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Monday, September 22, 2008

Not Just One Big Squeeze, But Many Squeezes

I 188am delighted -- and honored -- to be invited to be a guest blawger for PrawfsBlawg. And I am impressed -- and honored -- by the thoughtful postings about my book, and I plan to respond to them one by one.

For starters, I want to say that when I researched and wrote my book, The Big Squeeze, I saw that workers were suffering not just from one squeeze, but from several squeezes. There is of course an economic/financial squeeze with wages stagnating and health and pension benefits getting worse. Then there is a time squeeze with Americans working 1,804 hours a year on average -- 135 hours or nearly three-and-a-half fulltime weeks more than the typical British worker, 240 hours or six fulltime weeks more than the typical French worker and nine fulltime weeks more than the typical German worker.  (Those of you who answer work emails at 11 p.m. know what I'm talking about.) The United States is the only industrial nation without laws guaranteeing workers paid vacation, paid sick day and paid maternity leave. (In the 27 countries of the European Union, workers are guaranteed at least four weeks vacation.)

For lack of a better phrase, workers also face a squeeze over dignity and respect. To a shocking degree, many "respectable" companies treat their workers with a surprising lack of decency or dignity. I think of the company that fired a computer engineer on the very day that his eight-and-a-half-year-old daughter was visiting on Take Your Daughter to Work Day. And I also think of the booklet that Northwest Airlines distributed to laid-off workers, giving them pointers on how to make ends meet. The booklet was called, "101 Ways to Save Money,' and among the tips it gave 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."

Then there's another type of squeeze that I found quite surprising and appalling: the frequency with which many companies break the law in how they treat -- and cheat -- their workers. Perhaps I'm naive, but I was shocked at how prevalent such lawbreaking was.  Or perhaps because I went to law school (N.Y.U. Class of '82), I drank the Kool-aid and thought that corporate managers would actually behave better and  would try very hard to comply with the law.

Both in my job as labor and workplace reporter for The New York Times and in my work researching the book, I came across corporate lawbreaking time and again: Managers at Wal-Mart and many other companies strongarming subordinates into working off the clock. Many corporate managers do not let employees take their required lunch breaks and rest breaks. Many cleaning companies made immigrant janitors work 30 days a month and refused to pay them time-and-a-half for overtime. (And it was of course all off the books.) There were managers who treated undocumented female workers as sexual prey, there for the asking. Many construction companies  turned a blind eye to some of the most basic safety precautions, the result being that workers died in easily preventable accidents. (See trench collapses.)  Then, to derail unionization efforts, many companies break the law by firing outspoken workers who are trying to form a union.

And then there was the tale of Drew Pooters, who served in the Air Force for 17 years, serving in Somalia, Iceland and the first Persian Gulf War. When he returned home, he took a job at a Toys R Us in Albuquerque as the head of its electronics department. One day he was in the manager's office to check whether an item had been delivered, and he saw his supervisor sitting at a computer, erasing hours (recorded by computer) that he and other employees had worked.  Pooters protested, and soon was out the door. Pooters next went to work at Family Dollar, and in running one of its discount stores, he ran afoul of his supervisor, who told him he was spending too much money on payroll and should thus go into the computer and erase some hours from his employees' time cards.  Pooters refused, and was soon out the door. In his next job, at Rentway, a company that sells furniture, computers and electornics by installment, he often had to work through his lunch hour, but he said his boss erased those lunch hours as hours he had worked. Three jobs in a row Pooters, as patriotic American as you'll ever meet, suffered from this practice of "shaving hours."  (I should note that Toys R Us, Family Dollar and Rentway all say they have firm policies directing their managers to always comply with the law.)

I write about all this because I'm surprised at how broken many of the nation's workplaces seem to be. (Wall Street is so broken that I guess I shouldn't be surprised at how frequently workplace managers flout the law. Hasn't the Wall Street cataclysm resulted from cascades of fraud and foolishness, of cupidity and stupidity--overreaching mortgage brokers, dishonest packagers of mortgages into securities, foolhardy or dishonest credit rating agencies. The list goes on.)

After I finished writing my book, I kept wondering, Why do so many corporate managers break the law? Why do they show so much contempt for the law and for their workers? Yes, they often face tremendous pressures to keep their payroll costs to a minimum. But I always thought, evidently naively, that that the desire to follow the law would serve as a powerful brake on managers breaking the law and cheating employees.  What exactly, I often wonder, are the managers of today and tomorrow learning in the ethics classes and human resources classes that they take in business school?

Posted by Steven Greenhouse on September 22, 2008 at 04:12 PM in Books | Permalink


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"Shop at auctions or pawn shops for jewelry," Beautiful. Could some 23-year-old trying to humor himself at a new job possibly have put that thing together? Did it say anything about eating cake when you are short of bread?

Posted by: John Doe | Sep 22, 2008 8:47:29 PM

Steven - I couldn't agree with you more. I have made the same observation coming at the topic from the perspective of commercial speech. Although I'm not sure that abuse of power, disrespect for workers, flagrant violation of the law and so forth are any more prevalent than in any other historical period (perhaps we are simply more aware of them), it does seem to be accompanied by a degree of, for lack of better word, shamelessness. It is not just these incidents are happening but that it sometimes seems as if many embraced such conduct as necessary and appropriate responses to market pressures for profitability. Further, that it was inappropriate for government to dictate such rules (like wages and hours limits) in the first place since the market was a better arbiter of standards than the government. Can we hope that current events put to rest debates about the efficient capital markets hypothesis? I hope so. But in this environment it seems that any notion that for-profit entities will reliably uphold or enforce corporate responsibility codes (let alone overtime) without some governmental counterforce is unrealistic. Of course a few examples, either way, do not prove a trend. However, the Dow's plunge and the current financial crisis supports the inference of a squeeze. And one that is likely to get worse. I am glad to know of your book and look forward to reading it.

Posted by: tamara | Sep 22, 2008 7:57:12 PM

To what extent are these criticisms meant to imply that abhorrent behavior is the rule, rather than the exception? Between high school and college, I worked at Toys R Us, Target, and Burger King...never saw anything remotely like what is described here. I don't doubt that it happens sometimes, but from reading all the stuff about Wal-Mart, etc., you would think every big retailer out there deliberately tries to screw over the little guy. I hated some of my bosses, but that was because they were jackasses, not because they shaved hours, etc. Of course, a career employee would have a much different outlook from mine.

Posted by: andy | Sep 22, 2008 4:33:03 PM

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