The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker

Today, the term “muckraking” conjures up the image of a strident, self-serving gadfly with a megaphone and a movie camera who can’t clap his trap and who wishes to intrude upon the right of all good citizens to amuse themselves to death. But this semantic shift is a great disservice to the assiduous journalists of the early 20th century who saw their painstaking efforts denounced by Theodore Roosevelt. The early muckrakers were committed to serving the public interest and even managed to change a few things. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle led to the passage of numerous food inspection acts. Ida Tarbell’s tireless investigations into Standard Oil helped kick start a famous 1911 Supreme Court ruling that busted trusts as intensely as the 26th president.

Whether New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse will loosen viselike verities with The Big Squeeze remains to be seen, but his well-reported expose of workplace abuse and class inequality certainly fits in with the original muckraking idea of socially conscious journalism. Greenhouse is not a stunt journalist like Barbara Ehrenreich, nor is he an outraged partisan like Jonathan Kozol. His book, like David K. Shipler’s The Working Poor, examines the issues from many sides, raising very important questions about why America has, in only a few decades, transformed from a relatively egalitarian capitalist system that shares the wealth to a Neutron Jack–friendly atmosphere in which workers are left choking in the dust of free enterprise. But what makes Greenhouse’s spelunking different is the way he rigs his somewhat subjective rope to the firm limestone of objectivity.

Greenhouse talks to many victims, frequently resorting to the time-honored descriptive capsule. (“Marie is short and surprisingly muscular, with intense dark eyes, a thick head of hair, a loud contralto voice, and an unabashed fervor about her evangelical beliefs,” reads one sentence. But Greenhouse’s efforts to personalize his subjects are often unnecessary, because the quotes and details illume the gloomiest recesses of modern labor.

Take Kathy Saumier, a 34-year-old high school dropout who finds a job at a plastics factory, only to be thrown into grueling work after a few hours of training. In addition to suffering the indignities of sexual harassment, she sees her coworkers’ fingers get torn off by machines that run too fast and observes badly injured workers cut loose, without care or severance, when they can’t keep up. (Greenhouse reports that Landis, the plastics factory in question, accrues 74 violations from OSHA, including repeat failures to install safety guards on the printing presses.) Saumier’s job becomes a “half crusade and half nightmare.” She attempts to form a union and files complaints with boards to rectify these wrongs. She is harassed, set up by the company and other workers, and fired. When she challenges this in court, she gets her job back, only to suffer an accident that severely damages her neck and shoulder.

Or Drew Pooters, a former military policeman who observes a Toys “R” Us manager changing and deleting employee hours in a computer. Pooters is punished simply for challenging his manager on this illegality and is demoted from electronics department manager to demoralizing stocking duties. Or Jennifer Miller, who worked as a temp for HP for ten years, performed competitive analysis and vigorous tests on many printers, and received reduced wages. Despite her achievements, she couldn’t use the HP athletic facilities and was asked to leave whenever there was a company party — no temps were allowed.

Greenhouse suggests that these corporate cruelties have emerged from a troubling shift in American priorities. The days where tough bargainers like former United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther fought hard with General Motors to secure cost-of-living increases, pensions, and company-funded health insurance are largely gone. Because of the influx of low-cost imports, corporations began to demand backbreaking productivity increases in the early 1980s. And if that meant reneging on pension plans and forcing retirees back into the workplace to make ends meet, so be it. He cites President Reagan’s mass firing of air traffic controllers in 1981. (The ATC union, incidentally, was one of the few unions that had endorsed Reagan for president.) This set a precedent that encouraged downsizing and the insecurity of temp work in the ’90’s, resulting in the almost total revocation of the social contract between company and worker.

Thankfully, The Big Squeeze uncovers a few signs of life within labor’s charred carcass. Costco’s generous wages and benefits are cited, with Costco founder James Sinegal explaining how these policies are simply “good business.” A South Bronx agency, Cooperative Home Care Associates, is employee owned, with two-thirds of its workers on the board of directors. Because of this, the worker-owners “have learned that if they are too generous to themselves financially, that could jeopardize Cooperative’s future.” Perhaps the quirkiest company in the bunch is Patagonia, an outdoor apparel company that offers priority parking spots for fuel-efficient cars and permits employees to work barefoot. As Greenhouse observes, these companies aren’t perfect, but employee turnover is significantly lower than other companies who treat their workers as disposable resources.

Greenhouse is a good enough reporter to uncover some fascinating incongruities, such as an illegal immigrant who rose up the ranks in a Vegas hotel and now lives in a gated community, and a “sweet, engaging” Wal-Mart manager who openly confessed to cutting hours to meet payroll targets. “You hated to do it, but by the same token, you can’t have a heart,” rationalizes this manager.

Like Dickens, Greenhouse doesn’t offer much in the way of pragmatic solutions. The final chapter proposes some pie-in-the-sky remedies, such as universal health care “without undue financial hardship,” raising the minimum wage to half the average wage (to about $8.60 an hour) without accounting for inflation, and requiring unions to spend at least 25 percent of their budgets on organizing. But neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton have demonstrated any willingness to push this hard on labor issues. So while Greenhouse has contributed some invaluable journalism and exposed a good deal of grit often swept underneath the great American quilt, one is faced with a depressing conclusion. Despite Eleanor Roosevelt’s adage, workers of all stripes appear all too willing to feel inferior.