The 1950s and '60s were the "golden years" for the American worker, thanks to a "social contract that offered good pay, good benefits and job security." That contract has fallen apart slowly and surely, thanks to globalization, which led to large layoffs and plant closings in the 1970s and '80s, said Steven Greenhouse, labor and workplace reporter for The New York Times.
"In the '80s, globalization hit the [Budweiser] crowd. Now, it hits the Starbucks crowd," said Greenhouse, in town recently for a brunch lecture at the Gershman Y to promote his new book The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker.
"I wrote the book to try to bring to the nation's attention that things are bad right now for a large swath of American workers, and, unfortunately, many policymakers aren't paying attention" — a fact Greenhouse says has only gotten worse since the book was published in April.
In addition to globalization, said Greenhouse, the rise of institutional investing in the 1980s led to big changes in the marketplace.
"For the first time, corporate managers really felt pressure that if they didn't get their stock prices up, they could lose their jobs," he said, adding that prior to this the stock market was largely driven by individual investors.
Much of the squeeze on workers has been the result of growing income inequality, said Greenhouse. As a result of keeping up with the Joneses and trying to remain middle-class, "Americans have gone humongously into debt."
He said a two-parent household now works far more hours than it did 25 years ago, and emphasized that Americans work more hours than almost any industrialized nation, comparing average annual American working hours with those of workers in England, France and Germany.
"For many of us white-collar workers, it used to be you'd leave the office at 6:00 p.m. and be done for the day," he said, but e-mail, Blackberries and other modern technology have made it such that work often follows people home even after leaving the office.
He also cited a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation that said the typical worker is now paying twice as much for health care as they did in 2000.
Another major aspect of the squeeze on workers is the prevalence of corporate thievery, said Greenhouse, adding that while it's wrong for CEOs to break the law and rip off shareholders, it's worse to rip off employees making $8 per hour.
Greenhouse offered a number of examples of major retailers laying off or mistreating employees. Circuit City, he said, last year laid off 3,400 workers who "made more than the market rate," only to offer to take them back after 10 weeks — but only if they agreed to come back to work at a lower market rate.
He noted that Radio Shack employees had been laid off via e-mail messages, and said some of the company's software engineers had been forced to train their replacements (flown in from India) if they wanted to receive severance pay. He also included stories of company managers erasing worker hours in order to pad the company payroll.
"There's a whole chapter in the book about how, in many ways, Wal-Mart has dragged down standards for workers," Greenhouse said, adding that "I'm not saying all companies are bad, by no means," before going on to name Patagonia and CostCo as companies founded by "visionaries."
He cited a survey by CostCo that asked employees the best and worst things about working there, in which one employee said the worst thing was that shorts couldn't be worn year-round.
"Imagine, if that was the worst thing about working at every company in America," he said.
Greenhouse also touched briefly on the upcoming elections, commenting that "nowadays blue-collar workers have replaced the soccer mom as the pivotal voter."
"One would think that, with the economy in such perilous condition, workers would line up for FDR's party. I think one of the interesting things is how many blue-collar workers are backing McCain," he said, citing a recent Washington Post poll showing a 17 percent advantage to the Arizona senator among those blue-collar voters.
The reporter said that too often Washington only looks at the problems of the worker every four years, though, this time around, with any luck, "after Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, Washington will still pay attention."