Given low pay, few benefits and the struggle to balance work and family, the American dream remains that for many.

By LEIGH DONALDSON Portland Press Herald 7/14/08
Labor statistics have been used in countless ways in an attempt to explain the complexities of the American work force system. But, without some more personal and anecdotal specifics, they can seem like a bunch of numbers that can be manipulated to prove any point.
In his book, “The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker,” Steven Greenhouse merges statistics with interviews and biographies from workers of all levels.
His prognosis is essentially grim as he analyzes “the broad decline in the status and treatment of American workers — white-collar and blue-collar workers, middle-class and low-end workers.”
Greenhouse asserts that this decline began nearly three decades ago and that the general American work force is on “a lower plain than in decades past, with health coverage, pension benefits, job security, workloads, stress levels, and often wages growing worse for millions of workers.”
Perhaps this news is no surprise to some of us, but the situation is undoubtedly worse than many of us suspected. Greenhouse characterizes an America that once accepted a natural division of labor, whereby less-educated workers did the heavy lifting and factory jobs and the more-educated did the higher-paying brain work.
But, the reality today is that an estimated 3.4 million white-collar jobs will be sent overseas between 2003 and 2050, according to Forrester Research, an independent technology and market research company. This forecast includes jobs related to office support, computers, management, architecture and legal work, as well as art and design.
It gets worse. Also capable of heading overseas is this country’s capacity to generate jobs. According to Nicholas von Hoffman, a columnist for the New York Observer, “technology, the industrial knowledge base and the necessary organizational skills to use these efficiently are also being exported.”
The lingering proclamation that America is the richest nation in the world comes under serious question when we start taking a hard look at the weaknesses in our economy and work force, both inexorably linked to one another.
You don’t have to have a doctorate in economics or an MBA to recognize that, for many, the American dream is just that, a dream.
We all can relate to the daily problems in an office setting. Bosses yelling at us; women and men suffering unwanted advances; being forced to work longer hours off the clock; the chipping away or denial of health benefits, or parents having their pay docked when they must leave work unexpectedly to assist an ailing family member. Working a 9-to-5 can be a very dehumanizing experience.
Greenhouse says that “the average American worker clocked 1,804 hours of work in 2006 — three full-time weeks per year more than the average British worker, six weeks more than the average French worker, and nine weeks more than the average German worker.”
Surprisingly, despite more work hours, Americans simply aren’t more productive, happier or healthier than workers in other comparable nations. Add to that, almost half of American workers are not entitled to paid sick days.
Nobody can convince me that time off from work is bad for the worker. According to Greenhouse, however, the United States is the only advanced industrial nation that does not legislate a minimum number of vacation days each year for its workers. In Norway and Sweden, they’re guaranteed five weeks’ vacation, France and Spain, generally six.
The personal effects of this rather bleak picture are subtle, but insidious nonetheless. Many political campaigns bring up the importance of family. But are we really aware of how destructive the decline of the American work force is to our families?
Working two or three jobs, struggling to get adequate child care, experiencing low wages coupled with rising costs for basic living essentials — let alone the task of actually raising and nurturing our children — is a recipe for disaster within the family structure. It’s a rare company that proactively addresses the needs of workers trying to juggle their work and family concerns.
What is even more perplexing is the dearth of public discourse on this issue, let alone possible solutions. There has been a great deal of talk about the influx of immigrants taking our jobs and the lack of qualified younger or older workers for existing jobs in this country.
How can anyone grow and evolve in a work force that is constantly being undermined? Why is there not more talk, for example, about a rebirth of trade unionism, raising the earned-income tax credit or changing our laws to make corporations more liable for contractors’ labor law violations, as Greenhouse suggests?
Many American workers are victims of the mindset that they must do whatever it takes to put food on the table. Consequently, corporations, businesses and companies have too much free rein in the way they treat their workers.
Our legal system favors the employer, while often bypassing the basic needs of hardworking citizens. Until more workers recognize and act against this trend, circumstances can only get worse.
Leigh Donaldson is a Portland writer whose book about the antebellum African-American press in the Northeast is due for publication in 2009. He can be contacted at:
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