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Beneath the Denim Tree

By Gabriel B. Eber

Who would have thought that Inferno and a pair of jeans would be the cultural artifacts employed to discuss eschatology and economic justice. Just mentioning Dante and Levis in the same sentence is enough to ruin a literature concentrator's lunch, even on a Chickwich day. But we live in a topsy-turvy world these days and if you think the notion of Dante in dungarees is crazy, keep reading. The craziness has just begun.

Last week, the Levi Strauss company announced plans to lay off 1,000 employees. Normally, upon hearing such news, we shrug our shoulders and feel at most a moment of fleeting pity. But only a moment. After all, those workers must be half a world away, working in a exotic land for a few dollars a day. But the folks Levi's intends to eliminate are not toiling away in some southeast Asian sweatshop. They're Americans, like us. Now our moment of fleeting pity escalates into a moment of fleeting concern. Americans they may be, we comfort ourselves, but they probably work in some forsaken Pennsylvania factory and wear shirts with their names embroidered in cursive above the breast pocket. But the defense mechanisms that protect us from the moral tentacles of empathy are foiled yet again. The men and women being axed are not blue collar. Actually, they're wearing white shirts and ties and might even have a cellular phone tucked in the glovebox of their Ford Taurus. They might as well be us.

Now our interest is piqued, and our guilt-fighters begin working overtime. Surely there is a rational reason behind this mess. Levi's probably needs to cut these jobs in order to stay afloat in a hostile market. Guess again: Levi's earned record profits in 1996. In 1995, it reaped over $734 million in net income. And the value of the company has grown tenfold over the past 12 years. There may be instances when layoffs are necessary, but is this really one of them?

Imagine the hardship to be endured by the workers and their families. Imagine the depression, the foreclosures, the strain on marriages. These folks are white collar Americans, like us, and they're about to suffer greatly. Maybe Levi's will break its profit record in 1997.

Now to be fair, we should remember that the Levi Strauss company was recently presented with an award for its social responsibility and has long been considered a pretty good place to work. But these mitigating facts only serve to underline a deeper problem. If a 'nice' company like Levi's is acting so unfortunately, then we can only imagine the horrors committed by the more callous and blameworthy members of corporate America. I firmly believe that things are going to change radically in the future. They'll change out of necessity, and they'll change because people are tired of corporations always getting their way. Call it a revolution if you must, but don't be too alarmed; it's still a long way off. Reparations will be made, and the era of poetic justice will begin, echoing the Inferno of Dante.

The corporate types responsible for the Levi's layoffs will be condemned to an eternity of walking the earth in blue jeans that are three sizes too small and have permanently dysfunctional zippers. Lesser offenders will be sentenced to wear bell-bottoms, acid-washed cut-offs and other stylistic abominations. The 1,000 workers who lost their jobs will genetically alter the cottonwood tree so that it bears unlimited blossoms of ready-to-sew denim. Having no raw material costs of significance, they will seize the machinery of production and produce quality blue jeans for the world.

And where shall the rest of us find ourselves? It is doubtful that even the greatest pains of poetic justice will deter the profit-starved college students from seeking a position that permits the immediate destruction of thousands of lives with a single decision. The allure of money, power and corporate expense accounts attract the ambitious and well-educated like sharks to a shipwreck. Rest assured that for every job you ever take, dozens of your classmates are vying for the opportunity to downsize you. Or maybe you will be the one pruning the workforce, sending a former teammate or study partner to the poorhouse. How will you and I fare when poetic justice reigns supreme? Where will you and I be when denim grows on trees?

Gabriel B. Eber's column appears on alternate Saturdays.

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