Tuesday, May 20, 2008

"The Big Squeeze" by Steven Greenhouse

If you've ever had an ogre for a boss, have ever felt completely unappreciated, or have ever been told "work smarter, not harder", then this book is for you. Especially if you're one of the myriad of American workers who are working for minimum or near-minimum wages. I saw some reviews of this book in a professional journal and really wanted to take a look at it. Now that I'm done with it, I have to say that it was probably one of the most depressing books I've ever made it through.

Mr. Greenhouse is definitely on the side of the little guy. In the first eight chapters he details such workplace violations as employees being forced to work off the clock, having their hours "erased" by supervisors, being locked in their businesses overnight, etc. Wal-Mart is, of course, one of the worst offenders and Mr. Greenhouse uses example after example to let the reader know just how bad this company has gotten. True, they have made a few efforts to fly the straight and narrow lately - but only after being dragged into court several times for said violations. Just in case you thought it was only the lowest of employees getting the shaft, the author also details how those trying to rise through the ranks must turn on their once-fellow employees, spying on them and being forced to find ways to either cut hours to make payroll or working off the clock themselves to get jobs done.

Thank goodness Chapter 9 is about companies that do things right; I wasn't sure I could take much more of the doom and gloom of the first chapters! Costco, Patagonia, Cooperative Home Care and the Culinary Workers Local 226 of Las Vegas are upheld as the sort of companies that can and do exist, ones that not only make profits but treat their employees well. And guess what? Those employees stay, saving the companies additional monies in hiring and training fees. It's something that those on Wall Street should really learn - happy workers are productive workers who work for a company long-term.

Perhaps the best thing that I read in this work was a maid who actually stood up to her boss. Ercilia Sandoval was working as a cleaner in Houston when the incident happened. Ercilia is an illegal, one of the many groups that can be exploited for cheap labor. The fact that she stood up to a tyrant boss who was mistreating another employee floored me; I don't know that I could've done it, fearing deportation and all. Here's a bit of the incident described in Ercilia's own words:
"One coworker from Honduras, she was cleaning floors, and the supervisor grabbed the bag with the worker's cleaning chemicals and threw them on the floor. She said, 'Pick them up.'
The woman started to cry, and I got involved. I asked, 'Why are you bothering her? If you're a supervisor, why don't they give you a talk on how to treat workers?' She said, 'Don't get involved. I'm not talking to you.'
I said, 'I know you're not talking to me, but just because you're a supervisor doesn't mean you should abuse people.'"
You go, Ercilia!

So what sort of solutions does Greenhouse offer up? Raising the minimum wage, or possibly enacting legislation guaranteeing workers a "living wage". Also, the author is pretty big on unions, which I'm not so certain I agree with. I think they can have their place, but I also think they've hurt workers in some areas by making demands that are unrealistic, as well as refusing to agree to any company requests when things aren't going well. The author is also probably pretty on-target when he laments the demise of pensions; there are a lot of people out there who either don't enroll in 401k programs or don't understand what to do once they're in them. But pensions aren't necessarily the answer either.

In the long run, the only thing that will elevate employees again and make it possible for the middle-class to thrive is respect. Employers need to respect their employees as human beings and treat them well, even if they can't pay them much. In turn, employees must respect their employer by giving 100% when they're on the job (honestly, you know that there are people out there taking advantage of their companies just as the companies take advantage of others!) I don't know if Americans will ever be as affluent as they once were. And reading this book certainly didn't help my convictions any. But it is important to talk about this issue, and I think Mr. Greenhouse has done a good job with it.

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