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


The Degradation of Work in the 21st Century

It’s so regimented. You can’t go to the bathroom. You can’t get up and get a drink. They technically say that you can do this, but you really can’t. You can only go within your appointed time. They’re very inflexible. It reminds me of a hospital environment. Everybody eats at the same time. Everybody drinks at the same time. It’s the same type of thing. You have 600 to 700 people in this building. Everybody does what they’re supposed to do within their appointed time. But we have families, we have issues, we have things going on outside of this company that impact what goes on within the company. But that doesn’t matter. You can’t be late no matter what. You can’t be out. It’s very regimented and doesn’t allow for you to be a human being. Ellen (2003, 1)

At first glance one might think that this is a historical account of women working in the garment industry in the early part of the twentieth century. Or perhaps it’s a description of work in a sweatshop somewhere in the global South where young women make clothing for designer labels or fashion expensive athletic shoes. It is neither. Nor is it a report of work in a small, marginal U.S. firm or a low-wage retail store such as Wal-Mart.

Ellen, whom I interviewed several times for this book, works as a customer ser vice representative for Verizon, one of the largest telecommunications companies in the United States. Her description of her work— the regimentation, the narrow scripts she must follow, the constant monitoring, and the tremendous pressure to sell, all happening within a rigid, inflexible schedule— is harrowing. This is not the way work was supposed to be at a major U.S. firm in the twenty-first century— in the postindustrial “new” economy. What happened to flextime, telecommuting, and self-managed work teams? What happened to the family- friendly workplace?

And it’s not just Ellen’s particular job, or just work at Verizon. Something is not right in the American workplace. We can feel it every time we talk to the next- door neighbor, a brother-in law, or a woman we work with. For any of us lucky enough still to have a job, the workday has gotten longer, harder, and more stressful. And part of the stress is worrying that if we don’t keep up, we might not hold on to our jobs. As unemployment skyrockets in the wake of the economic meltdown of the fall of 2008, the pressure is on.

The American workplace has become a crucible, fueled by the outsourcing and off shoring of work, new work systems, and an economy that grew slowly for a long time and then went into free fall. Employers have turned up the heat on American workers. Like Ellen, too many Americans find it harder and harder to settle in and just do their jobs. Instead they feel they have to prove themselves day in and day out— prove their skills, their dedication, and most importantly their economic value to their employers.

At the end of the work week, as Americans stagger into the precious few hours they have left for themselves or their families after finishing the errands and the chores, the laundry and the dishes, too many feel stressed, exploited, exhausted, and abandoned. With little job security, and dignity and respect in short supply, it is no wonder they feel as though they’re being sacrificed at the altar of the bottom line.

There are important economic roots to this crisis in the American workplace. For much of the postwar era, as productivity rose, so did workers’ wages (Kuttner 2007, 192). With strong unions and governmental regulation of the economy, American workers got something for all their hard work. By the end of the 1980s, however, this link between productivity and wages was broken. For example, while productivity in the United States grew a whopping 33.4 percent from 1995 to 2005, wages for those with high school and college educations remained essentially flat (Mishel, Bernstein, and Allegretto 2006, 4).

American workers, Wolman and Colamosca point out, “have led the race to become competitive again, but they seemed fated to return to the starting line again and again. They are looking from the outside at a prosperity in which they have no part and working in a job market in which they can find no peace” (1997, 7). Because of this stagnation of wages for working people, income in equality in the United States is as high today as it was in the 1920s (Scheve and Slaughter 2007, 1).

Spiraling health care costs have eroded wages further. Nearly 47 million Americans are without health care coverage and pay the costs out of pocket, often having to choose among medical care, rent, and basic living expenses. Even for those covered by employer- based health care, the amount families spent on deductibles and out-of-pocket medical expenses increased 117 percent from 1999 to 2008. In 2008 it reached $3,354 a year, approaching one month’s salary for the average American worker (Kaiser Family Foundation 2008).

Over two de cades, many American families have compensated for the lack of wage increases by working more hours (Jacobs and Gerson 2004, 31). More women and other family members entered the workforce, just to stay even. Some economists suggest that there is no problem of overwork, that average weekly work hours for individuals have remained steady over this period (Rones, Ilg, and Gardner 1997). Jacobs and Gerson (2004, 5), however, unpack this average, suggesting a “growing time divide between those working especially long weeks, who would prefer to work less, and those working relatively short weeks, who would prefer to work more.” There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground in this economy: either you are not working or, if you are working, you are working far too much.

Chronic overwork has also been reflected in the growth of mandatory overtime. As employers cut permanent workforces to the bone, mandatory overtime became a standard practice in many workplaces. In 2005 over a quarter (26 percent) of American workers were subject to regular mandatory overtime that added, on average, almost ten hours a month to their work schedules (Golden and Wien- Tuers (2005, 6– 7). When we consider that more family members are working and that overtime hours— for some voluntary but for others mandatory— are added to what for many were already long regular work weeks, it is no wonder Americans are exhausted and families have been pushed to the “fault line” (Rubin 1994).

After the 2008 financial collapse, workers faced a new set of insecurities. The most striking was the loss of equity in their homes. With wages remaining flat, many Americans had used their growing home equity, made available to them in a variety of new financial instruments, to purchase automobiles, pay for college, and even to cover medical expenses. But then the housing bubble burst, and in 2008 more than $2 trillion was lost in home equity in the United States, and 11.7 million homeowners owed more on their mortgages than their homes were worth (Wotapka 2008). At the same time, many Americans felt a similar blow to their pensions. In 1980 approximately half of all Americans were covered by defined-benefit pension plans whose payouts were unaffected by fluctuations in the market.

By 2008 the number of workers covered by defined- benefit programs had dropped to less than 20 percent (Silvers 2008, 24). The remaining 30 percent of pensions were shifted to 401(k) or other savings programs that were vulnerable to market variations, and many workers lost significant portions of their retirement savings when the stock market collapsed.

These statistics provide an important overview of the massive changes that affect work and workers across a wide swath of the economy. The fundamental changes we are seeing in workplaces across the United States are not reducible, however, to the economics of work. What we need to explore is how employers are responding to this economic context and fundamentally altering the way work is being done. We need to examine how workplace changes actually play out in what workers face every day in office cubicles, on factory floors, and at construction sites. This is not just the “invisible hand” of the economy working, but employers’ purposive decisions on how to run their workplaces and treat their workers.

Neither do the economics of work tell us what these changes really mean to workers and their families as they sit around the kitchen table and try to make sense of their work and lives. As part of this project I interviewed Kathryn Peras and her husband, Pete, who had been laid off from his job of many years. Kathryn is frustrated that what her family is going through gets reported as just a statistic:

[The unemployment rate] went up 3 percent, [and] people think that’s not a lot. Try to walk in my shoes and see how it feels. I bet they wouldn’t be too pleased. With unemployment [insurance], you get a little bit of money, it’s not as much as you got before and it will tide you over, but what’s going to happen to your home, your family, and all the other things that you’ve worked hard for? (Peras and Peras 2001, 30– 31)

How can a number ever capture what a worker or a family goes through when a job of twenty- five years suddenly ends?

By looking only at the macro- level economics of work, one can also very easily see workers as simply passive victims of larger social pro cesses. What the number of workers laid off or the number subjected to new work practices does not tell us is anything about how these changes have played out, often over many years. The truth lies in the details of this struggle, not just in how it ends. To understand what is happening in American workplaces today and to begin to envision alternatives, one must go inside and examine these struggles in real work situations with real people. What one finds is not as neat as quantitative charts and graphs, and is surely not as pretty. But it is out of the contradictions and complexity of these situations that insights emerge, allowing us both to understand what is happening and to be able to envision alternatives.

To learn more about the new reality American workers find themselves in and the lives they have had to make around it, I began in-depth interviews with workers in four very diff erent kinds of workplaces: call center representatives, operating room nurses, undocumented workers in fish pro cessing, and displaced industrial workers. I started in the fall of 2000 and spent the next eight years finishing the project. Although not by design, I ended up chronicling the dynamics of work in America during the presidency of George W. Bush.

In each workplace I was fortunate to find truly remarkable people who were able to reflect on their work with great insight. In the interviews I sought detailed descriptions of the everyday, but I also tried to create a space where workers could reflect on their work and their lives beyond the everyday. Here I was looking at workers not just as subjects of the interviews but as analysts of the situations they found themselves in.2 When the interviews reached this level, they took on a life of their own. More than once we talked so long the room turned dark— we hadn’t noticed that the sun had long since gone down. At other times I had to schedule another interview because there was too much to absorb in one sitting. In some ways the hardest thing to do was to call it quits. When I finally did, I had conducted eighty-five formal interviews.

In the pages that follow, the workers I interviewed tell their stories. I believe they have more to add to our understanding of the American workplace and the lives workers are making than my paraphrasing, summarizing, or trying to explain to the reader what they really mean. To ensure accuracy I made audio recordings of all interviews and had them transcribed verbatim. I didn’t want just approximations of what workers told me. I wanted to capture their exact words and the cadence and rhythm of voices that the poets speak about. Somewhere in these voices— sometimes halting and other times impatiently staccato— I would find the story I was looking for, and the stories I found were far beyond what I could ever have imagined.