Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Too Much Squeezing and Too Little Respect

September 1st, 2008 | Steven Greenhouse

If we have Mother’s Day to celebrate mothers, Father’s Day to celebrate fathers, and Valentine’s Day to celebrate lovers, it makes eminent sense to have a day—Labor Day—to celebrate the nation’s workers. Far too often the accomplishments of the nation’s workers—whether it’s producing the food we eat or protecting us from hurricanes—are ignored, instead of honored. Labor Day should be a day in which the nation dedicates itself to the proposition that its workers—indeed every worker—deserves respect and fair treatment.

The two main themes of my book, The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, are that America’s workers are being squeezed economically and treated with less and less respect. This declining respect has taken several disturbing forms. First, many companies and managers treat their workers with a shocking callousness. A Wal-Mart cashier in Kansas City told me that managers were so stingy about bathroom breaks that some cashiers ended up soiling themselves. A computer engineer was laid off while his eight-year-old was visiting on Take Your Daughter to Work Day. Corporate managers told Myra Bronstein, a software engineer in Seattle, that as long as the company did well and she worked hard—she put in many 14-hour days—she would have a job. But one day the company suddenly fired Bronstein and 17 other engineers, telling them that if they wanted any severance pay, they had to spend the next four weeks training the workers from India who would be replacing them. “We felt sucker-punched,” Bronstein told me. I remember a janitor in Houston—who made $5.25 an hour after a decade on the job—telling me, “They treat us worse than animals.”

Another sign of diminished respect is the way many managers cheat employees out of wages. Managers at Wal-Mart, Pep Boys and Family Dollar admitted to me that they secretly erased hours from workers’ time records because of fierce pressures from above to minimize costs. At many stores and restaurants, managers strong-arm employees into working off the clock, threatening to write them up unless they work several hours unpaid. It’s galling that many of these victims of wage theft earn less than $10 an hour and are barely scraping by. The growing number of lawsuits over wage theft underlines that something is badly broken in the nation’s workplaces.

This declining respect has also translated into a worse economic deal for millions of workers. During the economic expansion that began in November 2001, corporate profits soared and productivity per worker rose more than 15 percent. Nonetheless, hourly wages have actually slid since then, after inflation, while median income for working-age households has fallen by $2,000 this decade. At the same time, health and pension benefits are deteriorating and job security shriveling. That the nation’s corporations have not shared their increased prosperity, profits and productivity with their workers also shows that something is broken.

In The Big Squeeze, I write of other ways that companies show little respect for their employees. Workers have a right to unionize, but many corporations (and their union-busting consultants) flout the law to keep out unions, by, for example, firing the workers who lead organizing drives. And some companies, most notably FedEx Ground, insist that workers are independent contractors even as judges and labor officials say the companies maintain such tight control over everything these workers do that it’s a sham to call them independent contractors.

To put it crudely, many companies seem to treat their workers like chumps—to be squeezed on wages, pushed to the limit and discarded when no longer needed.

What this nation needs is a movement to revalorize its workers—and what better day to launch such a movement than Labor Day. Plain and simple, revalorization would mean treating workers with a newfound respect, to start treating them as if they and their concerns matter. For too many years, the American worker has not been part of the conversation. For too long, the nation’s workers are viewed as Bud drinkers, NASCAR fans, Oprah watchers, members of the ownership society, but not as workers qua workers. For too long, the nation’s politicians, news media and public discourse have largely ignored the struggling worker (except every four years when presidential candidates descend on factories in Iowa, Ohio and Pennsylvania, with TV cameras in tow). All this has made it easier for corporations to continue squeezing workers ever so quietly and for many political leaders to ignore workers’ problems (while cozying up to corporate donors).

Fortunately the nation has begun paying more attention to workers in recent months because of the economic downturn and the presidential campaign. Here’s hoping that after the next president is inaugurated on Jan 20, the nation’s beleaguered workers will not again be ignored and forgotten.

Labor Day should be a day to help push the nation’s workers—and their problems—onto center stage.

About the Author: Steven Greenhouse has been covering labor and workplace issues for The New York Times since October 1995. He joined the Times in 1983 as a business reporter, covering steel and other basic industries. He then spent two-and-a-half years as Midwestern business correspondent based in Chicago and then five years as the paper’s European economics correspondent, based in Paris. He then spent four years in Washington D.C. for the Times, covering economics and foreign affairs.

He has a bachelor’s degree from Wesleyan University in Connecticut and a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He also has a J.D. from the New York University School of Law.

For more information on his book, The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, see the Web site stevengreenhouse.com.

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