American workers are feeling the pinch, as mass layoffs, depleted retirement accounts and home foreclosures have become part of the everyday national conversation.
But Steven Greenhouse, the labor and workplace reporter for The New York Times and author of The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker (Knopf, 2008), said leaders in Washington failed to notice that life was tough for workers even during the so-called good times.
“People in D.C. seem to think things were great before the recession,” he said in a lunch talk on Feb. 18 at the McMahon Hall Lounge on the Lincoln Center campus. “I wanted to put the dilemma of the workers up front and center.”
Greenhouse explained the different squeezes challenging the American worker. By clamping down on wages, cutting benefits, weakening job security and violating wage and hour laws, he said, American companies have squeezed millions of workers to the point where they work longer hours, take fewer vacations, get less—if any—maternity or sick leave, and carry less health insurance than in any other industrial nation.
He said he tried to build on the work published in books such as Studs Terkel’s Working (Pantheon/ Random House, 1974) and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed (Metropolitan Books, 2001) and called it an appeal for workplace justice.
“If there’s any silver lining to this crisis, it’s that finally, policymakers and the news media are focusing on the fact that there are some serious problems facing the nation’s workers,” he said.
A glaring issue is the widening income gap. To avoid any accusations that he was waging class warfare, Greenhouse noted that his statistics were taken from a study by the Congressional Budget Office.
The study found that over the past 25 years, income for households in the bottom fifth of wage earners rose 6 percent. By contrast, income for middle-class households climbed 21 percent. Those in the top fifth earned 81 percent more, and for the top 1 percent, income rose 228 percent.
Greenhouse asked the audience, “Who said this—Jessie Jackson, John Edwards or Ralph Nader?” and then he gave the quote, “The average American has gone exactly nowhere on the economic scale since 1980. He’s been on a treadmill, while the super rich have been on a space ship.
“It was Warren Buffett, who’s now the nation’s wealthiest man,” he told the crowd. “Buffett also said, ‘There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class—the rich class—that’s making war, and we’re winning.’”
Depressing statistics about American workers abound, he said. One in six lacks health insurance. Wages have basically been flat since 2001. One in four manufacturing jobs has vanished in the last 25 years.
The squeeze on dignity has been just as pernicious, Greenhouse said. He gave some examples, including a computer engineer in California who was fired in front of his 8-year-old on Take Your Daughter to Work Day, and an engineer in Seattle who was forced to train workers in India who would be taking over her job.
“Northwest Airlines once gave a booklet to laid-off workers, in theory, to help them make ends meet,” he said. “The booklet was called 101 Ways to Save Money. Among the suggestions were: borrow a dress for a big night out; shop at auctions or pawn shops for jewelry; and don’t be shy about pulling something you like out of the trash.”
Greenhouse placed much of the blame on globalization, Wall Street’s obsession with maximizing profits and wholesale shredding of the country’s post-World War II social contract.
There are corporate bright spots, though, such as Patagonia, where workers are encouraged to take two-hour lunches to go surfing, and Ernst & Young, where flexible scheduling allows people to spend more time with their families. They are, he said, successful companies that others should look to for inspiration.
“For too long, the nation has ignored the situation for the nation’s workers,” he said. “Something has to be done to revalorize workers, so that they’re treated with more dignity.”