Steven Greenhouse, The Big Squeeze by Michael J. Anzelone, Nassau Community College, English Department, NCC Federation of Teachers
Published by Knopf in 2008, Greenhouse’s The Big Squeeze captures the spirit of the current social, economic, political and ideological moment in the United States today. The book’s sub- title, Tough Times for the American Worke , could not be more prescient. Tough times indeed! Not since FDR and the New Deal of the 1930s has America been in such dire straits.
In one of his opening epigraphs Greenhouse quotes FDR in his Second Inaugural Address in 1937 when FDR said, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abun- dance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” In the sixteen chapters that fol- low, Greenhouse speaks for those who have too little. As I read his book, I anticipated his Dickensian descriptions (chapter 4 is entitled “Downright Dickensian”). How sad I was to read his vivid descriptions of the overworked and underpaid; moreover, his argument is so well-documented, forceful and accurate that readers come to accept this Dickensian imagery without hesita- tion. As the labor correspondent for The New York Times for many years, Greenhouse speaks with authority and conviction. He is genuinely saddened by those in this country who “labor in dismal swamps” (“Introduction,” xi). His basic thesis, that there has been a broad decline in the status and treatment of the American worker in the last thirty years, seems indisputable.
New to this evident decline would be the inclusion of white collar workers and the decline in the middle class. He vehe- mently argues that the American workforce is now “on a lower plane than in decades past, with health coverage, pension ben- efits, job security, workloads, stress levels, and often wages growing worse for millions of workers.” Most troubling is the notion that while the workforce has been in decline, “corporate profits have been soaring.” In his opening chapter, Greenhouse uses facts and statistics to bolster his case for worker decline and corporate greed. He documents the wage stagnation of work- ers, the subprime mortgage crisis, health insurance problems, etc. It all adds up to people working longer hours, second jobs or more overtime to compensate for the corporate squeeze on American workers. He sums up his findings with the amazing revelation that the United States in its income inequality “re- sembles the inequality of a third world country.”
Greenhouse documents workers locked up in a Walmart store in Panama City, Florida, where they witnessed rats “as big as dogs” during their night shift work. They were also threat- ened that they would be fired if they left the building during their night shift, and management, taking no chances, locked them in the store. The lesson from the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of March 25, 1911 seems to be lost on corporate America even today!
In chapter five, “The Rise and Fall of the Social Contract,” Greenhouse points to FDR and the New Deal legislation that helped put America back to work. In an ironic twist, given the big three automakers’economic decline today, he quotes Charles E. Wilson, then president of GM, who said, “What was good for our country was good for GM and vice versa.” Today, the big three automakers need to make serious adjustments to their
L I c u r r e n t b u s i n e s s p r a c t i c e s . S o , w h a t h a s b e e n g o o d f o r the big three automakers lately has not been good for the country. Also in this same chapter another ironic note is struck with the reference to a book by Peters and Waterman entitled In Search of Excellence (1982). The authors state that “You must treat your workers as your most important asset.” Those of us who are pro-labor could not agree more. American workers today seem to have to fight even harder now for the right to be treated with dignity and respect in the workplace. Perhaps we should listen to Peters and Waterman when they tell us, “We see…full employment policies in time of recession …. Caring runs in the veins of the managers of these institutions” so that workers remain loyal to the firm.
One major problem for today’s American workers concerns the shift from “allegiance to the worker” to the “allegiance to the shareholder.” This phenomenon is known as investor capitalism. This shift in attitude can be summed up in one comment by Charles Smith, a Kodak spokesman who said, “You cannot ignore impor- tant constituencies like shareholders.” The American worker becomes just another disposable part in this para- digm. Judd Everhart, a Xerox spokesman, said, “It is the new reality.” And part of this new reality includes UAW’s president, Ron Gettelfinger, arguing that we are “… dis- mantlingAmerica’s middle class by importing third world wages to the United States.” This sea change results in “a generation of more demanding, more unforgiving and, too often, more cold-hearted managers.” The list of American companies that live up to having cold-hearted managers includes but is not limited to: Walmart, Fed- eral Express, Taco Bell, and HP. Greenhouse has a solu- tion: he suggests that Sam Walmart’s heirs take some of their combined $80 billion—the world’s richest family— and donate some of it to improve health care for Wal- Mart’s poor.”
In the second half of Greenhouse’s book, he offers suggestions for improving the sorry state of corporate America’s workplaces: he proposes that companies take the high road. A skeptical reader might ask: what moti- vation do companies have for taking the high road? By way of example, he details Costco’s business practices. They offer some of the best wages and good benefit plans for their workers. While this may seem to fly in the face of corporate America’s cost-cutting measures, Green- house cogently argues that a good employer leads to good employees and lower turnover which, in turn, saves the company money. It also leads to “a dedicated and pro- ductive workforce.” In chapter nine, “Taking the High Road,” he argues for such simple work practices as of- fice Christmas parties and care for workers’ children. In turn, companies feel more like a big family which pro- duces better results in the end. Furthermore, employee turnover is lower in these union jobs.
What does the future hold for American workers? We are offered an answer in chapter fourteen with its title – “Starting Out Means a Steeper Climb.” For the next generation (or generation X) they are faced with
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