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The Secret War Against American Workers

Bosses are using minor transgressions of work-place rules as the trigger for firings -- putting the fear of god into those who remain.

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Now, Juanita lives with her brother and his wife, but they, too, have financial problems. "My brother is working part time and it's driving him crazy, because it's causing money problems between him and his wife," she explains. "And with me being there," she hesitates, "...it's a little constrained."

Ratcheting Up the Fear

The mainstream media has generally sketched a picture of a labor market in which, under the pressure of an economic meltdown, workers succumb to two types of downsizing. In one, a fierce recession forces businesses, desperate to cut costs in terrible times, to lay off workers. They, in turn, face grim prospects for gainful employment elsewhere. In a kinder, gentler version of the same, employers, desperate to cut costs in terrible times, offer -- or sometimes force workers to take -- "furloughs," salary cuts, union give-backs, four-day work weeks, or un-paid holidays rather than axing large numbers of them.

In this case, tough as it may be, workers benefit, retaining at least some of their income, while businesses wait out the recession. In both cases, businesses are largely depicted as unenthusiastic dispensers of pink-slips. Managers and bosses are just facing up to an unpalatable reality and unavoidable pressures imposed on them by the worst economic moment in recent memory.

A visit to a job center is hardly a scientific survey. The experiences of Juanita and Chris, along with those of other unemployed people I spent time with while in Philadelphia, may be purely anecdotal evidence. But they do raise questions about a subject of no small importance, and it's not one you're likely to read about in your daily paper -- not yet anyway. If a deepening recession weighs down and threatens businesses, some of those businesses are undoubtedly also making convenient use of the times to do things they might have wanted to do, but were unable to do in better conditions.

In some cases, under the guise of "recession" pressure, they may be waging a secret war against their own workers, using even the most innocuous transgressions of work-place rules as the trigger for firings -- and so, of course, putting the fear of god into those who remain. In this way, company payrolls are not only being reduced by mass layoffs, but workers are being squeezed for ever greater productivity in return for lower wages, worse hours, and less benefits. The weapon of choice is the specter of unemployment, a kind of death by a thousand (or a million) cuts.

Companies stand to gain a lot these days from such small-scale but decisive actions. After all, they reap a double benefit. Not only do they pare down the size of their payroll, often without needing -- as in Juanita's case -- to consent to unemployment compensation, but they also contribute to a climate of intensifying fear. Workers who remain on the job are now not only on edge about lay-offs or scaled-back hours, but also know that a late return from a bathroom or lunch break might mean being shown the door, becoming another member of the legions of unemployed -- now at 12.5 million and rising fast.

This dynamic is, of course, hardly new. Countless critics of working conditions have written about it since the dawn of the industrial age. But at the moment, even as the latest unemployment figures make screaming headlines, this is a subject that seldom comes up. Consider, though, that in December, Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, settled 63 outstanding class-action lawsuits that alleged massive wage and hours violations. Fearing termination, Wal-Mart workers, according to their testimony in the lawsuits, labored through lunch breaks and past their scheduled hours for just above minimum wage pay, with little hope of getting enough hours to qualify for the company's health benefits.

 
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