Law in Contemporary Society
The discussion brewing in In Loving Memory spurred me to begin writing. It surrounds the issue of “the fear” that we discussed in class, unionization, and other topics related to employment and unemployment.

My first and only experience with unions came after high school, where I took a year off before college to work, which is very common back in Trinidad & Tobago. When I started at the local telecom company (which was a monopoly at the time), they were in the midst of a heated union struggle that was already in its third year. The union workers claimed that the board and the executives were unfairly benefiting from the monster profits associated with a monopoly in a booming oil-based economy, while the workers were being denied the annual raises and benefits that had been agreed to in the last collective bargaining agreement from a decade before. The primary method of protest used by the union was bomb threats. The union members would make anonymous calls to the busiest company locations at peak times of the day, disrupting operations as workers would have to be evacuated for at least an hour. Because there was only one bomb squad unit in the country at the time, if simultaneous threats were made at multiple locations, we would have to be evacuated for up to 4 hours. During the most heated times of negotiations, these threats came every single day of the week.

The thing is, all the workers thoroughly enjoyed this experience. It became a running joke. We even kept office pools to guess the time of the next bomb threat. We would use the time out of the office to take longer lunches, go shopping, get drunk in a nearby bar. One time a friend actually lied and said he got a bomb threat call just so we could beat the early rush to happy hour on a Friday. It was great. Unlike make other union struggles, where the workers don’t get paid for the hours they aren’t working because they are protesting, this method achieved the best of both worlds; workers got paid time off, essentially, and management was going crazy with the missed deadlines and decreased productivity.

But this really underscores the difference between working in other countries like Trinidad, and working in the US. Overall, there was a much greater feeling of job security there. People don’t get fired unless they really REALLY messed up. Everyone works 9 to 5. And they literally run out of the office every day at 5. Because of the broadness of the middle class, and annual raises that tend to keep up with inflation and increases in cost of living, most people live comfortably and therefore stay in the same job their entire lives. In addition, with free healthcare, government subsidized pensions, and free tertiary education, there is much less stress on the middle class family to come up with the funds necessary to ensure a good future for their children. The stereotype of easygoing Caribbean natives may have a lot more to do with this socioeconomic reality than warm weather and palm trees.

My work experiences in Corporate America, however, were remarkably different. I interned in investment banking at Goldman Sachs the summer of 2007, back when they had lunchtime sessions touting their genius in using credit default swaps and CDOs to take advantage of the current state of the financial services industry, including the collapse of Bear Stearns. My friends who were working and interning at Bear were scared out of their minds. Everyone was. After the department I worked in was gutted, I didn’t realize how lucky I was to be pushed out of the industry and into one that was somewhat more stable. In the fall of 2008, the shit really hit the fan. The collapse of Lehman Brothers rocked the world. Friends and classmates who weren’t lucky enough to have their units bought out by Barclays were left on their asses. Those that were lucky were scared shitless. But the shockwaves didn’t end there. Merrill Lynch was next to go, and again I had friends who were literally waiting around at their desks every day for months, waiting for the axe to fall. I remember talking to my best friend on gchat as he described the mood in his office at Merrill when they began calling everyone in his department into the conference room and one by one they were notified that they were being laid off because of the Bank of America merger which rendered their positions redundant.

After graduation, I worked in a management development program at an industrial supply company. I was immediately thrust into a tough position, as I started just before companies across the country (including my own) began a massive round of layoffs second only to the Great Depression, which significantly reduced the workforce and has made recovery in the unemployment rate so difficult, even up to this day. One of the first tasks at my job was to build a model to calculate the minimum number of employees required to keep the department running at an acceptable level of efficiency. The next step was to single out the least efficient workers, give them warnings about their performance, and then the worst part for me - I had to fire them. This was decidedly the worst part of my job. Once the first couple employees were let go, everyone began to fear for their own job. Every time I would pass by employees at their desks, or even in the hallway, they would tense up with fear. Some of them would start shaking and nearly come to tears when I would give them feedback on mistakes they had made. But the worst was when I had to give performance reviews. The ones that were positive always ended is deep sighs of relief and “Oh my God I thought you were going to fire me!” The negative ones ended in tears, disbelief and “Please don’t fire me! My wife/husband just got laid off and we have a baby on the way. I can’t lose my job!” Ironically, the meetings where I actually told employees that they were fired were the calmest. I suppose by then the fear had turned into acceptance of the inevitable. They gave nothing but cold, blank, hopeless stares, a limp handshake, and then they were on their way.

When I realized decided that I would go to law school instead of business school, I quit my job and began working as a paralegal at a bankruptcy law firm. There I saw a different kind of fear. When clients came to us, they were on the verge of repossession, foreclosure, wage garnishment, or all of the above. I even had the awkward situation of meeting with a client who happened to be one of the employees at my former company who I had fired. Soon after he lost his job, his wife was laid off as well, and they had fallen behind on their mortgage payments such that their foreclosure date was set for just a few days after our meeting. Fortunately they had both recently found jobs, but were unable to catch up on their mortgage arrears and had to file chapter 13 bankruptcy to stop the foreclosure. They were some of the lucky ones, however. Many clients came in without having enough income to save their house in a chapter 13, after having their hours cut severely, or being laid off and forced to take on a new job with significantly lower income. After a while, the unending sad stories and tears left me desensitized, to the point where I couldn’t even empathize with the majority of clients who came in. The foreclosure rate in the Atlanta area at that time was one of the worst in the country, and it seemed to only get worse as I worked there. Foreclosure sales occurred the first Tuesday of every month, so the last week/weekend of every month was always chaotic. We had people lining up and waiting in our offices for hours most times. The fear and apprehension in the lobby was always apparent.

Now I’m experiencing that fear from yet another angle. With EIP coming up in the Fall, and law school debt accruing, I’m constantly on edge. I keep wondering if some chaotic event could happen in the markets between now and then to drag the hiring levels even lower, and admittedly it scares the shit out of me. What's worse is that I know that this fear is not going away any time soon. In fact, with the inevitability of marriage, children, and a mortgage, it will only get worse.

-- JasonPyke - 29 Mar 2012


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r4 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:05:23 - IanSullivan
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