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Workplace Harassment: The Recession's Hidden Byproduct

In the face of a tough economy, many employees are suffering from mistreatment.

The recession numbers focus on the out of work, the nearly 10 percent of the workforce who are unemployed. Not counted in the stats of workplace misery are those still “lucky to have a job.”

A Labor Notes survey this month found harassment in the workplace at unprecedented levels, with a sharp uptick since the recession began. It may be that a measurable chunk of the unemployed have been harassed out of their jobs, fired rather than laid off.

Union members report increases in verbal abuse, discipline including discharge, crackdowns on attendance, surveillance, hassling to work faster, forced overtime, and a concerted effort to get rid of older workers. “It’s at a level that I have not seen equaled in my 20 years with the company,” said Seattle UPS driver Dan Scott.

As a rule recessions are a time for management to bear down in all sorts of ways, as the order to do more with less comes down the supervisory food chain.

Now, unions may be less prepared than ever to resist the harassment. In previous rounds of concessions, many surrendered work rules that had given workers flexibility or some say over their work day. Some took two-tier contracts that diluted solidarity on the job. And many older workers who knew—and defended—a less onerous workplace are gone.

Mark Bass, president of a Longshoremen’s local in Mobile, Alabama, said foremen are rushing dock workers and blackballing those who don’t speed up.

“It has not always been this way,” Bass added. “We had a large group of longshoremen retire who knew the longshoreman industry and had the union at heart. Now with the newcomers that don’t know the history and the story that goes from one to the other, we are faced with the challenge of educating our people.”

A recession is a hard time to do that. “At least I’ve got a job,” many say. And union leaders feel pressed to save jobs, not job standards. Still, some locals are hearing members’ desire for day-to-day respect.


UPS made its plans for the recession clear with a video shown to workers late last year. CEO Scott Davis warned that companies come out of a recession three ways: weakened, not at all, or leaner and stronger. UPS bosses—long expert at micromanagement—intend to take the third path.

Scott, the Seattle driver, said managers are putting on the brown uniform and riding along with drivers in record numbers. From an average of three or four rides per month, he says, they’ve increased to that many per week. They choose perfectly sorted trucks, open doors for drivers, walk really fast—everything to speed up on measurement day.

“You have to fight the urge to walk as fast as they’re walking. If I had a nickel for every time he said, ‘let’s go, let’s move it,’” Scott said. “It’s perpetual chatter the whole day.”

If the numbers at the end of a ride day are higher than on a regular day, that’s proof the worker has been “stealing time.”

UPS made $400 million in the first quarter of this year, despite recession blues. Telecommunications giant AT&T is even better off, pulling down $12.9 billion in 2008. But once the AT&T contract expired April 4, says Dan Coffin, a business agent with Communications Workers Local 1298 in Connecticut, suspensions skyrocketed.

Because AT&T has a two-tier contract, management is intent on getting rid of first-tier workers. Walt Cole is a case in point. He and other Local 1298 installers were transferred temporarily to U-Verse, which installs TV and Internet lines. They brought their higher pay and contract rights with them.

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