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Monday, September 22, 2008

Public Responsibility for Stopping the Big Squeeze

It's a pleasure to be part of this discussion of Steven Greenhouse's masterful, though depressing, The Big Squeeze.  The book is impressive in scope, weaving together changes in corporate structure like outsourcing and contingent work, faces of globalization ranging from immigration to offshoring, shifts in management philosophy, and the assault on labor unions.  Greenhouse also tacks effectively between compelling, illustrative stories of individual workers and bigger picture analysis of trends backed up by a wealth of statistics and snippets of expert commentary.

Before raising some questions and concerns, I want to highlight an important piece of Greenhouse's analysis that often is missing from tales of workers' woes and what to do about them:  labor law enforcement.  Again and again, we see workers cheated out of wages by being required to begin work before they clock in, continue while nominally on breaks, finish tasks after they clock out, and even then having their hours deleted from payroll records at the stroke of a key.  Related themes are retaliatory firings for union organizing and workers exiled from employment's benefits or protections through misclassification as independent contractors or shunting into fly-by-night subcontractors.  Against this  backdrop, legal reforms like raising the minimum wage or strengthening union rights may be meaningless unless they can be enforced more effectively, and Greenhouse's policy recommendations helpfully reflect this pragmatic point.

Thinking about enforcement immediately puts the spotlight on the government and, more generally, the citizens and taxpayers.  Enforcing labor law, after all, takes money to hire the inspectors whose ranks, Greenhouse notes, have thinned, and it takes a political commitment to use public power on behalf of workers.  Unfortunately, I worry that the overall thrust of Greenhouse's argument leaves us ill-prepared to make the case for government action.  Almost every story has the same basic structure:  big corporation stomps on noble worker, or in more complex cases, big corporation forces small corporation (or middle manager) to do the stomping.  This way of telling the story lets almost all real people off the hook:  either we are fellow sufferers, or we are innocent bystanders.  That's great for focusing anger on the corporate miscreants, but I fear that it falls short, both morally and politically, when the solutions require all of us to put skin in the game.  I'll leave it there for now, but in subsequent posts I'll suggest a few ways of broadening the frame, both to think more about relationships among workers and to think more about relationships between the labor market and other institutions.

Posted by Account Deleted on September 22, 2008 at 09:15 AM in Books, Employment and Labor Law | Permalink


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