Archive for April, 2009

Posted by: kokoro | 16th Apr, 2009

Greenhouse, Chapters 10-16

The rest of Greenhouse’s book still hasn’t done anything to make me feel better about my future prospects, or my mother’s future prospects for that matter.

American workers continue to face many of the same problems. Technological advances continue to threaten jobs, while making new ones. Working conditions remain terrible in many places, with issues ranging from lack of safety to sexual harassment. Immigrants taking jobs from American-born workers is also a continuing problem. Companies still do their best to destroy or keep unions from forming with intimidation and other means.

There are also new problems that the country’s workers face. Americans are becoming increasingly overworked, all the while their wages have not grown to match their productivity. Temp agencies, contracting, and downsizing all threaten worker’s positions and help to make them open to exploitation. Technology can also be used in new ways to alter worker’s records, like their hours. Globalization threatens American jobs, and illegal immigration lowers the bar for all workers because illegal immigrants allow employers to get away with terrible exploitation because they can’t speak up against it. Young people are increasingly falling into debt, and college is becoming more expensive as financial assistance remains mostly stagnant. A college education isn’t even necessarily a sure way to a good job anymore either. Retirement is also becoming a figment of the imagination. While employers continue to challenge unions, the way that they do so has become increasingly insidious. The outright violence that was once used may be preferable to the backhand, bureaucratic means they use now. At least direct violence was a sure way to win the sympathy of the public, but then, employers have learned some things since then.

So, to recap, American labor basically faces all the old problems that it’s always faced, while at the same time facing a plethora of new problems. It makes you wonder whether we can fix any new problems if we can’t even fix the old ones. However, things have improved for the American worker before. With revitalization, innovation, and organization, hopefully the labor movement can improve things in the future. But before anything can be improved, we first need to figure out how American labor has reached this low point.

Posted by: kokoro | 13th Apr, 2009

Greenhouse, The Big Squeeze Chapters 1-9

So far, Greenhouse’s book has been majorly depressing. It doesn’t really give me much hope for the future, specifically my future in the workforce. Though the type of work has changed in America in our postindustrial economy, worker exploitation goes on just the same as it always has, as well as in new ways. At the very least, this book proves that labor unions are not obsolete, as some critics have said. If anything, workers more than ever need to have their interests looked after.

I think Greenhouse’s book has been the easiest of our class books to read because he interweaves so many personal stories into his overview of the state of American labor. In some ways, those stories also make it the hardest book to read. While the other books we’ve read have had moments that get me riled up enough to use my barn voice (thank you 30 Rock!), I think this book provokes a larger emotional reaction simply because these are current issues.

These are also issues that I can somewhat relate too. I lived in the same apartment my whole life, in a relatively low-income neighborhood with my single mother. We pretty much live paycheck to paycheck, with no yearly vacations or vacation homes. Our special trips usually consist of staying with family for a few days. It’s always been a treat to eat out at a fancy place, not some kind of weekly tradition, and I’ve never had any music/dance/whatever lessons outside of school. The company branch where my mom worked closed down a few years ago, leaving her unemployed for a year, not to mention increasingly depressed, until she found a new job that leaves her in traffic for hours every day and every night. Of course, the majority of Americans live this way, and for many people, much worse.

Fortunately, chapter nine is a little more cheery. It’s good to know that there are some companies out there that take steps to look out for their workers, even if these companies are relatively small in number.

Posted by: kokoro | 5th Apr, 2009

Wellman

I think my favorite part of the whole book may have been the appendix. I found it very interesting to read about how Wellman integrated himself into the longshore community. I’m used to thinking of ethnographies as based on accounts from tribal people from far off lands, so this book is a nice reminder than ethnography can be right here at home.

The part I found particularly interesting is that Wellman recognized that he wasn’t a neutral observer, as he had a natural slant towards the union, but both the longshoremen and the managers saw him as neutral and put him into that position. They expected it of him, so he had to act in that fashion by going to meetings of both sides, sitting in between the two sides during joint meetings, and what not.

I think Wellman’s book provides, aside from a great ethnographic study of San Francisco longshoremen, an intriguing counterpoint to the argument that the natural trajectory of unionization is towards business unionism. However, I don’t think, as Wellman mentioned himself, that his account alone proves that the ILWU isn’t an exceptional union or that it is proof that radical unionism isn’t dead. Still, Wellman’s study is a good starting point to investigate other unions for comparison to the ILWU.

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