Time for a New Deal

Only recently has the situation outlined by Steven Greenhouse in his new book,The Big Squeeze, been getting serious attention from politicians. Average wages for American workers have been largely stagnating for a generation. Some six million more Americans have no health insurance today than did seven years ago. The distribution of income in the United States is as unequal as it was in the Roaring Twenties. With the country facing a possibly deep and painful recession, unemployment rising, and mortgage defaults at record levels, the poor state of the economy is finally high on the list of American concerns and is the leading presidential campaign issue.

But Steven Greenhouse, the labor reporter ofThe New York Times, has a still more disturbing story to tell. He shows how the nation’s businesses have illegally, callously, and systematically abused their workers in a time of increased global competition and technological change, while government protection of workers’ rights has significantly weakened. Greenhouse writes about factory employees and retail clerks, truck drivers and store managers, computer technicians, middle managers, and engineers. They all face similar difficulties: they have lost their places in what was once a secure and confident middle class. The longstanding distinction between the blue-collar and white-collar worker has been blurred. Good blue-collar jobs are disappearing rapidly as manufacturing industries decline; but many new white-collar jobs pay poorly, provide minimal health care and pension benefits, and offer little job security. There is now no privileged segment of earners in the nation except the upper 10 percent or so.

Greenhouse finds managers of countless companies, many of them well known and admired—not only Wal-Mart but JPMorgan Chase—who willfully break the law to reduce labor costs. As a matter of company policy, they have adopted harsh management techniques to sustain—at least until the current downturn in the economy—enormous profits. An excellent and relentless reporter, Greenhouse has not gone out of his way to uncover horror stories. He has attempted to find representative examples from the lives of workers. Barack Obama was much criticized by his Democratic colleagues when he said workers were bitter. They should read the stories of shameful treatment in Greenhouse’s book.

Kathy Saumier’s is one of those stories. She was hired as an inspector on the production line of Landis Plastics, a manufacturer of containers, whose new factory was near Syracuse, New York. Saumier, who had dropped out of high school at sixteen to help support her single working mother of five, thought she had at last found the job that would offer her security, decent benefits, and adequate pay.

But the Landis company, it turned out, had an unusually high percentage of severe accidents by industry standards, and when Saumier tried to address the problem, she came to be seen as a dangerous troublemaker. A close friend of hers lost a finger, and there were similar accidents. Many employees were often required to work twelve-hour days or on weekends, and were given …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.
Letters

Sticking to the Union March 12, 2009