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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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As a condition of the settlement, Wal-Mart will pay out as much as $640 million to those workers. If corporations were able to exert such coercive power when the unemployment rate was around 5%, what can they do in a job market in which 14.8% of the population can't find adequate work?

In fact, the world's largest retailer is one of the few American corporations doing well in dark times. While retail sales slid almost everywhere, the company's same-store sales went up 5.1% in February (when compared with February 2008 sales). Yet, in that same month, it announced a move to "realign its corporate structure and reduce costs." It cut 700 to 800 jobs at its Wal-Mart and Sam's Club home offices, in effect acting no differently than any of the companies being battered by the deepening recession.

Free-Firing Zone

Rodney Green, a soft-spoken 52-year-old, comes to the job center three times a week to search on-line job listings. He describes his decades-long drift from full-time employee with benefits to marginalized temp-worker with no benefits and, finally, to the category of unemployed for an extended period.

From the late 1970s until the early 1990s, he worked for Bell Telecommunications, where he earned a good salary and full benefits. Since Bell laid him off, he's worked periodically as a forklift operator for various companies, getting temporary placements through an employment agency. Most recently, he earned $12 an hour working for a deli meat and artisanal cheese producer. No benefits were provided. A year's work, he explained, would mean a week's vacation, "but they don't keep you that long. They lay you off or rotate you into another job before then."

Today, as he's discovered, even such temp jobs are becoming scarce. "In the eighties, it wasn't as bad as it is now," he comments from the unemployment heartland of what, in 2009, is a deeply de-industrialized Philadelphia. "The city had jobs, but then the jobs moved to the suburbs. Now they're moving overseas. Back then, say, you applied for a job, maybe fifty others applied, too. Today, that same job, you're going to have hundreds -- I mean, a thousand for that one job. It's hard. It's depressing."

For the past year and a half, Rodney has been collecting unemployment periodically, and in that time, he hasn't landed a single interview. Recently, because the Bush administration finally acquiesced to grassroots and Congressional pressure to lengthen unemployment benefits, he received a thirteen-week extension, providing him a little cushion (unlike equally interview-less Juanita). "That helped me a lot. Times are hard right now. I hear there are over four million people collecting unemployment. That's kind of high."

If Juanita and Chris are casualties of the intensified war of attrition businesses are quietly waging on workers, Rodney represents a deeper unraveling of jobs and job security, thanks to a globalized economy in which the hard-pressed workers in this country are pitted against cheaper labor pools in Latin America, South Asia, China, and even the American South. In such a job environment, what is one to do?

Someone I interviewed prior to my job center visit described her reaction when she heard that her company had recently closed a plant in the Midwest: "The first thing I thought, and I felt bad for thinking it," she recalled, somewhat sheepishly, "was that means more work for us -- at least for the time being."

Her comment speaks volumes, as does her request not to be identified. Who needs union busters, patrolling shop-stewards, or legions of high-paid lawyers fighting wage and hours claims when a worker is so anxious about job security that she responds positively to the laying off of those she imagines as potential competitors? When employees police their own behavior for fear of the axe -- monitoring their time checking email or using the bathroom -- bad times distinctly have an upside for management.

 
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