Labor Advocate Online

A Class Piece Of Work
by Bill Onasch

The Big Squeeze
Tough Times For the American Worker
Steven Greenhouse

Steven Greenhouse is the best of a highly endangered species–a labor beat reporter for a mass circulation newspaper. Last year staff cuts eliminated Nancy Cleeland’s excellent labor coverage from the Los Angeles Times. Randy Furst at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune was long ago reassigned to more general reporting. Steve Franklin remains at the Chicago Tribune and Randy Heaster is still in place at the Kansas City Star, but there are few others.

I noticed the volume of Greenhouse’s articles in the New York Times declined considerably over the last year or so and was concerned that he too may be in phase out mode. I was pleased to discover a better explanation for how he had been spending his time when his new book was published a few weeks ago. It was time well spent.

Others have looked at various aspects of tough times for American workers. The seminal work of the postwar period was Michael Harrington’s The Other America, published in 1962, calling attention to a large “underclass,” left behind by the general trends of prosperity during the Fifties and Sixties. More recently, Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a best-seller, Nickel and Dimed, based on her living on earnings from low wage jobs in various parts of the country. Not as widely read, Beth Shulman’s The Betrayal of Work also focused on the working poor. Others have dealt with problems faced by the “middle class,” such as The Two-Income Trap by Elizabeth Warren & Amelia Warren Tyagi. Kim Moody’s U.S. Labor In Trouble and Transition, published last year, is a tour de force examination of organized labor.

But none have been so comprehensive in describing the predicament of working people today, and explaining how we got in to this mess, as Greenhouse does. As far as I know, he is not a radical of any kind. He is weakest on offering solutions. But he does for contemporary America what Marx’s collaborator Frederick Engels did in his classic work, The Condition Of the Working Class In England In 1844.

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The American working class is taking a beating the likes of which have not been seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Greenhouse describes this well in an opening chapter nutshell,

“The squeeze on the American worker has meant more poverty, more income inequality, more family tensions, more hours at work, more time away from the kids, more families without health insurance, more retirees with inadequate pensions, and more demands on government and taxpayers to provide housing assistance and health coverage. Twenty percent of families with children under six live below the poverty line, and 22 million full-time workers do not have health insurance. Largely as a result of the squeeze, the number of housing foreclosures and personal bankruptcies more than tripled in the quarter century after 1979. Economic studies show that income inequality in the United States is so great that it more closely resembles the inequality of a third world country than that of an advanced industrial nation.”

Greenhouse gets to the heart of the matter right away. He notes that if wages had kept pace with the growth in productivity over the past thirty years workers would be earning an average of 58,000 dollars per year. Instead last year’s number was 36,000. “The nation's economic pie is growing” he says, “but corporations by and large have not given their workers a bigger piece.”

In addition to grim statistics, Greenhouse presents case studies spanning the spectrum of the most diverse working class in the world. He brings us a human dimension not so easily quantified. Loss of dignity, anxiety, despair are also part of our story. Some families break up under the pressures while others pull together as never before.

While Greenhouse obviously genuinely cares for the people he tells us about these are not just sob stories. He does a masterful job in explaining how their predicament fits in to the globalization stage of capitalism in the USA.

Among other things, Greenhouse looks at:

* the brutality used to defeat union organizing drives at a Landis Plastics plant in upstate New York, and a nursing home in North Miami.

* a ten-month strike at Tyson’s pepperoni plant in Jefferson, Wisconsin that, despite a united union workforce, and solid community support, was ultimately lost because of the company’s ability to bring in outside permanent replacements while keeping profits flowing in from other plants;

* examples of the “contingency” workers, created in the 1980s, which Greenhouse describes, “...for corporate America they’re essentially a disposable workforce, discarded as soon as they are not needed anymore;”

* a number of instances of shocking treatment of workers at Wal-Mart, Sam’s Clubs, and other low price merchandisers;

* the closing of the Maytag refrigerator plant in Galesburg, Illinois, long noted for its high productivity and quality work, with their production offshored to plants in Korea and Mexico;

* the software engineers at WatchMark who were expected to train their outsourced replacements, flying in from India, as a condition for receiving severance pay.

The plight of undocumented immigrant workers, “the lowest rung,” is woven in to a number of these stories as well as a stand alone chapter. But so are samples of former solid citizens of the “middle class,” middle-aged white and African-American--with mortgages and kids in college--who, after devoting decades of loyal service to corporations, find themselves out of work with no marketable job skills. A chapter, “Starting Out Means A Steeper Climb,” describes the challenges facing youth entering the job market. “The Not So Golden Years” looks at the precarious security of the retired.

Greenhouse misses little in his examination of American workers. He has used his investigative reporting skills to give us a readable scholarly socio-economic landmark. It deserves a read by every serious labor movement activist.

But this valuable book that helps us to understand our world is not so useful in figuring out how to change it as well.

Greenhouse has high praise for some companies–such as Costco–for not trying to squeeze the last drop from their workforce. Costco makes a handsome profit while rewarding their workers with better wages and benefits than the competition. There is no doubt that Costco workers see their employer–the main competitor of Wal-Mart’s Sam’s Clubs--as fair and as a result work productively.

But such anomalies usually don’t last long. Ben & Jerry’s utopian experiment with ice cream is today part of Unilever.

Workers at American Axle used to love their boss, Dick Dauch. They busted their butts and gave contract concessions, to make his declared goal to save American jobs a success. But when the UAW surrender at the Big Three offered Dauch new opportunities he didn’t hesitate to offshore nearly half of Axle’s jobs and to slash wages and benefits by more than fifty percent for those remaining–perhaps the most vicious one-shot Big Squeeze yet.

Greenhouse also has illusions, nurtured by New Deal mythology, in the ability of American capitalism to “lift all boats.”

While Greenhouse’s solutions to our quandary are inadequate he broadens and deepens our understanding of the forces leading to our plight. That’s a prerequisite for figuring out an intelligent response for ourselves. We are grateful for that.

6/17/2008

You can order The Big Squeeze through this kclabor link to Amazon

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