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August 17, 2008

FDL Book Salon Welcomes Steven Greenhouse: ‘The Big Squeeze’

Posted in: FDL Book Salon,Labor

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Quick, let’s all raise our hands: How many of us could live on less than $10 an hour?

That’s a take-home pay of roughly $300 a week. Most one-bedroom apartments cost at least $1,000 a month. Ooops. There goes nearly the entire salary in one rent check.

So how do the nearly 33 million U.S. workers who make less than $10 an hour survive?

As Steven Greenhouse points out in The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, a wage of $10 an hour is lower than the poverty level for a family of four—$20,614 a year in 2006. And it gets worse. Reading The Big Squeeze doesn’t give the reader the impression Greenhouse is talking about a western industrialized nation in the 21st century—let alone the United States.

  • U.S. worker productivity rose 60 percent since 1979. If wages had kept pace with productivity, the average full-time worker would be earning $58,000 a year. Instead, the average worker was paid $36,000 in 2007.
  • The typical American worker toils 1,804 hours a year, 135 hours more per year than the typical British worker, 240 hours more than the average French worker and 370 hours—nine weeks—more than the average German worker.
  • The number of Americans living in poverty jumped by 15 percent from 2000 to 2006—an increase of 5.4 million to 36.5 million.
  • From 1979 to 2005, after-tax income inched up 6 percent for the bottom fifth of U.S. households after inflation, while it rose 21 percent for the middle fifth. For the top fifth, income jumped 80 percent—and for the top 1 percent, it more than tripled, skyrocketing by 228 percent.

Greenhouse, a reporter for The New York Times—one of the few journalists remaining with a labor beat in the corporate-dominated mainstream media—looks at the impact of these data on America’s workers. And, in doing so, he pinpoints one of the big reasons why the vast majority of us are struggling to get by even during years when the economy was expanding: The employer attack on unions.

In his first vignette, Greenhouse describes how Kathy Saumier, a factory worker in Syracuse, N.Y., went from wage laborer to pariah—all because of her efforts to form a union with the United Steelworkers. At the plant, Landis Plastics, safety conditions were so bad four workers had fingers amputated in the machinery in the space of a few months. Women were told they would never be promoted and sexual harassment was rampant. But when Saumier sought to form a union to counter this egregious work environment, she experienced what many U.S. workers seeking to form unions encounter—viscious anti-union harassment.

Management called in the police to interrogate her, falsely accusing her of sabotaging the car of an anti-union worker. Her workplace locker was tampered with, and she feared illegal substances would be placed in it so the company would have cause to fire her and get her arrested. She received phone calls at home threatening her and her children and was isolated in a room to work where she wouldn’t have contact with other workers.


Ultimately, the company fired her—ludicrously accusing her of pulling down the pants of a male worker, an allegation that a federal District Court judge threw out when it became clear the alleged victim was not credible. The judge ruled the company fired her in retaliation for her union activities—an illegal action, even in the anti-worker Bush administration era.

Some 60 million workers say they would join a union if they could—and Saumier’s experience shows why many can’t.

For many years, declining wages and job insecurity were seen as blue-collar problems confined to people like Kathy Saumier and her co-workers. But, as Greenhouse points out, the ripping apart of the nation’s social contract eventually hit white-collar workers.

The 1980s represented the humbling of the blue-collar workers. During that decade, the nation’s white-collar workers were, by and large, still confident that the social contract would protect them. But then came the 1990s.

And the shredding of the social contract continues. Greenhouse devotes an entire chapter of his book to outsourcing, the global scourge of white-collar jobs.

Indeed, more and more economists are voicing fears that if American technology companies continue to send so much of their work and expertise overseas, that might someday enable India’s and China’s high-tech industries to outinvent, outthink and outstrip America’s high-tech industry in some key areas, leaving the United States at a costly disadvantage in a field of critical importance.

Later this month, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) releases its biannual report, The State of Working America. In previewing the report’s findings, co-author Heidi Shierholz sums up this decade’s jobs picture:

If job growth from 2000 to 2007 had matched the 1990s cycle, the economy would have added 7 million more jobs than it did. The weak jobs situation means that the potential of millions of productive, hard-working Americans has been left untapped—a profound disservice to them, their families, and the economy as a whole.

Often, humor helps us understand what’s going on. In < The Big Squeeze, Greenhouse includes text from a mock memo circulated by workers soon after Chase Manhattan and Chemical banks merged. "Frequently Asked Questions," supposedly signed by Thomas Labrecque, Chase’s CEO, zeros in on the core of what’s happening to workers in the U.S. economy while fleshing out the difficult to define concept of a society’s culture.

Q. Why am I facing layoffs, why is my career in ruins, why can’t I sleep at night?

A. Your largely insignificant life is being sacrificed to bring into existence the best banking and financial services company in the world, bar none….

Q. When will I know if I’m being laid off?

A. You, you, you, is that all you care about, you? Please understand that we need to think about "us," which probably doesn’t include you. It’s about time you started to think about the greater whole, buddy….It should be an honor to be laid off."


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