In his new book Tom Juravich takes us behind the statistics of the economic collapse and into the work and lives of Americans who feel like they are being sacrificed At the Altar of the Bottom Line. More

At the Altar of the Bottom Line

Conclusion: Beyond the Altar of the Bottom Line

Excerpt: pp 183-187

In each of the four sites detailed here, workers watched as larger corporate decision- making fundamentally changed the nature of their work and lives. Boston Medical pushed to maximize its revenue by adopting an assembly-line approach to surgery. Verizon increased its profits by forcing workers to perform nonstop through the workday and into many overtime hours, with no respite, no flexibility. The Guatemalans in New Bedford, whose work was nineteenth- century in character, saw it grow even worse in the aftermath of the ICE raids. The highly skilled workers at Jones Beloit were jettisoned by an employer too reckless to care. Although in very different ways, each employer’s workers found themselves victims at the altar of the bottom line.

The call center at Verizon represents an archetype of bread without roses in the new economy. Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg’s “new industry paradigm” reduces to little more than “paying people well to treat them bad,” as one call center representative expressed it. The work system in the call center, the logical extension of Taylorism, delivers work electronically, without pause, without interruption, and without rest. All the horrors of the assembly line have been recast in a new form, with workers facing them alone in their cubicles— while almost constant monitoring and a shift from service to sales have turned their workplace into a pressure cooker.

Management at Verizon further intensifies this pressure through a serious of rigid, arbitrary, and what at times appear to be punitive human resources policies and practices: inflexible schedules, the lack of any real sick days, and restrictions on the use of vacation and personal time. Already grueling eight- hour days are regularly extended by mandatory overtime, with Verizon making an end run around the contract provision that was meant to provide twenty- four hours’ notice for overtime work.

The combination of the work pro cess and these aggressive human resources policies and practices creates stress at two levels. First is the stress on the job, as call center reps struggle to keep up with the daily pace, with little chance to come in an hour late or take a long weekend or a few days off . When combined with the mandatory overtime and inflexibility, the stress also reverberates in their lives off the job as they struggle to have time and energy for themselves or their families. And the paradox is that in a fundamental way, the very job they desperately need to support their families makes that family life impossible.

Nurses at Boston Medical Center are also expected to work far beyond a forty- hour week. This expectation is not seasonal as it is at Verizon but a regular part of their work life. Nurses feel less stress than the call center reps do, however, because, as professional workers, they have considerably more control over their work. They are neither monitored nor timed and retain the right to make important decisions in their practice of nursing. But because of the off - shift and weekend requirements and the new corporate model of health care in operation at Boston Medical, which works counter to their culture of caring, the nurses are exhausted.

Nurses do not feel trapped in their jobs in the same way call center representatives do. Even though many call center representatives loath their jobs, they feel as though they cannot leave them. They know these are probably the best- paying jobs they will ever have and, as one rep expressed it, “they have you” (Sally 2001, 7). Nurses at Boston Medical never see their work this way. In fact, they are incredibly dedicated to their work and to their patients, and they see the corporatization as an obstacle to practicing their profession. Whereas the salary keeps the call center representatives in place, the culture of caring keeps the nurses there.

As national trends reveal, however, nurses do leave the profession in startling numbers. Unlike the call center representatives, nurses have the option of moving to part- time, per diem, or traveling work, which can limit work hours in a way that hospitals and health care centers seem unable or unwilling to do. But even with these options, nurses are leaving their profession at an alarming rate.

As we saw at Boston Medical, the crisis in nursing cannot be solved simply by training more nurses to enter a profession that is increasingly unmanageable in terms of hours and working conditions. Nor can it be solved by outsourcing the work to techs and travelers, who may have the requisite skills but rarely have the same level of commitment or the ongoing relationships necessary to provide high- quality health care. The nursing crisis will be solved only when decent working conditions are restored to nursing. Restoring these conditions would require a rollback of hours, of mandatory overtime, and of off - shift work, as well as policy changes that would ensure that the requirements of corporate hospitals like Boston Medical do not eclipse the ability of nurses to practice their profession.

The Guatemalans in New Bedford’s fishing industry seem to be working in an entirely different century. There is no need for electronic monitoring or stringent human resource policies. Not unlike workplaces throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, foremen exert their direct power over highly vulnerable workers who desperately need jobs. If they work too slowly, leave too much fish on the bones, or get injured in the whirl of knives and machinery, they are threatened, sometimes hit, or just let go. Even if they survive the crushing pace in the wet and the damp of a New England winter, some workers are cheated out of their money by their employers, and others are robbed by punks in their own neighborhoods.

Yet as bad as these jobs are by American standards, because of the poverty in Guatemala they are the best jobs most of these immigrants ever had. After their work on the fincas, the plantations in Guatemala, even working two full- time jobs, as Juan did during his first two years in New Bedford, seems like a good deal. For Juan, who used the money he saved to buy the first plot of land his family has owned for generations, there are no expectations of good working conditions. They are a luxury for white workers who are citizens. It is enough for him to have food, to have money to buy land and send to his family in Guatemala, and to have the dream that someday he will become an American citizen.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids at Michael Bianco in the spring of 2007, however, changed everything for the Guatemalans in New Bedford. The entire community was traumatized by the brutality of federal agents, their inhumane treatment of the detainees, and the ripping away of parents from over 200 children. For the 168 workers deported, it was the end of their American dream. With their earning power now a fraction of what it had been in New Bedford, they struggle to provide for families at home in a Guatemala poorer and more violent than when they left.

In the aftershock of the raid, fear overtook the remaining Guatemalans, who had been taking small steps into the local community and public life in New Bedford. They retreated to their apartments, made their contingency plans, and ventured out only when absolutely necessary, returning to the hiding they knew all too well from their lives in the Guatemalan highlands— lives they thought they had left behind.

In the aftermath of the raid, many Guatemalans lost their jobs as regular employees and were driven deeper into the informal economy, into the shadows where there is no light to shine on worker abuse. And they watched as their hopes that Washington would finally do something about immigration reform were dashed, with the only real result the demonization of immigrants on the airwaves and on city streets. Their dreams, as Juan put it, are now “on the edge of a cliff ” (2007, 2).

After the failure of comprehensive immigration reform in 2007, the country seems to have settled into a dangerous place. ICE raids, which increased in the last years of the Bush administration, did nothing to solve the immigration crisis, yet as political theater they continued to drive undocumented workers deeper into the shadows in their workplaces and their communities. It was almost as though we accepted that undocumented workers were here to stay, as long as they remained in the shadows.

At Jones Beloit we saw an example of corporate greed consuming a major company and destroying a very profitable operation in the process. In the end, it was not just the failure of the CEO, Jeffrey Grade— who tried to hide the growing crisis from stockholders, workers, and the public— but the failure of a regulatory system that somehow overlooked unmet earnings projections by Harnischfeger, the parent company of Jones Beloit, in fourteen out of twenty- four quarters. As in the scandals at Enron and WorldCom, or more recently with Bear Stearns and Bernard L. Madoff, the closing of Jones Beloit is a clear indictment of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the regulatory system whose mission is to ensure that firms trading stock are open and honest with their financial reports. Even with his poor decision-making, if Grade had been forced to come clean earlier in the pro cess, it is highly unlikely that the plant in Dalton would have been shuttered and the firm dismantled.

Another troubling aspect about the closing of Jones Beloit is the range of obstacles the workers and their union ran up against in trying to purchase the plant, lease space, or open their own firm. These were not the actions of just a few workers desperately trying to save their jobs but solid, wellthought- out eff orts by the union, in concert with high- level managers who had the ability to make something happen. Yet they were thwarted at every turn. The company actively opposed any eff ort by the workers and their union; the bankruptcy filing made leasing the space impossible; and the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) legislation provided only sixty days for any buyout to happen. With restraints like these, it is no surprise that precious few examples of ongoing operations have emerged from the ashes of plant closings.

In the end, the story of the closing of Jones Beloit is one of monumental waste. It was the waste of a 150- year legacy that went into building a worldclass product. It was also the waste of a major firm that was one of the leaders in the papermaking industry. But most important, it was the waste of almost 300 workers— a waste of their skills and their abilities to earn a living. The question is, how long can the workers at Verizon, at Boston Medical, and in the fish houses endure? Many of the changes documented here are fairly new— what will be the impact on Martha, Janet, and Juan over the next few years, or the next de cade? How long can they sustain themselves in jobs like these? What is the long- range impact of sixty- hour weeks or of unbridled stress and exhaustion and the loss of jobs on workers, their children, their families, and their community life?

It is important to recognize what we are asking of American workers. Despite the massive changes in the postwar workplace brought on by changes in the economy and in business practices, we are asking workers to make sense of these changes in private— behind closed doors in their homes. There has been virtually no public discourse about massive workplace change, and as a nation we have done nothing structurally to assist workers and their families— no restrictions on overtime or limits on the total number of hours worked. Jody Heymann calls this “society’s unfinished response.” She explains, “We as a nation have failed to respond, leaving a rapidly widening gap between working families’ needs and the combination of high workplace demands, outdated social institutions, and inadequate public policies” (2000, 4, 6).

The financial meltdown in the fall of 2008 and the rapid rise of unemployment have driven concerns about work even further underground.

Have we entered an era where what we actually do at work— the work process and the conditions under which we do our work— is no longer something we should talk about or question? Are we lucky just to have a job, so we don’t ask too many questions about the work itself? Do we have to just put up or shut up? When I spoke with a top official of the union that represents the Verizon employees about the denigration of working conditions, she fired back, “Corporate America doesn’t give a shit about it.” She added, “If you write about decent working conditions in this day and age, sadly, people will laugh at that notion” (Herrera 2004, 20).