U.S. Workers Feeling the Squeeze

CAP event discusses new book by New York Times reporter on the challenges faced by American workers and how little corporations are helping them.

 (Center for American Progress)
(Center for American Progress)

“In the 60s and 70s, when a company laid off thousands of workers, it was a front page story. [Now] every other day, companies are laying off thousands of workers and it’s in the back of the Times. We’re inured to it,” said Steven Greenhouse, a labor reporter for the New York Times at a Center for American Progress event yesterday. The event, organized and moderated by CAP Senior Fellow Gene Sperling, brought together labor experts to discuss Greenhouse’s new book, The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, which examines the stresses and strains faced by tens of millions of American workers as wages have stagnated, health and pension benefits have grown stingier, and job security has shriveled.

Greenhouse explained at the event that the combined influence of globalization, deregulation, and the nature of capitalism are pressuring corporations and their decision-makers to maximize profits and minimize costs, which include labor and wages. This pressure leads to outsourcing, rolling back benefits and wages, and attacks on unions.

Amid all this, Greenhouse explains, many companies are not even demonstrating basic respect for their employees. Greenhouse named several major corporations, such as Wal-Mart and Toys ‘R Us, that frequently force their employees to work off the clock and “finish their work” when they are supposed to be finished with their shift. And when employees protest, they are punished. One Air Force veteran who was working in the electronics department of a major retail store found his supervisor on a computer in the office erasing hours he’d worked. When the employee confronted the supervisor, he was demoted and eventually let go.

Greenhouse also mentioned companies that were doing well financially and treating their employees well. Patagonia, for example, is a multi-million dollar company that allows workers the flexibility to engage in outdoor recreation during work hours as long as they get their jobs done. He also gave examples of workers who had successfully formed unions and were able to raise wages and living standards for large groups of workers, such as a union of luxury hotel workers in Texas.

Stewart Acuff, the director of organizing for the AFL-CIO, praised Greenhouse’s book and echoed his comments, saying that “30 years of deregulation, globalization, and union-busting have created more inequality in our country than we’ve seen since the 1920s.” Many workers in America no longer have the right to form unions, and they are intimidated by employer anti-unionization campaigns and often fired for trying to organize. Acuff believes the destruction of unions is a major cause of the current economic problems we are experiencing in America, but his organization is working to enforce existing laws and create new legislation to protect workers who want to unionize.

“The security that once existed in working-class families like my own doesn’t really exist anymore,” added Gerald Seib, assistant managing editor and executive Washington editor of The Wall Street Journal. He also posed the question of why the frustrations of the working class are not political issues that are regularly discussed in election campaigns and voted on.

Ruy Teixeira, a Senior Fellow at both the Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress, commented that winning over white working class voters will require convincing them that the government and progressives have the solutions to help them. They are distracted by anti-government rhetoric and aren’t presented with progressive solutions, such as a higher minimum wage or better worker protections. Though many minority groups consistently vote for progressives and progressive policies, white working class voters have gravitated toward conservatives over the past few decades. These workers need to be convinced that progressive proposals will help them to address the economic insecurity they consistently admit in opinion polls.

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