Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Workers Matter

As exit polls from yesterday’s election show, the economy is a big issue these days. But while much of our focus has been on the financial markets, ordinary people have been struggling economically for a long time. That’s the focus of New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse’s recent book, The Big Squeeze. This week on Lincoln Avenue, Alyssa Lenhoff, director of the Journalism Program and an affiliate of the Center for Working-Class Studies here at YSU, talks with Greenhouse about the book.

John Russo, the co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies and Coordinator of YSU’s Labor Studies program, reviewed Greenhouse’s book for the journal New Labor Forum. Here’s how Russo describes the book:

The Big Squeeze chronicles what has happened to American workers and workplaces in the last half century. Greenhouse begins by outlining the capital/labor accord, which has more recently become known as the postwar social contract. The basic tenets involved the corporate and government recognition of labor unions, sharing of productivity gains, and labor’s acceptance of two party politics. For a quarter century ending in 1974, the social contract resulted in regular improvements in wages, working conditions, and healthcare and retirement benefits. While unionized workers benefited the most, the rising tide lifted the boats of non-union workers, especially a large cohort of minority and female workers that began entering the workforce in the 1960s. But the social contract was broken by corporations and the government starting in the 1970s, and for the last thirty years, workers and unions have been under attack under the guise of neoliberal economic policy. The results include a decline of real earnings, benefits, and working conditions; a shift in power relations between labor and management; and growing inequality and insecurity for the working class.

Specifically, Greenhouse describes how outsourcing, immigration, globalization, shifting power relations, overwork, and disruptions in family life have together undermined the American Dream for working families. While this analysis will not be news to the readers of New Labor Forum, Greenhouse tells the story in an especially powerful manner. His rage and indignation are measured not in ideology but in the marshalling of facts, the accessible use of various metrics, and through individual stories and case studies. As such, Greenhouse marries the statistical rigor of the Economic Policy Institute with the sensitivity and passion of Studs Terkel. The result is a compelling narrative of the degradation of workplaces and the struggles involved in working-class life today.

So what does Greenhouse think can be done? Most importantly, he argues that the public conversation about the economy must include workers and not simply focus on takeovers, trade deals, and other business concerns. We’ve seen some of this already in recent public discourse about the mortgage crisis and its impact on poor and working families. But Greenhouse argues that political and economic debates about many more issues -- universal healthcare, stagflation, wage theft, retirement security, labor law and trade reform -- have to be more worker-centered.

While this year’s political speeches talked a lot about “Joe the Plumber,” and health care and the economy were central concerns, we still didn’t hear much about most of these issues. Let’s hope that a new administration and more Democratic Congress are listening to Steve Greenhouse.

No comments: