White-Collar Woes

White-Collar Sweatshop: The Deterioration of Work and Its Rewards in Corporate America, Jill Andresky Fraser. W.W. Norton and Company, 278 pages, $26.95.

While working through the 1980s and 1990s as a financial journalist, Jill
Andresky Fraser was bothered by an apparent paradox: She observed the "buoyant
optimism" of corporate executives and business boosters enjoying a rising stock
market at the same time that she was hearing "bleak workplace stories" from
white-collar employees. The good feelings on the part of CEOs were easy to
understand. They were receiving million-dollar salaries, often with bonuses and
lucrative stock options. But to Fraser's ears, there was also a disturbing rumble
of discontent in corporate America. It came from a wide range of professionals
who felt overworked and underrewarded, their health and happiness disintegrating
under the weight of job-related stress.

White-Collar Sweatshop, four years in the making, is packed with the tales
of the working wounded. She has collected their stories by offering them a cloak
of anonymity. "Margot," a marketing manager with a large retail company, is
representative of the dozens of workers quoted: "Everybody's got their cell
phones and their beepers and their laptop computers, because we've all got to be
accessible all the time, even when we're on vacation. Every time there's a
layoff, we all have to take on even more responsibilities. And we suspect that
more layoffs are coming, which means our jobs are just going to keep getting
worse." Margot took a deep breath, Fraser reports, and continued: "But the reward
structure doesn't begin to keep up. Our benefits have been getting worse for
years now. And the company's attitude is, This is the way of the world. If you
don't like it, go someplace else."

Is the word "sweatshop" justified when used in this context? Fraser poses that
question herself in the book's introduction, acknowledging that she is writing
about a class of educated, comfortable, and even affluent workers. She leaves the
query hanging, to be addressed by the testimonies that follow, and for the rest
of the book uses the term with quotation marks around it. The weight of her
evidence is intended to make the case that a great many of the estimated 80
million white-collar workers--those in professional, administrative, technical,
and sales jobs--are working longer hours under worse conditions.

Something has changed dramatically in the last two decades, Fraser contends,
at least in comparison to the era immediately after World War II, when American
corporations offered secure jobs and reliable benefits. "This shift," she writes,
"is equivalent to an industrial revolution for white-collar workers who, by
necessity, have learned to adjust to (and often successfully function within)
whatever versions of the white-collar 'sweatshop' have evolved within their own
companies and industries."

While admitting that the postwar years can sometimes be seen through a
nostalgic haze, Fraser holds that period up as the best of times for white-collar
workers. In the 1950s, Thomas Spates, vice president of General Foods, thought
the way to prevent socialism in America was for employers to treat workers with
dignity and respect. Earl Willis, the manager of employee benefits at General
Electric, wrote in 1962: "Guarantees of employment cannot be made by businesses
whose markets are as unpredictable as General Electric's. Nevertheless, we
recognize the desire of employees for job continuity, and we have long striven to
provide the greatest measure practicable." IBM's employee handbook boasted as
recently as 20 years ago that "in nearly 40 years, no person employed on a
regular basis by IBM has lost as much as one hour of working time because of a
layoff."

The economics of the 1980s changed all that in a hurry. Fraser quotes an
engineer working for the computer-chip maker Intel saying that a manager "came
right out and told us that Intel is not going to be a place where you can work
until retirement."

The lack of job security looms large in the psyches of the workers Fraser
interviews. Merger-related layoffs and cutbacks cost about 250,000 men and women
their jobs, she contends, just in the period from 1995 through early 1999. And
much of the churning in the corporate world has not been good for business, she
argues. Only a third of corporations profit from mergers and acquisitions, while
the rest of the deals destroy value. In 1994 Quaker Oats bought Snapple for $1.7
billion, and sold it three years later for $300 million. Also in 1994, Novell
purchased WordPerfect for $1.4 billion, and then unloaded it for $200 million two
years later. From the 1980s to the mid-1990s, the cost of failed corporate
mergers topped $100 billion.

Occasionally companies have been ruined by cuts that went too deep. In the
mid-1990s, "Chainsaw Al" Dunlap cut one-third of Scott Paper's workforce--and
drove its stock price up 225 percent. Later, he got "dunlapped" himself after he
sawed too vigorously into the infrastructure of Sunbeam, crippling the company's
future growth and profitability. Now the company is in bankruptcy. Layoffs should
be seen as an indication of management's inability to lead a company to
profitability, Fraser says.

In some ways, White-Collar Sweatshop is an exasperating book. At several
points, Fraser raises an obvious question: If things are so bad in corporate
America, why don't employees do something about it? "The explanation is as
complex as the corporate world," she says. She reports on some workers who simply
got caught up in the excitement of the go-go eighties and allowed their jobs to
swallow their lives. She notes that many professionals feel "a strong sense of
attachment to--and identification with--their corporate parent." Those without
such attachment often came to accept their conditions "because they realized they
had little other choice." She also details the efforts of corporations to use
publicity, marketing, and "spin" to influence opinions both inside and outside
their workplaces.

And she notes that many professionals are literally invested in the system:
"The people who put their savings in mutual funds were often the same
white-collar men and women whose work lives began deteriorating" during the
1980s. "We own stock, and as stockholders, all we care about is profits," says
one white-collar worker. "So we're the ones who are encouraging the conditions
that make our work lives so awful." The net worth of these workers rose in the
past decade thanks mainly to increases in their 401(k) pension plans and real
estate holdings. But that doesn't mean they don't need the salary as well. The
obvious reason workers don't rise up against their employers is that they are
afraid of losing their paychecks.

Are tales of overwork and anger "simply the ramblings and complaints of small
numbers of disgruntled workers, those who just could not keep up with the
fast-paced program, as American businesses continued to reinvent and reposition
themselves to thrive ... [in the] global economy?" Fraser asks. But that
question, too, is not quite answered. Fraser has zeroed in on those workers with
serious complaints (one woman told of being forced to work through the entire
night before her wedding). And she tapped into an extensive network of unhappy
workers who rail against employers in Internet chat rooms and on anticorporate
Web sites. By the end of the book, she even injects a note of optimism that
workers are beginning to find ways to speak out and stand up for themselves.

Meanwhile, there is no widespread rebellion in corporate America, and one
suspects that a whole separate group of these workers is relatively content. They
continue commuting to their offices because they are getting what they need from
these jobs. Most corporations provide medical benefits and pension plans. Many
still pay for employees to get advanced degrees and offer college scholarships to
their children. Lots of corporate jobs also give employees real opportunities to
develop their professional skills. Although the benefits of corporate life have
shrunk compared with what they were in the 1960s, it's still a gravy train by any
measure.

In addition, companies often provide employees with prestige, purposefulness,
and a sense of accomplishment. Since American culture glamorizes hard work, it's
common for people in the first half of their careers to one-up each other on how
late they stay at the office. They like to be tested to see how well they can
perform, and they feel proud to meet a challenge--the more daunting, the better.
It's usually in the second half of their careers, when people expect to be
rewarded and promoted, that they begin to grouse if things don't work out. This
is the group that Fraser focuses on. She has listened to so many of the
disgruntled that she seems to see the world only through their eyes.

In her conclusion, Fraser envisions a changed business world in which
executives no longer reward themselves with lavish compensation, in which they
halt large-scale layoffs in favor of retraining programs, and in which they
"commit to nurturing real cultural changes" that discourage overwork. At the
same time, it is a world in which employees embrace unionization, stockholders
and investors insist on socially responsible labor policies, and employers
promote employee stock ownership plans. How is all this to come about? To take
just one item on that wish list, how can companies forswear layoffs? Aren't there
real economic situations, perhaps like the one we are in now, in which a company
must make some cutbacks in order to survive?

The pain, anger, and sense of betrayal that Fraser reports on at great length
are real. But she glorifies the bygone days in corporate America when large
companies wrapped their workers in thick benefit blankets and worked them eight
predictable hours each day. During this period, the managers of American industry
became more interested in counting their perks and planning their vacations than
in paying attention to the rising competition in the rest of the world. There is
no going back to the 1950s, of course. The unsolved riddle is whether America's
white-collar workers will move beyond venting in their electronic chat rooms and
finally begin to figure out ways to shape the modern workplace into a more humane
and reasonable environment.

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