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Squeezing the American Dream: Workers Face Diminishing Returns

A new book on plight of white-collar and blue-collar workers lays bare how the American dream is now out of the reach of tens of millions.
 
 
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You may be surprised to learn that the pleasant person from FedEx Ground delivering your package owns the truck which he or she has parked in front of your house. FedEx Ground drivers, you will find out in Steven Greenhouse's The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, are not FedEx employees.

They are what are called independent contractors, although it demands no little effort to discern what about their position is independent. If they do not do what they are told, their contracts are abrogated forthwith. They are required to buy their own truck with 60 monthly installments of $781.12, which comes to $46,867.20. Plus there is a final kicker payment of $8,000, all of which adds up to a grand total of almost $55,000. On top of this, as an independent business person, the driver must bear the costs of insurance, maintenance, fuel, repairs and the fee for the FedEx uniform rental.

FedEx Ground drivers who want to take vacations must hire their own replacements to cover the routes while they are gone. If a FedEx Ground independent contractor can afford it, he should take a vacation because the hours are long, the work is hard and the compensation is less than princely. A driver will take home between $25,000 and $35,000 a year.

One of the strengths of Greenhouse's book is that it puts the meat of specificity on the bones of labor statistics. The Big Squeeze is salted with interviews and biographies of people in dozens of occupations. It is instructive to read the statistics concerning highly trained people losing their jobs to people in low-wage countries, but the numbers take on painful significance when you are introduced to an electrical engineer named Myra Bronstein, working for Watchmark, a Bellevue, Wash., firm which develops software used by cell phone companies.

One day Bronstein and 17 of her colleagues got an e-mail asking them to report to Watchmark's boardroom the following morning. As Myra and the other quality assurance engineers gathered in the boardroom, the director of human resources began giving out large manila envelopes. Once everyone was there, Myra recalled, "The head of HR said, 'Unfortunately, we're having layoffs, and you're in the room because you're being impacted by the layoffs.'" The 18 engineers were dumbstruck, but the head of human resources pressed on. "'Your replacements,'" she continued, "'are flying in from India, and you're expected to train them if you are going to receive severance.'"

Drawing back the camera on employment conditions, Greenhouse writes that "Forrester Research estimates that 3.4 million white-collar jobs -- some 260,000 a year -- will be sent overseas between 2003 and 2050. Forrester forecasts that this exodus will include 1.6 million office-support jobs, 542,000 computer jobs, 259,000 management jobs, 191,000 architecture jobs, 79,000 legal jobs, and 30,000 art and design jobs."

The author explains that these numbers are a small fraction of total employment in their respective fields, but the percentage of jobs held by college-trained white-collar workers in fields such as insurance, pharmacology, banking and information technology which can be shipped abroad in some instances ranges above 40 percent.

A few years ago many an American entertained the conceit that the natural world division of labor, la Adam Smith and David Ricardo, would have the little brown and yellow people doing the heavy lifting jobs in ill-ventilated factories reeking of lead vapors, while large, highly intelligent, highly white citizens of the United States would enjoy a life of brain work and ease. It has not worked out that way, as Greenhouse shows his readers. Whether or not one's job is actually sent abroad, the mere fact that it can be works not only to place a limit on what you can expect to be paid but depresses wages and salaries.

Gone overseas, besides jobs, is the capability of generating jobs. Technology, the industrial knowledge base and the necessary organizational skills to use these efficiently are also being exported. This puts additional downward pressure on compensation here at home and makes its contribution to Greenhouse's doleful overall narrative of what has been happening to perhaps four-fifths of our working population for the last 30 years or so.

The writer's central thesis is, "One of the least examined but most important trends taking place in the United States today is the broad decline in the status and treatment of American workers -- white-collar and blue-collar workers, middle-class and low-end workers -- that began nearly three decades ago, gradually gathered momentum, and hit with full force soon after the turn of this century. A profound shift has left a broad swath of the American workforce on a lower plain than in decades past, with health coverage, pension benefits, job security, workloads, stress levels, and often wages growing worse for millions of workers."

Greenhouse's main argument is so at variance with what we are told every day about the superiority of American everything, it makes you blink. We judge ourselves by what our politicians and our television sets say, which is that we are the best, most blessed and richest of people and getting more so. A rising tide floats all boats, President John Kennedy said, and the American tide keeps on rising, but Greenhouse shows that tens of millions of boats are either staying put or sinking.

A day seldom passes but a member of Congress takes the floor to remind us in mawkish tremolo that the hundreds of thousands of people trying to get into the U.S. are proof positive of the power of the American dream. If Greenhouse is right, and there is no reason to believe he is not, that American dream is just that -- a dream.

"Northwest Airlines," Greenhouse writes, apropos of some people's dreams, "gave laid-off workers a booklet entitled '101 Ways to Save Money.' But the booklet added insult to financial injury. 'Borrow a dress for a big night out' and 'Shop at auctions or pawn shops for jewelry' were among the tips it offered. And then it suggested, 'Don't be shy about pulling something you like out of the trash.' " Dumpster diving into the American dream. You can't make stuff like that up, and this book is full of such revealing anecdotes.

It is also chockablock with stories of daily humiliations and insults administered to employees by their superiors and/or the policies of the companies they work for. Men being shouted at and demeaned as though by a bullying parent, women being subjected to lewd advances or told to choose between rushing to a sick or stranded child or keeping their jobs. Old-timers will tell you in the vernacular that in the bad old days when the U.S. was a factory and forge society, the foreman kept a red-hot poker stuck up your ass from when you clocked in to when you clocked out. It seems from Greenhouse's book that for millions of workers, America in the info, human relations, fuzzy-wuzzy age of grief counselors, anxiety pills, empathy and sensitivity offers workplace treatment which is the same as it was in the era of the satanic mills. The dignity of labor? Forget it.

We have become a nation of mules. It's work, work, work all the time. " … The average American worker clocked 1,804 hours of work in 2006 -- three full-time weeks more per year than the average British worker, six weeks more than the average French worker, and nine weeks more than the average German worker," writes Greenhouse. And, mind you, the day is long gone that the standard of living in those countries lagged behind ours.

On an hourly basis, American workers are not, as once they were, more productive than those in comparable nations. They are less so. It could be because sleep deprivation and overwork have put them into a half-zombie zone.

If you go back to the Sunday supplements of the Eisenhower era, you can read discussions of what Americans were going to do with the huge amounts of free leisure time that "automation" was about to bestow on them. The automation came with the computers and digitalization of everything, including the hair in your nostrils, and, pari passu with it, the imposition of ever longer hours of work. In a society which reduces them to individualized atoms and then smashes the atoms, employees of every sort and status except the highest have no place to look for protection.

"In many countries there is, in essence, a legal break that limits overwork. In the twenty-seven countries of the European Union, employers are required to give workers at least four weeks' vacation each year. In Norway and Sweden, workers are guaranteed five weeks' vacation, while workers in France and Spain generally receive six weeks. The United States is the only advanced industrial nation that does not legislate a minimum number of vacation days each year. American workers averaged just twelve days of vacation annually, and 36 percent of Americans say they do not take all the vacation days due them," Greenhouse tells his readers.

No discussion of working days and hours should stop without examining what such unstinting labor outside the home does to family life. One of the strengths of Greenhouse's book is that it does, within the limits of time and topic, tackle the consequences of the information he presents.

During the last 30 years of stagnation and decline for working Americans, the political party associated with business has been unrelenting in going after its Democratic rivals as the anti-family, pro-abortion, smut and homosexual party. This has netted that political party much mileage and many an election win, but all the queers and all the flits and all the gays in history lumped together cannot have had the deleterious effects on modern family life that low compensation and long hours have had.

The numbers cited by Greenhouse explain why: " … 59 percent of mothers with children under six do paid work and so do 55 percent with children under one, about half of them full time. One reason for today's increased time bind … is that in the modern middle-class American household, both parents taken together work 540 more hours per year -- 13.5 more weeks per year -- than parents did a generation ago. In two out of three American families with small children in which both parents work, the couples work more than 80 total hours per week."

Beyond compensating staff too little to enable parents to have the time to care for their children properly, employers are rigidly indifferent to the unforeseen crises and nasty surprises which inevitably attend the economically forced separation of children from their parents. To drive the point home, Greenhouse says: "Many employers do surprisingly little to help workers juggle work and family. Some retailers post their worker's weekly schedules only a few days in advance, making it hard to plan child care. Many businesses require employees to work overtime at a moment's notice, leaving many workers in a bind when their baby sitter is scheduled to leave. Nearly half of American workers are not entitled to paid sick days … many workers risk getting fired when they stay home to care for the sick children."

How the forced absence of parents plays into the continuing downward slide of academic accomplishments by millions of schoolchildren is beyond the scope of this book but not beyond our thinking. Two-, three- and four-job families are not in good shape to supervise homework, meet with teachers or uphold their end of the PTA. Children left to their own devices in this country fall prey to the advertising which whisks them off to game, movie, music, sneaker, celebrity, cell phone etc. land, where fun and entertainment obliterate three-quarters of their lives and instill in them sets of preferences and beliefs which keep many of them in ox-brained thralldom the rest of their existences.

One would have assumed such questions would have been a burning political issue these past 30 years, but far from it. Discussions of them have been boxed out and labeled as a woman's issue or, worse, a feminist issue. At the same time, business executives and trade associations complain with increasing vehemence about the untaught, ignorant and under-motivated young people coming out of our high schools and colleges, yet their part in the numbing of youth goes undiscussed for fear anyone who might bring it up will be accused of waging class warfare.

No book on this subject can skip Wal-Mart, the largest employer in the United States with 1.3 million-plus workers, whose average pay last year was $1,500 under the poverty line for a family of four. Greenhouse devotes a chapter in his book to the company, pointing out that its effects and influence are enormous. Business schools hold it up as the ideal way to run a business, and competitors are forced to adopt its practices because of its size alone.

Anyone who has walked into a Wal-Mart is aware of the size of the individual stores, but the stores themselves do not begin to hint at the dimensions of this organization. "Its sales represent an astonishing 2.6 percent of the nation's gross domestic product," Greenhouse writes. "It is three times as large as the world's second-largest retailer, Carrefour of France. Its sales are greater than the combined sales of Target, Sears, Kmart, JCPenney, Kohl's, Safeway, Albertson's, and Kroger. Some retail consultants predict that it will become the world's first $1 trillion company in a dozen years. Each week 130 million shoppers visit its 4,000 US stores, and each year 82 percent of American households shop at Wal-Mart. It is the nation's largest grocer, and will have 35 percent of the nation's food market and 25 percent of the pharmacy market by the end of this decade, according to Retail Forward, a consulting firm. Wal-Mart already sells one-third of the nation's disposable diapers, toothpaste, shampoo, laundry detergent, paper towels and nonprescription drugs, and some say it could soon capture a 50 percent share for those products."

It may also be the world's biggest crook. It forces its workers to labor off the clock for no compensation. It locks them up overnight to make them restock shelves, etc., for free. It hires illegals via subcontractors. It discriminates against women. It violates the child labor laws. It cheats and uses short cuts in more ways than there is space to enumerate. So massive is the indignation at what this behemoth does that a small but vigorous anti-Wal-Mart industry has sprung up to try to throw a halter on the beast, with but indifferent success.

In a time of shrinking purchasing power, Wal-Mart's low prices have been a godsend for millions, but at the rate things are moving, millions won't have enough to buy even at Wal-Mart. Greenhouse makes a point of demonstrating how Wal-Mart's arrival in a community depresses everybody's wages throughout the area. So the question is: Do people save more or lose more because of Wal-Mart's arrival?

A case can be made that Wal-Mart's executives long since should have been arrested and taken out of their Bentonville, Ark., headquarters in handcuffs, but they have escaped having to answer for what their company does, much as other business people do who break the nation's weak labor laws, whether that be by cheating employees of their pay or forcing them to labor under unhealthy conditions or chiseling on workmen's compensation, etc. Workers who steal get caught and prosecuted; the men and women they work for do not.

Greenhouse discusses a number of ways of lessening the big squeeze's pressure on people in the face of free trade and massive immigration. To name a few, he has hopes for raising the earned income tax credit and would change the law to make corporations like Wal-Mart criminally liable for their contractors' labor law violations. He tackles the question of the courts blessing settlements of suits against companies that pay in secret without admitting how they have screwed their workers. He would have the government send some executives to prison for crimes against their employees, just as they are jailed for crimes against their stockholders. All good suggestions with some hope of congressional enactment if the Democrats get in and the lobbyists do not get to them first.

Among Greenhouse's many suggestions is the revival of union power and membership. The deck is so stacked against the lone, unorganized, unprotected employee that the squeeze is only going to get tighter. Collective action for Americans indoctrinated for decades with the conviction that lack of money is a character flaw is a hard sell. A rebirth of trade unionism also depends upon major changes in federal government policies. For that to happen, Greenhouse recognizes, the National Labor Relations Board would have to be pried away from business control and laws governing union organizing and tactics restored to something like what they were in the New Deal period.

If enough people read The Big Squeeze that may come to pass. Well researched and written to be easily read, this book should get people out from in front of their flat-screen HD television sets to try to do something about what has been happening to us and our country.

Nicholas von Hoffman, a former columnist for The Washington Post and a former commentator for CBS' "60 Minutes," is a regular columnist for The New York Observer. He is the author of numerous books, including "Hoax: Why Americans Are Suckered by White House Lies" and "Capitalist Fools: Tales of American Business From Carnegie to Forbes to the Milken Gang."

 
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