Posts Tagged ‘Tough times for the American worker’

Tough times: the social contract

September 11, 2010

I count myself lucky to have lived and worked in what, in retrospect, was a golden age for the United States.  When I came of age in the 1950s, I took it for granted that each decade would be better than the more before – that progress toward higher wages and more leisure was a law of nature.  There was an implied “social contract” – that if I was loyal to my employer, and did a good job, my employer would do his best to keep me employed at a decent wage.

I didn’t need to read Steven Greenhouse’s 2008 book, The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, to understand that this belief was an illusion.  Automatic progress is like getting something for nothing.  Things don’t get better unless people are doing things to make them better.

The golden age rested partly on the unique position that the United States enjoyed in the quarter century following World War Two, as the world’s only intact industry economy.  In college, we were taught about the problem of the world “dollar shortage.”  The problem was that the U.S. economy was so rich and productive that the rest of the world had almost nothing to sell that we Americans wanted to buy, and therefore had no dollars with which to buy products of American industry.  In this age of globalization, that seems like another world.

The United States in the earlier era was not only a wealthy nation, but the wealth was spread around.  It was said in wonderment by visiting Europeans that you couldn’t tell an American’s social class by looking at him or her.  Prosperity was spread so widely that working people were well-fed and well-dressed.  This, too, was not a law of nature.  It rested on a balance of power between big business, organized labor and the government.


Industrial labor unions, whose right to bargain collectively was guaranteed by the government, negotiated improvements in pay, benefits and hours with big manufacturing companies.  Because of their position in the marketplace, they could afford to raise prices to pass along the costs.  The union wage tended to push wages up generally.  Few of us newspaper reporters were represented by strong unions, but it would have looked bad if our pay had been much below the members of the International Typographers Union.  Because of high wages, Americans could afford to buy the products of American industry.  It was a benign spiral upward, not a vicious spiral downward.

All this started to come apart in the 1970s.  That was when foreign cars and other products started making inroads into the U.S. market.  It was also when American business decided to once again treat labor unions as the enemy rather than as a combination of junior partner and loyal opposition.  President Ronald Reagan, by breaking the air traffic controllers’ strike, became the first anti-union President since before President Franklin Roosevelt.  All this is described very well in Thomas B. Edsall’s The New Politics of Inequality – a book written more than 25 years ago, but still worth reading because the trends Edsall described are still in motion.

In my experience, American working people, including union leaders, are much less class conscious than business executives.  Labor leaders always act as if they need to justify and explain themselves.  Business executives are confident that they rule by divine right, and they don’t want to share their authority with either their employees or the government.


Tough times: wage theft and other crimes

September 11, 2010

I first learned the term “time theft” when I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, a first-hand account of low-wage work.  Her last job was working for Wal-Mart, and she was told that any time she spent speaking to a co-worker, or going to the bathroom, or just caching her breath was “time theft” from her employer.

Reading  Steven Greenhouse’s 2008 book, The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, I learned another term – “wage theft” –  which is about how employers coerce employees into working unpaid overtime or falsify their records so as not to pay for all hours worked.

I knew that undocumented workers – illegal immigrants – constituted an underclass outside the protection of U.S. law that could be exploited at will.  I knew that salaried “professionals” – programmers, college instructors, journalists, lawyers – often worked 60 hours or more a week, sometimes voluntarily but often not.  And I knew that companies found ways to redefine employees as managers or independent contractors to avoid having to obey labor laws.

The shocking thing about Greenhouse’s book is how many companies simply violate the law.  This is not just fly-by-night employers, but some of the best-known U.S. companies – Wal-Mart, Taco Bell, Family Dollar, Pep Boys, Toys “R” Us and others.  Sometimes they require employees to work after they’ve clocked out, or before they’ve clocked in.  Sometimes employees are given workloads that a normal human being can’t complete in the hours allotted, and have no choice but to work through their breaks and lunch hours. Sometimes managers simply alter the computer records.

The risk of getting caught, according to Greenhouse, is exceedingly small, because governments have cut back on enforcement of labor laws, and the penalty for getting caught is seldom enough to be a deterrent.  One of his main proposals for reform is simply the enforcement of existing law.

Not all companies do this, as Greenhouse noted.  McDonald’s, for one, has an excellent record of compliance with wage and hours laws.