[Marxism] The Big Squeeze

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jun 9 07:27:57 MDT 2008


Nicholas von Hoffman on ‘The Big Squeeze’
Posted on Jun 6, 2008

By Nicholas von Hoffman

The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker
By Steven Greenhouse
Knopf, 384 pages

You may be surprised to learn that the pleasant person from FedEx Ground 
delivering your package owns the truck which he or she has parked in 
front of your house. FedEx Ground drivers, you will find out in Steven 
Greenhouse’s “The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker,” are 
not FedEx employees.

They are what are called independent contractors, although it demands no 
little effort to discern what about their position is independent. If 
they do not do what they are told, their contracts are abrogated 
forthwith. They are required to buy their own truck with 60 monthly 
installments of $781.12, which comes to $46,867.20. Plus there is a 
final kicker payment of $8,000, all of which adds up to a grand total of 
almost $55,000. On top of this, as an independent business person, the 
driver must bear the costs of insurance, maintenance, fuel, repairs and 
the fee for the FedEx uniform rental.

FedEx Ground drivers who want to take vacations must hire their own 
replacements to cover the routes while they are gone. If a FedEx Ground 
independent contractor can afford it, he should take a vacation because 
the hours are long, the work is hard and the compensation is less than 
princely. A driver will take home between $25,000 and $35,000 a year.

One of the strengths of Greenhouse’s book is that it puts the meat of 
specificity on the bones of labor statistics. “The Big Squeeze” is 
salted with interviews and biographies of people in dozens of 
occupations. It is instructive to read the statistics concerning highly 
trained people losing their jobs to people in low-wage countries, but 
the numbers take on painful significance when you are introduced to an 
electrical engineer named Myra Bronstein, working for Watchmark, a 
Bellevue, Wash., firm which develops software used by cell phone companies.

One day Bronstein and 17 of her colleagues got an e-mail asking them to 
report to Watchmark’s boardroom the following morning. As Myra and the 
other quality assurance engineers gathered in the boardroom, the 
director of human resources began giving out large manila envelopes. 
Once everyone was there, Myra recalled, “The head of HR said, 
‘Unfortunately, we’re having layoffs, and you’re in the room because 
you’re being impacted by the layoffs.’ ” The 18 engineers were 
dumbstruck, but the head of human resources pressed on. “ ‘Your 
replacements,’ ” she continued, “ ‘are flying in from India, and you’re 
expected to train them if you are going to receive severance.’ ”

Drawing back the camera on employment conditions, Greenhouse writes that 
“Forrester Research estimates that 3.4 million white-collar jobs—some 
260,000 a year—will be sent overseas between 2003 and 2050. Forrester 
forecasts that this exodus will include 1.6 million office-support jobs, 
542,000 computer jobs, 259,000 management jobs, 191,000 architecture 
jobs, 79,000 legal jobs, and 30,000 art and design jobs.”

The author explains that these numbers are a small fraction of total 
employment in their respective fields, but the percentage of jobs held 
by college-trained white-collar workers in fields such as insurance, 
pharmacology, banking and information technology which can be shipped 
abroad in some instances ranges above 40 percent.

A few years ago many an American entertained the conceit that the 
natural world division of labor, á la Adam Smith and David Ricardo, 
would have the little brown and yellow people doing the heavy lifting 
jobs in ill-ventilated factories reeking of lead vapors, while large, 
highly intelligent, highly white citizens of the United States would 
enjoy a life of brain work and ease. It has not worked out that way, as 
Greenhouse shows his readers. Whether or not one’s job is actually sent 
abroad, the mere fact that it can be works not only to place a limit on 
what you can expect to be paid but depresses wages and salaries.

Gone overseas, besides jobs, is the capability of generating jobs. 
Technology, the industrial knowledge base and the necessary 
organizational skills to use these efficiently are also being exported. 
This puts additional downward pressure on compensation here at home and 
makes its contribution to Greenhouse’s doleful overall narrative of what 
has been happening to perhaps four-fifths of our working population for 
the last 30 years or so.

The writer’s central thesis is, “One of the least examined but most 
important trends taking place in the United States today is the broad 
decline in the status and treatment of American workers—white-collar and 
blue-collar workers, middle-class and low-end workers—that began nearly 
three decades ago, gradually gathered momentum, and hit with full force 
soon after the turn of this century. A profound shift has left a broad 
swath of the American workforce on a lower plain than in decades past, 
with health coverage, pension benefits, job security, workloads, stress 
levels, and often wages growing worse for millions of workers.”

Greenhouse’s main argument is so at variance with what we are told every 
day about the superiority of American everything, it makes you blink. We 
judge ourselves by what our politicians and our television sets say, 
which is that we are the best, most blessed and richest of people and 
getting more so. A rising tide floats all boats, President John Kennedy 
said, and the American tide keeps on rising, but Greenhouse shows that 
tens of millions of boats are either staying put or sinking.

A day seldom passes but a member of Congress takes the floor to remind 
us in mawkish tremolo that the hundreds of thousands of people trying to 
get into the U.S. are proof positive of the power of the American dream. 
If Greenhouse is right, and there is no reason to believe he is not, 
that American dream is just that—a dream.

“Northwest Airlines,” Greenhouse writes, apropos of some people’s 
dreams, “gave laid-off workers a booklet entitled ‘101 Ways to Save 
Money.’ But the booklet added insult to financial injury. ‘Borrow a 
dress for a big night out’ and ‘Shop at auctions or pawn shops for 
jewelry’ were among the tips it offered. And then it suggested, ‘Don’t 
be shy about pulling something you like out of the trash.’ ” Dumpster 
diving into the American dream. You can’t make stuff like that up, and 
this book is full of such revealing anecdotes.

It is also chockablock with stories of daily humiliations and insults 
administered to employees by their superiors and/or the policies of the 
companies they work for. Men being shouted at and demeaned as though by 
a bullying parent, women being subjected to lewd advances or told to 
choose between rushing to a sick or stranded child or keeping their 
jobs. Old-timers will tell you in the vernacular that in the bad old 
days when the U.S. was a factory and forge society, the foreman kept a 
red-hot poker stuck up your ass from when you clocked in to when you 
clocked out. It seems from Greenhouse’s book that for millions of 
workers, America in the info, human relations, fuzzy-wuzzy age of grief 
counselors, anxiety pills, empathy and sensitivity offers workplace 
treatment which is the same as it was in the era of the satanic mills. 
The dignity of labor? Forget it.

We have become a nation of mules. It’s work, work, work all the time. “ 
... The average American worker clocked 1,804 hours of work in 
2006—three full-time weeks more per year than the average British 
worker, six weeks more than the average French worker, and nine weeks 
more than the average German worker,” writes Greenhouse. And, mind you, 
the day is long gone that the standard of living in those countries 
lagged behind ours.

On an hourly basis, American workers are not, as once they were, more 
productive than those in comparable nations. They are less so. It could 
be because sleep deprivation and overwork have put them into a 
half-zombie zone.

If you go back to the Sunday supplements of the Eisenhower era, you can 
read discussions of what Americans were going to do with the huge 
amounts of free leisure time that “automation” was about to bestow on 
them. The automation came with the computers and digitalization of 
everything, including the hair in your nostrils, and, pari passu with 
it, the imposition of ever longer hours of work. In a society which 
reduces them to individualized atoms and then smashes the atoms, 
employees of every sort and status except the highest have no place to 
look for protection.

“In many countries there is, in essence, a legal break that limits 
overwork. In the twenty-seven countries of the European Union, employers 
are required to give workers at least four weeks’ vacation each year. In 
Norway and Sweden, workers are guaranteed five weeks’ vacation, while 
workers in France and Spain generally receive six weeks. The United 
States is the only advanced industrial nation that does not legislate a 
minimum number of vacation days each year. American workers averaged 
just twelve days of vacation annually, and 36 percent of Americans say 
they do not take all the vacation days due them,” Greenhouse tells his 

No discussion of working days and hours should stop without examining 
what such unstinting labor outside the home does to family life. One of 
the strengths of Greenhouse’s book is that it does, within the limits of 
time and topic, tackle the consequences of the information he presents.

During the last 30 years of stagnation and decline for working 
Americans, the political party associated with business has been 
unrelenting in going after its Democratic rivals as the anti-family, 
pro-abortion, smut and homosexual party. This has netted that political 
party much mileage and many an election win, but all the queers and all 
the flits and all the gays in history lumped together cannot have had 
the deleterious effects on modern family life that low compensation and 
long hours have had.

The numbers cited by Greenhouse explain why: “ ... 59 percent of mothers 
with children under six do paid work and so do 55 percent with children 
under one, about half of them full time. One reason for today’s 
increased time bind ... is that in the modern middle-class American 
household, both parents taken together work 540 more hours per year—13.5 
more weeks per year—than parents did a generation ago. In two out of 
three American families with small children in which both parents work, 
the couples work more than 80 total hours per week.”

Beyond compensating staff too little to enable parents to have the time 
to care for their children properly, employers are rigidly indifferent 
to the unforeseen crises and nasty surprises which inevitably attend the 
economically forced separation of children from their parents. To drive 
the point home, Greenhouse says: “Many employers do surprisingly little 
to help workers juggle work and family. Some retailers post their 
worker’s weekly schedules only a few days in advance, making it hard to 
plan child care. Many businesses require employees to work overtime at a 
moment’s notice, leaving many workers in a bind when their baby sitter 
is scheduled to leave. Nearly half of American workers are not entitled 
to paid sick days ... many workers risk getting fired when they stay 
home to care for the sick children.”

How the forced absence of parents plays into the continuing downward 
slide of academic accomplishments by millions of schoolchildren is 
beyond the scope of this book but not beyond our thinking. Two-, three- 
and four-job families are not in good shape to supervise homework, meet 
with teachers or uphold their end of the PTA. Children left to their own 
devices in this country fall prey to the advertising which whisks them 
off to game, movie, music, sneaker, celebrity, cell phone etc. land, 
where fun and entertainment obliterate three-quarters of their lives and 
instill in them sets of preferences and beliefs which keep many of them 
in ox-brained thralldom the rest of their existences.

One would have assumed such questions would have been a burning 
political issue these past 30 years, but far from it. Discussions of 
them have been boxed out and labeled as a woman’s issue or, worse, a 
feminist issue. At the same time, business executives and trade 
associations complain with increasing vehemence about the untaught, 
ignorant and under-motivated young people coming out of our high schools 
and colleges, yet their part in the numbing of youth goes undiscussed 
for fear anyone who might bring it up will be accused of waging class 

No book on this subject can skip Wal-Mart, the largest employer in the 
United States with 1.3 million-plus workers, whose average pay last year 
was $1,500 under the poverty line for a family of four. Greenhouse 
devotes a chapter in his book to the company, pointing out that its 
effects and influence are enormous. Business schools hold it up as the 
ideal way to run a business, and competitors are forced to adopt its 
practices because of its size alone.

Anyone who has walked into a Wal-Mart is aware of the size of the 
individual stores, but the stores themselves do not begin to hint at the 
dimensions of this organization. “Its sales represent an astonishing 2.6 
percent of the nation’s gross domestic product,” Greenhouse writes. “It 
is three times as large as the world’s second-largest retailer, 
Carrefour of France. Its sales are greater than the combined sales of 
Target, Sears, Kmart, JCPenney, Kohl’s, Safeway, Albertson’s, and 
Kroger. Some retail consultants predict that it will become the world’s 
first $1 trillion company in a dozen years. Each week 130 million 
shoppers visit its 4,000 US stores, and each year 82 percent of American 
households shop at Wal-Mart. It is the nation’s largest grocer, and will 
have 35 percent of the nation’s food market and 25 percent of the 
pharmacy market by the end of this decade, according to Retail Forward, 
a consulting firm. Wal-Mart already sells one-third of the nation’s 
disposable diapers, toothpaste, shampoo, laundry detergent, paper towels 
and nonprescription drugs, and some say it could soon capture a 50 
percent share for those products.”

It may also be the world’s biggest crook. It forces its workers to labor 
off the clock for no compensation. It locks them up overnight to make 
them restock shelves, etc., for free. It hires illegals via 
subcontractors. It discriminates against women. It violates the child 
labor laws. It cheats and uses short cuts in more ways than there is 
space to enumerate. So massive is the indignation at what this behemoth 
does that a small but vigorous anti-Wal-Mart industry has sprung up to 
try to throw a halter on the beast, with but indifferent success.

In a time of shrinking purchasing power, Wal-Mart’s low prices have been 
a godsend for millions, but at the rate things are moving, millions 
won’t have enough to buy even at Wal-Mart. Greenhouse makes a point of 
demonstrating how Wal-Mart’s arrival in a community depresses 
everybody’s wages throughout the area. So the question is: Do people 
save more or lose more because of Wal-Mart’s arrival?

A case can be made that Wal-Mart’s executives long since should have 
been arrested and taken out of their Bentonville, Ark., headquarters in 
handcuffs, but they have escaped having to answer for what their company 
does, much as other business people do who break the nation’s weak labor 
laws, whether that be by cheating employees of their pay or forcing them 
to labor under unhealthy conditions or chiseling on workmen’s 
compensation, etc. Workers who steal get caught and prosecuted; the men 
and women they work for do not.

Greenhouse discusses a number of ways of lessening the big squeeze’s 
pressure on people in the face of free trade and massive immigration. To 
name a few, he has hopes for raising the earned income tax credit and 
would change the law to make corporations like Wal-Mart criminally 
liable for their contractors’ labor law violations. He tackles the 
question of the courts blessing settlements of suits against companies 
that pay in secret without admitting how they have screwed their 
workers. He would have the government send some executives to prison for 
crimes against their employees, just as they are jailed for crimes 
against their stockholders. All good suggestions with some hope of 
congressional enactment if the Democrats get in and the lobbyists do not 
get to them first.

Among Greenhouse’s many suggestions is the revival of union power and 
membership. The deck is so stacked against the lone, unorganized, 
unprotected employee that the squeeze is only going to get tighter. 
Collective action for Americans indoctrinated for decades with the 
conviction that lack of money is a character flaw is a hard sell. A 
rebirth of trade unionism also depends upon major changes in federal 
government policies. For that to happen, Greenhouse recognizes, the 
National Labor Relations Board would have to be pried away from business 
control and laws governing union organizing and tactics restored to 
something like what they were in the New Deal period.

If enough people read “The Big Squeeze,” that may come to pass. Well 
researched and written to be easily read, this book should get people 
out from in front of their flat-screen HD television sets to try to do 
something about what has been happening to us and our country.

Nicholas von Hoffman, a former columnist for The Washington Post and a 
former commentator for CBS’ “60 Minutes,” is a regular columnist for The 
New York Observer. He is the author of numerous books, including “Hoax: 
Why Americans Are Suckered by White House Lies” and “Capitalist Fools: 
Tales of American Business From Carnegie to Forbes to the Milken Gang.”

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