbert Gans, a sociology professor at Columbia University, New York, wrote that President Clinton was elected largely because he pledged to do something about jobs, but that he had done very little to keep that promise.

''While many people complain about what the disappearance of jobs has done to them and their communities,'' he wrote, ''amazingly little public discussion of what to do about the problem has appeared, in the news media, on the talk shows, among the economists, and above all in Congress and the White House.'' An employees' lobby was needed to keep the pressure on, he argued.

Horowitz cut short a two-year program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government to work full-time on Gans's idea. The lobby was officially launched on Labor Day 1995.

Business statistics from the year provide good examples of the issues Working Today wants to bring to the fore. While blue-chip stocks climbed 33.5 percent to set a series of record highs, real incomes rose by just 2.7 percent - the smallest increase on record. December retail sales sagged dismally, a fitting end to a year that saw some major retailers file for bankruptcy. (''People aren't going to spend money when they don't feel secure,'' Horowitz says.) And massive corporate layoffs continued, though counterbalanced by newly created jobs.

Ms. Freedman, the labor economist, says there's been a fundamental shift in the way people think. ''For the first time people don't expect their children to be better off than they are,'' she says. ''It's a tremendous blow to the American self-image. If we have a religion, it's the religion of material progress and we don't have it anymore. Large companies once implicitly [offered] lifetime employment,'' Freedman says. ''But US market power has eroded and deregulation has forced companies like AT&T to compete.''

Layoffs such as AT&T's are also contributing to the fastest growing group in the labor market: part-timers, freelancers, and consultants who often work without health insurance, pensions, or social security.

''They are a huge segment of America's workers and they have no safety net, no representation, nothing,'' Horowitz says.

Tom Geoghegan, a Chicago-based labor lawyer and author who sits on Working Today's board, says the group fills a need.

''There's a huge vacuum out there,'' Mr. Geoghegan says. ''A lot of people affected by downsizing or changes in the job market aren't in unions and aren't likely to be. They deserve a voice.''

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