Friday, May 16, 2008

The Big Squeeze

Steven Greenhouse, The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008). 303 pages, notes, bibliography. $25.95 USA

Some years ago I was talking with someone who worked for a large international corporation that did business all over the world. He named several countries as very troublesome, but mentioned one in particular, whose name shall remain anonymous, where making a phone call outside the country required walking across the street to another building to pay a bribe to an official in the phone exchange.

I recall saying, “That’s why they’re underdeveloped; they don’t understand the importance of honesty and integrity in economics and business. Reading Steven Greenhouse’s book The Big Squeeze reminds me of the story. Greenhouse uses the interview and case study method to write accounts of Americans by name who struggle to make a living in present day American labor markets. However, the common thread in the book amounts to a current review of America’s honesty and integrity. It is in decline.

The book has 16 chapters. Chapter one opens with brief profiles of six people in difficult and low paid jobs. The brief profiles are a lead-in to a thesis like statement:

"One of the most important trends taking place in the United States today is the broad decline in the status and treatment of American workers -white collar and blue collar workers, middle class and low end workers - that began nearly three decades ago, gradually gathered momentum, and hit with full force soon after the turn of the century."

The remaining pages of the first chapter has data and discussion that lets readers feel the squeeze on millions who work and earn wages, but decline in status and treatment.

In Chapter 2 we meet Kathy and read the book’s first story of status and treatment. As her story begins she has just left a job cleaning offices. The work is solitary, late at night and low pay. Friends and family suggest a local company where she becomes an inspector-packer at a plastic container manufacturing plant. On her first day her trainer and two new hires quit. In quick succession she is witness to accidents, cut off fingers, verbal abuse, and sexual harassment. She finds a new identity in resistance and tries union organizing as an advocate for worker rights. We share her triumphs and courage, but the story ends with disability, dismissal and no union.

Over the next 13 chapters we meet more people with stories to tell. There is Chuck with years working in a meat processing plant sold to wage cutting Tyson’s Foods. We meet Farris who works as the night shift manager at a Wal-Mart where he and his work crew are locked in because Wal-Mart assumes all their help steals merchandise. We meet Julia who takes a job at a store called Save Smart where they hand out small sums of cash and call them wages.

Some chapters highlight specific issues of work and pay. In a chapter titled, Here Today, Gone Tomorrow, we meet Jean and Jennifer and learn about their lives as temp workers at Fed Ex and Hewlett Packard. In the chapter, Outsourced and Out of Luck, we go to Galesburg, Illinois and learn what happened when Maytag outsourced refrigerator production to Mexico. We hear about union organizing in Houston, Texas with the Service Employees International Union and their Justice for Janitors organizing campaign. There is a chapter on immigrants and their peculiar vulnerabilities and another on the difficulties of retiring at retirement age.

The book has two entire chapters and parts of three others devoted to Wal-Mart. We hear from several people including a former store manager and read a catalog of abuses heaped on employees. Some of the abuses have nicknames that encourage the impression they occur widely throughout Wal-Mart stores. Names and nicknames include end of shift lock-in, internal banishment, child labor, slashing schedules, overnight lock-ins, missed breaks, shaving time, hiring illegal immigrants and sex discrimination.

Readers who reach the last chapter may feel worn down. The decline of status and treatment of the American workers interviewed in the book reads in places like class warfare, as when Greenhouse quotes senior management at Tyson’s food. “Jefferson was in a luxurious position from our perspective. We’re not pleading poverty. We’re not saying the Jefferson facility is losing money. We’re saying cost in Jefferson is out of line and we have to make adjustments.” Luxurious factory work sounds like an oxymoron. Apparently Tyson managers expect people to accept a lower wage as it fits their notion of social class for their workforce.

The last chapter makes policy suggestions. The suggestions are all good ones for helping labor, but they require political influence that does not exist and has not existed for some time. Wage theft was mentioned in many of the interviews in the book. Store managers and supervisors delete hours worked from computerized time sheets, or demand someone to work off the clock, or demand work through scheduled breaks and on and on. The United States Wages and Hours Act and other labor laws specify minimum legal standards for work and pay that do not include stealing from employees. The failure to enforce the law by the Bush Administration has never been an oversight, but appears as a deliberate, and so far successful, political decision.

Greenhouse has hopes that unions and unionization can be more successful relieving the decline of status and treatment of the workforce. His discussion of the Justice for Janitors campaign is especially appropriate. Janitors are the type of workforce where unions need to concentrate their organizing. That is because they are among the lowest paid of the workforce. If unions can successfully raise wages at the bottom they have their best chance to push everyone up to higher wages. Raising wages at the bottom also gives the best chance to unify the workforce politically.

Serious political divisions exist in the workforce and the evidence shows up when millions of working class Americans do not vote, or vote for candidates without regard to their history of support for labor, including their own. For example, America’s personal income tax requires those who work for a living to pay higher tax rates on their wages than income earned as dividends from not working. This and other political attitudes debase work, but Greenhouse largely avoids these political issues or the problems that divide labor. Still we admire a well-organized and comprehensive review of current labor markets using interviews and case studies from people willing to go on the record. Perhaps the accounts in the book will bring more action and unity to American labor. It would help if more see the big picture in the Big Squeeze.

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