About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

#26 - The Big Squeeze. Ouch.

So, #26 was The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, by Steven Greenhouse. A well-written, convincing book that packs a punch, but probably isn't the most uplifting thing to read if you're on the job market. In a nutshell, Greenhouse's thesis is that conditions for the American worker have declined across the board over the last 20 years or so, and workers at all but the very top of the career ladder are working more, earning less, and enjoying far less security. If you're at all interested in labor issues and inequality in contemporary America (yep, this means me), much of what he's written won't be terribly new or surprising ... but the way he puts the data together, extends the argument to include white-collar workers, and uses compelling case studies to illustrate his points without implying that these individual stories are wholly representative makes for a gripping, if somewhat unsettling and depressing, read.

The first few chapters draw heavily on the anecdotal: stories of maltreated workers which are, agreeably, pretty horrific, but fairly easy for the average (read: college-educated, white collar) reader to dismiss as non-representative and/or things that only happen to workers in the lowest-paid, lowest-skill jobs. There's a Wal-Mart security guard who gets fired after he's injured in pursuit of a thief; an exploited call center worker who, repeatedly forced to work without clocking in, ends up paid even less than her already-measly $7-an-hour wage; several Wal-Mart stockers and security personnel who are locked in stores overnight to prevent "shrinkage" (a/k/a employee theft), and threatened with losing their jobs if they open the door for anything less than a fire; and so on -- all scenarios familiar to readers of Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed and/or any of the myriad of anti-WalMart books and articles out there. You start to think this is stuff you've seen and heard before.

Where Greenhouse's book stands out, though, is when he discusses the way white-collar workers are getting squeezed as well, and puts the pieces together to convince the reader that yes, we really are in the same boat. Many books on contemporary labor and workplace issues miss this mark (or perhaps never aim for it in the first place); either they go the Nickel and Dimed route, and paint a grim picture of how bad things are for the lowest-paid workers, or they make the mistake that The Sexual Paradox and many other work/life books do, and wring their hands about how stressed and overworked people (usually women) with higher levels of education and more occupational choices are. Greenhouse addresses both groups, and does so equally capably. For example, he argues that globalization hurts workers at all levels: employees in a Carolina slaughterhouse, where a large population of immigrants (mostly Mexican and Central/ South American, many of them undocumented) allow the employer to pay obscenely low wages for what really is a grueling, disgusting job; virtually the whole town of Galesburg, Illinois, where the closure of a Maytag factory that's relocated to Mexico has ripple effects throughout the entire community; and software engineers in Seattle, who are surprised to find themselves un- or underemployed as increasing number of high-tech jobs are exported to highly educated, low-paid workforces in India. He draws similar parallels between the experiences of vastly different workers when it comes to our increased workweeks -- whether that's the hotel housekeeper who's forced to come in early and off the clock just to get a day's work done, or the middle manager who's expected to work 12-hour days and still be available 24/7 by Blackberry. I was also impressed by Greenhouse's delicate navigation of the immigration issue; he calmly breaks it down into several sub-issues, tries to present all sides of controversial arguments, and is firm about laying the blame squarely on the employers who exploit undocumented workers, rather than the workers themselves. Similarly, the chapters on the difficulties specific to younger and older workers makes it very clear that this isn't an "us vs. them" issue -- unless it's one of CEOs vs. the rest of us.

Interspersed with the gloom and doom are several examples of companies which buck the trend. Of these, Greenhouse goes into the most detail about Costco, offering an extensive comparison of their far-more-generous wages and benefits compared to Wal-Mart's, and suggesting that they're able to afford this largely through what they save in employee turnover costs (though I think a bit more attention should have been paid to their comparatively modest executive compensation packages). I would have liked to see a bit more detail about some of the other "good" companies; the book touches only briefly on Timberland and Patagonia, and it would have been nice to see a bit more detail about how other companies in other industries manage to do right by their employees and still remain competitive.

No pithy summary or advice here, but it's an interesting, maddening, and sad book. Read it, but keep something soft nearby to throw when you feel the need.

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