Dispatches from the Workplace: The Big Squeeze

Steven Greenhouse claims not to be “an especially religious person,” but, in fact, he has just written a deeply spiritual book, one which addresses the most fundamental (some would say the second most fundamental) teaching of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions—caring for one’s neighbor as one’s self.

As someone who has been working at the intersection of faith and worker justice for the past fifteen years, I can say without a doubt that The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker is the best book to be written on the crisis of low-wage work. There are other excellent books, like Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, Beth Shulman’s The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans, and Thomas Kochan’s Restoring the American Dream: A Working Families’ Agenda for America. But this book is in a class of its own. Why?

First, Greenhouse, a longtime New York Times reporter is a superlative writer—despite its considerable length (384 pages), The Big Squeeze is an engaging and lively read.

Second, the issues of work in America and the way so many workers are being treated are the critical moral issues of the day. If, as the Catholic Bishops say, the true moral judge of the economy is how the poorest in society fare, then the economy is failing miserably. Although we may not control all aspects of the economy, in a democratic system we can help set the standards for how workers should be treated through our workplace laws, the incentives for companies to obey those laws and raise those standards, and the punishments for those who would exploit workers. Ensuring that workers are treated justly in the workplace is a moral value. The Big Squeeze illuminates the ethical dimensions of decisions made in boardrooms across America.

Third, each chapter helps shed light on relatively complicated matters by offering real life stories as examples and then drawing them out to help explain broader problems throughout society.

The book begins with the stories of workers like Mike Mitchell, who was fired after being injured on the job in order to minimize worker’s comp bills, and Dawn Eubanks, who is required to work “off the clock” in order to keep her job. Then there’s John Arnold, who works under a two-tier contract earning a little more than half what colleagues working right next to him earn, and Antonia Lopez Paz, who isn’t allowed to leave her poultry line even to go to the bathroom. Finally we meet retiree Don Jensen, who has had to take a $10 an hour job as a bank teller after his retirees’ health pension went from $180 to $8,280 a year, and Myra Bronstein, who was required to train her own replacement from India in order to qualify for severance.

Greenhouse then provides an overview of what’s going on for workers:

One of the least examined but most important trends taking place in the United States today is the broad decline in the status and treatment of American workers—white-collar and blue-collar workers, middle-class and low-end workers—that began nearly three decades ago, gradually gathered momentum, and hit with full force soon after the turn of this century. A profound shift has left a broad swath of the American workforce on a lower plane than in decades past, with health coverage, pension benefits, job security, workloads, stress levels, and often wages growing worse for millions of workers.

Thus his phrase…the big squeeze.

Most Americans spend more time at work than they do with their families. They certainly spend more time at work than they do in religious services. Most spend more time working than sleeping. The bottom line for most of us is that we spend more time at work than we do at anything else. And as Greenhouse says,

The squeeze on the American worker has meant more poverty, more income inequality, more family tension, more hours at work, more time away from the kids, more families without health insurance, more retirees with inadequate pensions and more demands on government and taxpayers to provide housing assistance and health coverage.

The results of the big squeeze are clearly viewed as moral questions—poverty, income inequality, lack of time for families, lack of health care or pensions. The challenge for the religious community is for us to see the big squeeze itself—the decline of wages, benefits and working conditions for millions of Americans—as a moral question.

Thirty years ago, I began my career organizing people of faith to work on hunger issues. Everyone in the religious community believed hunger was a moral issue (even if there is disagreement as to the solutions). Many of us in the “hunger movement” viewed hunger as an accessible lens through which to address and talk about poverty issues. It’s easier to talk about hunger than poverty, and easier to talk about poverty than the squeeze of workers. Nonetheless, it doesn’t take a genius to appreciate that poverty is caused by people not having a job or not having a job that pays enough. Anyone engaged in hunger or poverty issues for more than a minute gets the connections between hunger and poverty, and then between poverty and jobs—which is why this book is so critical. Greenhouse, in a bold and compelling style, makes the case for why anyone concerned about poverty must be concerned about declining conditions for workers.

Most chapters explain through the eyes of specific individuals how workers in general are being exploited in the workplace—how they are being squeezed in the current economy. The chapter titles give you a picture: “Workplace Hell,” “The Vise Tightens,” “Leaner and Meaner,” “Here Today/Gone Tomorrow,” “Overstressed and Overstretched,” “Outsourced and Out of Luck,” “Starting Out Means a Steeper Climb,” and “The Not-So-Golden Years.” There are two more encouraging chapters, one highlighting a handful of companies that are “Taking the High Road,” and one on “Lifting All Boats.”

The only chapter that doesn’t shine is the final one, on what we as a society can and should do. As a New York Times reporter Greenhouse might have wanted to maintain journalistic equanimity, but the implications of his book are quite clear. We have a moral crisis in the workplace that demands our engagement on many levels.

Some who have read the book have found it depressing, but is only depressing if we abandon hope for change, and that’s not who we are as people of faith. Across the nation, people of faith have built religious support for workers organizing unions. The faith community is the backbone of at least half of the 200 workers centers in the nation. The faith community is leading the fight for higher standards for workers, fighting for living wages and paid sick days, and pushing for penalties for those who steal wages.

The Big Squeeze helps us understand the crisis. Our faith gives us the tools to make changes.