Class War in America: the Book
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The Victimization of American Workers
and the New American Morality
Beginning in the 1930s, and into the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, working Americans had some semblance of power because unions were gaining strength, trade with other countries was managed so as to protect American jobs from unfair labor competition, and in the U.S., greed was still considered a vice and fairness a virtue.
Since workers had power, investors—through their corporate executives—had to get what they wanted from workers by persuasion and by making promises. They said:
§ Work with us.
§ Be loyal to us and we will be loyal to you.
§ Give us your best ideas.
§ Help us develop our technologies.
§ Make us more productive and profitable.
§ Make this nation the best in the world.
§ We will enter a new era together, in which
§ you will share in our prosperity,
§ wealth will “trickle down” to you,
§ we will all be better off, and
§ technology will free us all from drudgery, give us more time for recreation, self-development, education, and quality family time.
These promises appeared genuine. After all, during those years most persons considered the U.S. to be a Christian nation with high moral standards. You can trust people with high moral standards, so American workers cooperated and made this country the most competitive and most prosperous in the world.
Workers mined the metals, made the machinery, produced and serviced the products and sold them. They not only did all the “hands-on” labor, they willingly contributed their creative talents to give us the world-best production techniques and processes. What they didn’t have in great abundance, however, was the money to buy politicians.
Wealthy investors did have the money. And by spending huge sums of it for propaganda, they began their rise to power. Republicans and conservative Democrats gained control of our government, and all their promises to workers—the people who built this country—were forgotten.
Once investors and corporate executives got control of the political process, their attitudes changed drastically. They didn’t have to make false promises anymore. They could openly proclaim that:
The materials to follow—from our most respected, conservative financial publications—clearly describe the conditions that Republicans and conservative Democrats now consider normal for many working Americans.
To their credit, most of these publications, The Wall Street Journal and Business Week especially, must have a few editors with the traditional journalistic standards for objectivity. Many news items, and a rare editorial, sometimes suggest that unbridled capitalism simply doesn’t work for the bottom 40% of America, and to some extent, even the bottom 80%.
For example, notice how The Wall Street Journal quoted an economist who said that “capitalism is getting meaner” in the way it keeps inflation low. The article, “Inflation Stays Low, with Aid of Some Luck,” presented a somewhat soulless definition of luck:
There is another explanation for the surprisingly small increase in wages: Workers are so traumatized by downsizing, outsourcing, layoffs and the waning power of unions that they aren’t demanding raises.
“Capitalism is getting meaner,” suggests Princeton University economist Alan Blinder…. When shortages of entry-level workers and a higher minimum wage push up wages for some, employers may be stingier with raises for others.… And when given a choice, workers prefer job security to bigger paychecks.1
Again, in the Journal’s view, outrageous corporate profits don’t cause inflation—it’s those damn working Americans who would like to make enough to support a family without having to work two jobs. But, American corporations have created a bit of “luck”:
§ Downsizing, outsourcing, layoffs and the waning power of unions have traumatized workers so much they are afraid of pressing for higher wages. Luck has nothing to do with it. Republicans and conservative Democrat politicians have deliberately brought about the conditions described in the first seven chapters of this book.
§ Our country’s values are different now. Conservatives have made “mean” synonymous with our new version of capitalism. Contrary to the way it was in the 1930s through the ’70s, capitalism no longer considers manual labor to be worthy of a decent income.
§ If you ever doubted the need for unions to defend the interests of working Americans, just look at what the Journal thought, with amazing frankness, about the sense of fairness of American employers: if employers have to raise minimum wages, they’ll make it up by being “stingier with raises for others.”
When corporations get meaner, they implement today’s management philosophy: Let’s cash in the value that employees have been building into the corporation since its beginning—and don’t share any of the profit with them. Business Week described the trend-setting CEO Al Dunlap, known as “The Shredder”:
After less than two years’ work [downsizing Scott Paper], Dunlap walked away with nearly $100 million in salary, bonus, stock gains, and other perks.…
Because Dunlap openly revels in his “Chainsaw” sobriquet and loudly trumpets his slashing tactics, he is helping change the norms of acceptable corporate behavior, argues Peter D. Cappelli, chairman of the management department at Wharton. “He is persuading others that shareholder value is the be-all and end-all. But Dunlap didn’t create value. He redistributed income from the employees and the community to the shareholders.…”
“At the employee meetings, he spoke about building the company,” recalls a former marketing executive. “But by the end of 1994, it just became a volume-driven plan to pretty up the place for sale.”2
Nothing new here. Working Americans are the ones who create value and wealth. CEOs and wealthy investors merely suck it up. How much they are able to suck up depends on how much power they have and how little power the employees have. It isn’t just Chainsaw Dunlap’s employees who suffer from this kind of downsizing. It affects all employees who fear their own CEOs will do the same thing. It’s the “insecurity” that Greenspan is so proud of. Note that
§ Even if, even if, Dunlap did something that needed doing at Scott Paper, is anyone worth $100 million for two years’ effort?
§ Every management consultant in existence has come across managers who, in the words of former Scott Paper executives, “sacrificed the long-term health of the corporation” in order to reap personal gain.
§ Dunlap isn’t “helping change the norms of acceptable corporate behavior.” Chief executive officers like Dunlap already have established the predominant norms for corporate behavior.
§ It’s the new fashion: To get workers’ cooperation, the CEO promises them that they can count on him. Then, after they deliver what is requested—conditions mysteriously change—and new circumstances demand that he reluctantly sell them out.
Selling out employees can be discussed very cold-bloodedly. Many have forgotten, or never realized, that, at one time, most working-class women didn’t have to work for their families to have a decent income. In one of its periodic paranoid analyses of the remote possibility that wages might go up, Barron’s described the 50% increase of women in the labor force since the mid-1960s:
Notwithstanding the impression given by September’s employment numbers, the labor market is far tighter than is generally realized.… First, the steady increase in labor force participation has flattened out. This is most notable among women, whose participation rate has plateaued at 60%, after having risen steadily from 40% in the mid-1960s.…
Corporations, for their part, are likely to hold labor costs in check in two ways. If compensation rises, they may well react with more staff cutbacks.… Alternatively, with the U.S. economy at full utilization of its resources, it could draw further on those abroad.3
When conservatives brag about the rise in average family income, they leave out the fact that there are far more two-earner families in our country. Dunlap’s behavior and Barron’s warning that too many Americans have jobs for the good of the stock market have several implications:
§ Conservatives have always tried to create new sources of labor to compete with, and drive down the wages of, existing jobholders. One of the ways to do this has been to keep wages so low that both spouses had to work to make ends meet. Conservatives have put workers into a double bind: Women entering the workforce create more competition—keeping wages low—yet those same low wages make it necessary for them to work in order to maintain their families’ standards of living.
§ Since that source of additional labor (women) may be drying up, an increase of a mere 1½% annual job growth rate might possibly cause wages to go up.
§ But, Barron’s consoled, there are other ways to stop wage increases that wouldn’t affect corporate profits or a skyrocketing stock market. Corporations could just make “more staff cutbacks.” With hundreds (thousands?) of Chainsaw Dunlaps out there, it should be easy to do.
§ Or, if employment is as high as it can go without wages going up, corporations could just “draw further on those abroad”—ship more jobs overseas!
Of course, the victimization of working Americans isn’t related just to job security and financial well being. Actual working conditions are degenerating. Among the conservative financial press, The Wall Street Journal has probably done the best job of describing what it has called the consignment of “a large class of workers to a Dickensian time warp.”4 The following excerpts all came from separate articles on the front page of the Journal, and represent only a small sample of what could have been included:
In “These Six Growth Jobs Are Dull, Dead-End, Sometimes Dangerous; They Show How ’90s Trends Can Make Work Grimmer for Unskilled Workers” the Journal described how jobs in six growing industries, such as chicken processing, environmental cleanup and nursing homes, forced workers to work
…not just for meager wages but also under dehumanized and often dangerous conditions. Automation, which has liberated thousands from backbreaking drudgery, has created for others a new and insidious toil in many high-growth industries; work that is faster than ever before, subject to Orwellian control and electronic surveillance, and reduced to limited tasks that are numbingly repetitive, potentially crippling and stripped of any meaningful skills or the chance to develop them.5
“At Nordstrom Stores, Service Comes First—but at a big price; Retail Clerks Work Overtime for No Pay, Are Pressured to Meet Selling Quotas” described how Nordstrom Stores,
…renowned for its pampering of customers, expects its salesclerks to work many hours without pay in an environment of constant pressure and harassment that incites employees to prey on each other, according to nearly 500 complaints filed with the workers’ union and interviews with several dozen employees in stores from Seattle to Los Angeles.… Just as retail chains of all kinds—from Bloomingdale’s to Macy’s—are rushing to duplicate the Nordstrom commission system, the stories of unhappiness at the company are spreading.6
“A Town in Iowa Finds Big New Packing Plant Destroys Its Old Calm; Housing and Crime Become Headaches As IBP Hires Jobless from Far Away” describes how Columbus Junction, Iowa, discovered that corporate values can be destructive to “small-town values”:
Columbus Junction has learned that giant corporations can treat workers, and towns, like interchangeable parts.… The intangibles that defined the heartland town—stability and continuity—have begun to die. Since IBP came to town, crime is up 400%.… Junior high and high school pupil turnover hit 25% last semester alone.… The plant has become the tail that wags the dog.… “[It’s] hard for anybody with a family to make a living at IBP, which is a pretty sad commentary,” says the Rev. Stephen Ebel, a Catholic priest. Highly efficient and aggressively anti-union, IBP is driving older Iowa packing plants over the edge.7
“Once the ‘Rust Belt,’ Midwest Now Boasts Revitalized Factories; But Wages Tend to Be Low” punctures holes in the claim that the new world economy is good for workers because it creates jobs:
The heartland’s manufacturing renaissance comes at a price. The typical wage of $8.60 an hour at the reopened Cummins plant is half that at the company’s main heavy-duty engine plant in downtown Columbus.… In Milwaukee, Briggs & Stratton Corp. is threatening to move jobs south unless it gets additional breaks from its unionized workers.… Brooke Tuttle, president of the Columbus Economic Development Board, figures that the area has lost 5,700 jobs at the major employers that paid $12 to $15 an hour. At the same time, it has gained 6,000 new jobs, partly by promoting the wages of $6 to $8 an hour to business prospects. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know we’re still losing our standard of living,” Mr. Tuttle concedes.8
These excerpts were selected because they represent a cross-section of an entire genre of news items that document what is happening to workers and working conditions throughout the United States. Americans, especially those at the bottom 40% on the income scale, are forced to endure increasingly degenerating work and pay conditions. Not just in the retail industry, not just in chicken processing or the trucking industry—but in virtually every industry in which people do “hands on” work.
These and similar articles demonstrate that:
§ Workers not only don’t benefit from technology and automation—they suffer because of it. They now are more like machines than they were before—and they are expected to work even faster than before.
§ “Corporate values are not necessarily small town values.” How about: modern corporate values aren’t even traditional American values?
§ Today, American workers and towns are treated like “interchangeable parts,” again, like machinery. They are without rights, without souls, without futures—to be used up and discarded without a second thought.
§ Corporate profits, not “stability and community,” are now the controlling forces of society. A lack of a sense of community has always been associated with a rise in crime rates, divorces, drug use, and all kinds of social problems. Yet the leaders of our country choose to remain blind to the results of legislation that turns control of our society over to corporate executives who have no moral standards—other than greed—to guide their behaviors.
§ Corporations no longer serve the community; instead they become “the tail that wags the dog.” The tail gets all the nourishment, the dog makes all the sacrifices.
§ “Aggressively anti-union” companies will drive unionized companies with good wages and working conditions “over the edge”—if there are inadequate national protections of workers’ rights to organize.
§ The ultimate medical and psychological costs of creating working conditions that cause problems such as “ulcers, colitis, hives and hand tremors” are transferred to individual workers, and omitted from corporate profit-and-loss statements.
§ Unscrupulous corporations drive moral corporations out of business if they don’t also “rush to duplicate” their lower standards for the treatment of workers. It takes only one unprincipled corporation to cause the standards of an entire industry to degenerate.
§ If local residents will not accept brutalizing work conditions, desperate people from other parts of the world will. By abandoning their communities, corporations repeatedly prove to the locals how unwise it is to expect to be treated like human beings.
The key, the indispensable element that caused this degenerating trend—is that Republicans and conservative Democrat politicians deliberately and consciously glorified the values inherent in a Dickensian mentality. They brag about how their policies have made our economy grow, made our corporations more productive and more profitable, and have benefited customers in the process.
However, they never talk about those who made all the sacrifices that were required to achieve these goals. Conservative “family values” have returned us to the work standards of Charles Dickens’ 1800s—when the royalty of society lived like, well, royalty. And workers at the low end of society were treated less well than machines. (Employers took reasonable care of their machines.)
The infamous tobacco industry’s moral standards of deceit, and their sanctimonious protestations of virtue, are now characteristic of corporate executives generally. How else could these practices be tolerated without any hint of complaint from the spokespersons for American industry? Where is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce? Where is the National Association of Manufacturers? Where are the members of Personnel Associations all across the country? Where is the Christian Coalition?
The people who run these organizations read the Journal, as well as Forbes, Fortune, Barron’s and Business Week, which also occasionally publish similar articles. They are unequivocally not members of “the biased liberal news media.” The members of Congress also read these conservative financial publications. Yet Republican politicians resist every effort to protect workers in manual labor jobs. They know these things are going on! How can they possibly claim the “family values” label?
Republicans want “states’ rights” because, without national standards, each state is forced to lower its standards for workers to the lowest possible level in order to compete with the least progressive state in the country.
By destroying what few national standards we have left—“giving power back to the states”—Republicans ensure that workers will eventually have no protections. This, in a nutshell, is the Republican strategy:
§ Pit southern workers against northern workers,
§ Pit non-union workers against union workers,
§ Pit nonunion (“right-to-work”) states against states that will allow workers to form unions—and if all that fails,
§ Pit brutalized workers in other countries against working Americans.
And “you don’t have to be a rocket scientist” to know that, as a planned result of all this, working Americans are losing their standard of living.
So, who changed our country into a nation that no longer values hands-on, non-investment, non-inheritance “work”? Read on.
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