It was late afternoon in August on the Mall, and much of the heat-sapped population was collapsing from a day full of leisure. But within the ivied walls of the old Smithsonian Castle, up in the antique-filled library, some four dozen people gathered to discuss "The Collapse of Work."
It was one of many such sessions around the nation's capital for lofty thinkers and long-range planners. They dealt in millions of unemployed, billions of dollars (pounds, marks, etc.), and decades of troubles.
Clive Jenkins of the United Kingdom, general secretary of the Association of Scientific, Technical and Management Staff (ASTMS), "the largest public-private-sector salaried trade union in the world," was the discussion leader. He is a guest scholar of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, based in the castle.
In the polite, tea-time tones of a British butler announcing a guest, he predicted for around 1990 or so a "jobs holocaust," brought on by technological advancements and merciless multinational interests.
He spoke of mass elimination of clerical jobs and middle management decision makers, of obsolete educational policies, and a grim world in which a man and a dog are employed to watch a machine, "and the dog's purpose is to keep the man away from it."
The audience was made up mostly of Labor Department officials, labor reporters, officials of the AFL-CIO and other labor organizations, Rep. Frank Thompson Jr. (D-N.J.), chairman of the House subcommittee on Labor Management Relations, sat at the carved wood oval table with Jenkins, adding appropriate remarks. He was among the few members of Congress who had not yet fled August in Washington.
As the sun declined beyond the huge, ornate round window over the French tapestry on the wall behind Jenkins, he asked, "Do you have any idea how many American companies have their payroll done by satellite in Taiwan?"
No one seemed to.
He spoke of the increasing "portability" of many white-collar services, and of factories that become "throwaways," as their multinational owners move constantly across national borders to take advantage of the lowest wage rates.
Woodrow Wilson, in whose name they had assembled, glared from a frame on the wall.
The solution to all these problems can be provided, Jenkins said, only by a strengthened trade union movement.
A man with a blond beard, plaid Bermuda shorts and a British accent promptly rose from his chair in the audience and lambasted Jenkins, the British Labor Party, and their effect on Britain, quoting Lewis Mumford and/or Aldous Huxley (he wasn't sure) about the necessity for preventing "utopia."
Why, you're demolishing my whole life style," Jenkins responded, mildly.
"Yes, I rather think I intended to," said the blond beard, resuming his seat to a chorus of knowing chuckles.
All around them, in the Mall museums, the tourists inspected the shiny ancestors of the job-stealing technology he spoke of, and marveled at human ingenuity.