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Tales of How Big Corporations Are Screwing Americans Over

Stagnant wages, sexual harassment, worsening benefits, horrible treatment: just a few of the problems faced by American workers in all industries.
 
 
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The silver lining -- if there is one -- in this horrible [financial] crisis is that for years, the country just wasn't paying attention to how the typical worker was doing," declares New York Times labor and workplace correspondent Steven Greenhouse.

"There was so much focus on the wizards of Wall Street and the brilliant entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley, but very, very little attention paid to how the average worker was doing. I think the recession has gotten the nation to realize that things are really bad for millions and millions of average workers."

Greenhouse has described that pinch in The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, his chronicle of everything that's wrong with the modern U.S. workplace: "stagnant wages, worsening benefits, horrible treatment," as he put it in an interview with Miller-McCune.com.

"There are a lot of unfair, often illegal things going on in the workplace," says Greenhouse, who also holds a law degree from New York University. Some of the legal violations he details in his new book include forcing employees to work off the clock, union busting and sexual discrimination and harassment. The Big Squeeze has been described by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz as "shocking and important"; American Conservative magazine, which would be more likely to be critical of the work, said, "Greenhouse's picture should unnerve anyone committed to a stable future for American democracy." Although, it added: "Greenhouse can offer only unsatisfactory suggestions for redressing the plight of America's workers."

Toil and Trouble
Relating the accounts of actual people and their experiences working for some of the nation's best-known companies, Greenhouse doesn't just round up the usual suspects -- although he does devote considerable space to Wal-Mart, writing that "its low wages and benefits have created a downward pull on the way that many companies treat their workers."

Broadening his focus beyond low-wage workplaces with relatively low-skilled jobs, Greenhouse -- who says he requested the labor-and-workplace beat after a stint covering economic and foreign policy for the Times because he hankered to return to "reporting about flesh-and-blood people" -- also details questionable employment practices of firms typically regarded as employee-friendly.

Federal courts, for example, have ruled that the FedEx Ground division of the package delivery giant -- listed on Fortune's "100 Best Companies to Work For" — improperly classified drivers (among them a three-time cancer survivor interviewed by Greenhouse) as independent contractors in order to cut costs.

Greenhouse also profiles a woman who spent more than a decade working full-time as a so-called temp, "receiving lesser pay, benefits, and status than regular workers," for Hewlett-Packard, a company whose corporate culture, "the HP Way," was once widely celebrated for valuing workers.

Some of the other workers he describes in his book toil in what Greenhouse calls a "workplace hell," where store managers for national retailers erase hours from workers' time sheets to cut payroll costs, and a plastics manufacturer's flouting of safety rules results in four workers losing fingers in little more than a year.

Despite such conditions, and the U.S. unemployment rate reaching 9.5 percent in July, Greenhouse cites reasons for optimism -- among them, the rising demand for "green jobs." He concedes that green industries may still involve some offshore production: "Solar panels have a lot of complicated electronic guts," he says, so companies "might find it easier to make that in China than here." But many green jobs -- installing solar panels, retrofitting houses, erecting wind turbines -- will be immune to outsourcing, he says, because they have to be done here.