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Nicholas von Hoffman on ‘The Big Squeeze’

Posted on Jun 6, 2008
book cover

By Nicholas von Hoffman

      You may be surprised to learn that the pleasant person from FedEx Ground delivering your package owns the truck which he or she has parked in front of your house. FedEx Ground drivers, you will find out in Steven Greenhouse’s “The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker,” are not FedEx employees.

    They are what are called independent contractors, although it demands no little effort to discern what about their position is independent. If they do not do what they are told, their contracts are abrogated forthwith. They are required to buy their own truck with 60 monthly installments of $781.12, which comes to $46,867.20. Plus there is a final kicker payment of $8,000, all of which adds up to a grand total of almost $55,000. On top of this, as an independent business person, the driver must bear the costs of insurance, maintenance, fuel, repairs and the fee for the FedEx uniform rental.


book cover


The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker


By Steven Greenhouse


Knopf, 384 pages


Buy the book


    FedEx Ground drivers who want to take vacations must hire their own replacements to cover the routes while they are gone. If a FedEx Ground independent contractor can afford it, he should take a vacation because the hours are long, the work is hard and the compensation is less than princely. A driver will take home between $25,000 and $35,000 a year.

      One of the strengths of Greenhouse’s book is that it puts the meat of specificity on the bones of labor statistics. “The Big Squeeze” is salted with interviews and biographies of people in dozens of occupations. It is instructive to read the statistics concerning highly trained people losing their jobs to people in low-wage countries, but the numbers take on painful significance when you are introduced to an electrical engineer named Myra Bronstein, working for Watchmark, a Bellevue, Wash., firm which develops software used by cell phone companies.

      One day Bronstein and 17 of her colleagues got an e-mail asking them to report to Watchmark’s boardroom the following morning. As Myra and the other quality assurance engineers gathered in the boardroom, the director of human resources began giving out large manila envelopes. Once everyone was there, Myra recalled, “The head of HR said, ‘Unfortunately, we’re having layoffs, and you’re in the room because you’re being impacted by the layoffs.’ ” The 18 engineers were dumbstruck, but the head of human resources pressed on. ” ‘Your replacements,’ ” she continued, ” ‘are flying in from India, and you’re expected to train them if you are going to receive severance.’ ”

      Drawing back the camera on employment conditions, Greenhouse writes that “Forrester Research estimates that 3.4 million white-collar jobs—some 260,000 a year—will be sent overseas between 2003 and 2050. Forrester forecasts that this exodus will include 1.6 million office-support jobs, 542,000 computer jobs, 259,000 management jobs, 191,000 architecture jobs, 79,000 legal jobs, and 30,000 art and design jobs.” 

      The author explains that these numbers are a small fraction of total employment in their respective fields, but the percentage of jobs held by college-trained white-collar workers in fields such as insurance, pharmacology, banking and information technology which can be shipped abroad in some instances ranges above 40 percent.

      A few years ago many an American entertained the conceit that the natural world division of labor, á la Adam Smith and David Ricardo, would have the little brown and yellow people doing the heavy lifting jobs in ill-ventilated factories reeking of lead vapors, while large, highly intelligent, highly white citizens of the United States would enjoy a life of brain work and ease. It has not worked out that way, as Greenhouse shows his readers. Whether or not one’s job is actually sent abroad, the mere fact that it can be works not only to place a limit on what you can expect to be paid but depresses wages and salaries.

      Gone overseas, besides jobs, is the capability of generating jobs. Technology, the industrial knowledge base and the necessary organizational skills to use these efficiently are also being exported. This puts additional downward pressure on compensation here at home and makes its contribution to Greenhouse’s doleful overall narrative of what has been happening to perhaps four-fifths of our working population for the last 30 years or so.

      The writer’s central thesis is, “One of the least examined but most important trends taking place in the United States today is the broad decline in the status and treatment of American workers—white-collar and blue-collar workers, middle-class and low-end workers—that began nearly three decades ago, gradually gathered momentum, and hit with full force soon after the turn of this century. A profound shift has left a broad swath of the American workforce 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.”

      Greenhouse’s main argument is so at variance with what we are told every day about the superiority of American everything, it makes you blink. We judge ourselves by what our politicians and our television sets say, which is that we are the best, most blessed and richest of people and getting more so. A rising tide floats all boats, President John Kennedy said, and the American tide keeps on rising, but Greenhouse shows that tens of millions of boats are either staying put or sinking.

      A day seldom passes but a member of Congress takes the floor to remind us in mawkish tremolo that the hundreds of thousands of people trying to get into the U.S. are proof positive of the power of the American dream. If Greenhouse is right, and there is no reason to believe he is not, that American dream is just that—a dream.

      “Northwest Airlines,” Greenhouse writes, apropos of some people’s dreams, “gave laid-off workers a booklet entitled ‘101 Ways to Save Money.’ But the booklet added insult to financial injury. ‘Borrow a dress for a big night out’ and ‘Shop at auctions or pawn shops for jewelry’ were among the tips it offered. And then it suggested, ‘Don’t be shy about pulling something you like out of the trash.’ ” Dumpster diving into the American dream. You can’t make stuff like that up, and this book is full of such revealing anecdotes.

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By troublesum, June 11, 2008 at 4:44 am Link to this comment

Who will by American made products?  America doesn’t produce anything anymore - that’s what the balance of trade deficit is about.  We import what we consume.  With about 2 billion people between them, China and India are the markets of the future.  Those who framed the international trade agreements were not worried about the American consumer.  They are well aware that as producers/consumers Americans are superfluous.  The future belongs to China and India.  We were sold down the drain by our own leaders in service to international corporations.

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By Bukko in Australia, June 9, 2008 at 10:03 pm Link to this comment

It’s like the analogy of “the tragedy of the commons,” Cyrena. You know how in days of old, there would be a “common” (i.e. communal) field in rural villages where people could let their cows graze. As long as people kept a lid on the number of stock that each one had eatin the grass, it would not get overgrazed and bare. But if one herder got rich and greedy, and had a huge herd that ate all the grass, then there would be nothing left for anyone in the end, and all the animals would starve—even the rich man’s.

Outsourcing works that way. If one company does it, it profits tremendously. Other companies see the profits, so they do it too. Otherwise, their rivals gain market share with their cheap stuff. But there comes a tipping point where the U.S. economy is hollowed out and collapses. You can see that, I can see that, even the businessmen who ship the jobs overseas can see that if they wanted to. But they’re only looking at the small picture, their company’s profits, not the big picture. And in truth, even if they acted according to the big picture, they’d get run out of business by someone else who didn’t.

The key, of course, is to have government setting some rules to protect the commons. But with the looters’ free-fo-all known as the Bush Crime Family (and NAFTA Clinton before him) that hasn’t been the case.

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By cyrena, June 9, 2008 at 8:08 pm Link to this comment

G.Anderson writes:

“..By G.Anderson, June 7 at 5:37 am #

Who will buy the products American business makes, when American workers no longer have an income sufficient to be consumers?...”

I remember asking this EXACT same question back in 1988! Even then, the outsourcing had already begun in my own corporate industry, unions were been crushed, and 2 and 3 tier wage scales were being introduced.

That was 20 years ago, and I knew it would come to this. What I DON’T understand, (at least in my own industry) is what took everybody so long to figure it out. It’s not that it was anything particularly difficult to figure. (I’m not a genius). So I don’t get that part. Maybe folks DID understand, but they didn’t do anything about it.

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By Bukko in Australia, June 9, 2008 at 6:17 pm Link to this comment

How did TruthDig become such an anti-Semite spouting site? It wasn’t that way a year ago, but now… Sheesh! I’m no fan of the Likud racist government and AIPAC, but there are a lot of “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” ravers on these comment threads.

Hey neo-Nazis—vent your spleen at the Saudi Arabians! Who do you think REALLY controls President Cheney? Who’s making you pay $4 a gallon for petrol? What country supplied 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers, (according to the official version of events)? If the Bush Crime Family attacks Iran, it’s going to be as much to help the Saudis against those expansionist Shiites across the Straits as it will be to help Israel. Get a clue, hate-mongers!

But what I really wanted to say is that IronMaiden’s and GW=Mc’s comments brought me back to the days when I was an LPN working in nursing homes in Florida. It’s slow death there, for the residents AND the staff. The only way for the workers not to burn out is to not give a stuff. Nursing homes that are owned by big corporations are the worst for giving staff too many residents to look after, but a locally-owned nursing home in the town of Wauchula was ust as bad with no distant owners to blame.

It was only when I worked as a nurse in California, and down here, that working conditions became good. You know why? Unions. Both Cali and Oz have strong union movements, which means workers get a good deal and the patients do too. Otherwise, they’re just left to rot in their own excrement because there’s no way for the workers to stand up and demand better care for the sick old folks.

All these people who slag unions, my hope for them is that hey end their days in a non-unionised nursing home…

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By Deelite, June 9, 2008 at 1:34 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

What’s happening in the collapsing US of A today is directly tied with 40 years of Zionist infiltration of many of America’s most precious institutions and bending the will of politicians and citizens alike to their twisted Zionist agenda.

Israel has pretty much sucked the entire life out of this country.

No sane country does to it’s workers like America does to hers. Yes, governments all have a level of corruption to keep the wheels turning but the US government’s insistence on outsourcing and lopsided trade agreements and “free” market economics is just plain evil and malicious.

Something’s gotta give….and give it will pretty soon.

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By GW=MCHammered, June 9, 2008 at 9:27 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Agreed, ironmaiden:

Many of my friends work/worked in nursing homes as CNA or Med Nurses and others have affiliated businesses. Employee treatment <u>is</u> abysmal. Many are forced to work without near enough help, regular breaks and sometimes even lunch. And if you don’t like it, hit the road. Turnover helps keep wages low but entirely at the cost of care.

Several folks visiting relatives openly admit that they will take a long walk off a short pier before they end up in one of these corporate run ‘care facilities’ as did my dad before his death. Only a few family members have the time to fight for their elderly parents/grandparents proper care.

Two good, middle-aged friends developed emergent mental disorders after suffering under stress of working in these facilities. Were truth in advertising the rule, the word ‘Scare’ would replace ‘Care’ on most facility signs and pertain to both residence and workers. Such is the new Amurika. But who will end the greed and fill the need? Not corporate government.

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By ironmaiden, June 8, 2008 at 5:18 pm Link to this comment

My husband left his job as a nursing home social worker last year. He has often said he would prefer to be tied to a tree than live in such an enterprise. Company policies provided inhumane conditions for all. CNA caregivers, for the resident elderly, were paid very near the minimum wage. They were often single-mothers and/or immigrants. Sick leave pay was provided after the third consecutive absence - for a fourth day, only if documentation of a doctor’s visit was produced. Consequently, employees often worked sick around those whose immune systems were most fallible. Staffing was always short on weekends while the potential for mismanaged care was burdensome for those who showed up. One week of vacation was generously offered after a full year- few ever made it. Holidays? No vacation time was authorized from mid-November until the second week of January. One has to wonder about quality-of-life issues for the children of these workers. If America is so great, why are we allowing this to happen??

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By KMarx, June 7, 2008 at 1:30 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

If you want to see what is really going on, refer to the latest report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics regarding third quarter jobs “creation” by the private sector:

You will note that the private sector LOST 235,000 jobs durning that period. This is due in part to things like “Free Trade” (a practice championed by publications like the Washington Post) wherein corporations send jobs overseas. This type nonsense is in large part the cause of the decline of family structure. And with all the recent reporting regarding the number of jobs lost in May, the media never once reported this info along with the lastest horrendous loss of jobs in this has-been, corporate-owned country.

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By GW=MCHammered, June 7, 2008 at 9:19 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

In the rose garden today, the President felt your pain:

BUSH: My fellow Amuricans. I know it’s tough out there. Jobs and money bein’ tight-n-all. But you gotta realize, the new Down is Up.

Why when I took this office ... I mean was elected, heh-heh. Laura and I were only making between 50 thousand, maybe 55 thousand dollars a day. Every day mind you, but that was it! So we understand tight, see.

But when our New World Order plan unfolds in all its glory, you will be rewarded. MIssion accomplished and such. You got my word on that.

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By G.Anderson, June 7, 2008 at 6:37 am Link to this comment

Who will buy the products American business makes, when American workers no longer have an income sufficient to be consumers?

People in India, or China?

America no longer produces much of anything anyway except debt.

The job of American workers is to make infinite payments on that debt, which is subsequently leveraged to make more debt.

The job of American business has become getting Americans into debt, while the job of the politicians has become ensuring that American’s can never get out of debt, hence bankrupcy reform and credit card reform.

This is what the financial crisis is all about, American’s can no longer afford to make payments on their debt, so in effect that debt has become worthless.

It’s one giant house of cards, that’s collapsing,
and all the bread and circuses of president Bush and, Bernake, will not stop what’s about to come.

The total collapse of the dollar.

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By troublesum, June 7, 2008 at 5:22 am Link to this comment

It can only be a matter of time before the masses start asking why we are second class compared to Europe and Australia when we are constantly told that this is the best country in the world.  There’s a feeling that the shit is about to hit the fan.

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By Bukko in Australia, June 6, 2008 at 11:38 pm Link to this comment

I can attest firsthand to what von Hoffman says about work in the U.S. vs. elsewhere. I spent the first 47 years of my life in the U.S. before emigrating to avoid paying for any more of President Cheney’s genocide. I’m a hospital nurse. It’s a decent-paying job which I don’t have to worry will be outsourced.

But even so, in U.S. hospitals we were given as many patients as we could handle—and then one more! The paperwork was enormous, and mainly designed to cover the hospital’s arse if there was ever a lawsuit. The patients were all very ill with complicated tasks for their treatment. I usually ate standing up, as fast as I could gulp the food down my throat, so I could be back on the unit before a patient fell or ripped their IV out. And most shifts I’d be there an extra hour, off the clock, to finish my charting.

I work at a big hospital in Australia now. It’s relaxed. We have a smaller number of patients for each nurse to look after, so we can get to them quicker if they’re in pain, taking a turn for the worse or if they have messed the bed. It’s not as “efficient” as America, with getting a maximum amount of work from each nurse. But I can go to work without dreading it.

I get six weeks holiday each year. My wife and I can fly to Europe for an entire month and still have time for smaller trips within the country. Overall, workers are respected here, not ground down like in the U.S.

People here have slightly less—one car instead of two, smaller houses or flats, they don’t eat out as much. But overall, the quality of life is First World. It’s SO much better than working conditions in America. Good luck, my formerly fellow countrymen. You’re going to need it.

And P.S.—come the revolution, Wal-Marts will be the first places that looters will go “shopping”...

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By sophrosyne, June 6, 2008 at 4:48 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

America is in a total mess.  I support Obama but it may take God to intervene to save America.  And yes, Israel is poisonous for this country and has extracted an enormous price from us. It might be nice if they stopped illegal occup[ation of the wst Bank and strarted a serious peace effort.  They owe that to the world.

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By felicity, June 6, 2008 at 1:35 pm Link to this comment

For the last five years the Dept of Labor has computed the unemployment rate to be 5 percent when in actuality it’s been 8 percent.  Now that it’s been upped to 5.5 percent, I figure it must actually be 9 percent.

Somebody, may have been Trotsky, once made the, seditious to the Republican crowd, suggestion that workers of the world had to unite if workers anywhere were to realize pay proportionate to their labor. At the time it pretty much was met with deaf ears.  Today, labor world wide should be listening and acting on it.

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By Ed Harges, June 6, 2008 at 1:03 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

In the economic catastrophe America is suffering, no factor is greater than the Israel lobby. That is why the Democrats in Congress wouldn’t and couldn’t stop the war against Iraq, nor end the occupation thereof, nor impeach Bush, nor stop the upcoming war against Iran. And all of these things together have put a very sudden, massive, and catastrophic strain on world oil supplies, the value of the dollar, and the collapse of the credit markets.

Israel is the worst thing that ever happened to the United States of America.

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By Dr. Knowitall, PhD, PhD, June 6, 2008 at 1:03 pm Link to this comment


You don’t think TEF just pulled that song out of the air do you? 

People have known this for a long, long time. 

There’s a disconnect.

All the while workers are watching their hard work net them little to nothing, they also watch corporate America running roughshod over workers’ ability to get ahead.  Workers know this.  They’ve been told every which way by tons of smart people.

They accept that DC insiders maintain control over their government and the WH and can’t understand that that’s why they get nowhere. 

American workers are conditioned by their government to be accepting of their lot and can’t find the wherewithall to change their mindset.  And this is why DC insiders remain in power and why workers lives will only get worse. 

The incredible power of the middle class has never been realized in this country and DC lives in constant fear that someday it might.  Here, we have the awesome power of the ballot box and we don’t use it. MSM and DC have us brainwashed.

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By Louise, June 6, 2008 at 10:13 am Link to this comment

Great Article!

If you don’t pass anything else on, pass this bit of reality to every one you know!

“We have become a nation of mules. It’s work, work, work all the time. “… [T]he average American worker clocked 1,804 hours of work in 2006—three full-time weeks more per year than the average British worker, six weeks more than the average French worker, and nine weeks more than the average German worker,” writes Greenhouse, and, mind you, the day is long gone that the standard of living in those countries lagged behind ours.”


“During the last 30 years of stagnation and decline for working Americans, the political party associated with business has been unrelenting in going after its Democratic rivals as the anti-family, pro-abortion, smut and homosexual party. This has netted that political party much mileage and many an election win, but all the queers and all the flits and all the gays in history lumped together cannot have had the deleterious effects on modern family life that low compensation and long hours have had.”


In other words, Republican control.

Some may wonder why I always blame the republicans.

Pay attention, and the reasons become obvious. The notion that “conservative” politicians serve the best interests of the people is just that ... a notion.

The evidence is abundant. The reality is clear. But who wants me to sit here and list the hundreds, no thousands of examples of republican leadership that favors the rich and powerful and pulls down everybody else? Probably no-one. Besides if you don’t already have a running knowledge of that reality you probably don’t pay attention.

“But what about the corruption on the democrats side?” You might ask. To be sure they have earned their fair share, but that only leads me to a larger point. One we seldom notice, or probably don’t even realize.

WE and the democrats ALLOW the republicans to set the agenda. To control the debate. To pretty well leave us ALWAYS in a reactionary position, and their ability to predict our reaction is frankly sickening. And OUR inability to realize how effectively they control the conversation and the debate is even MORE sickening.

Case in point, the steadfast determination by way to many democrats to sell them selves as “centrist” or “progressive” when they should in fact proudly stand and take credit for being “liberal” enough to place the needs and the will of the citizens of the United States ahead of the demands of money and power.

The Democrat Party needs to stand up and find their gonads. Then they need to start acting like they really are capable of controlling the debate. Then they need to use those gonads and ACTUALLY start doing it!  And “We The People” need to stop suffering for just a few minutes and let them know it’s OK!

We need that!

We want that!

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By troublesum, June 6, 2008 at 9:30 am Link to this comment

The labor department released unemployment figures today which put unemployment at 5.5% and showed the largest monthly increase in 22 years.  It is scarcely believable that one man and his subordinates could have ruined this country to the extent they have.

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By Nobody, June 6, 2008 at 8:47 am Link to this comment

But my point is that uninformed “IS” suicidal.  It is precisely our lack of engagement (reading books and media in general) that will be our downfall.  We are in fact, asleep at the wheel!

As to waking up; I hope you are correct; however, I’m not so optimistic because books are indeed not the best references for the general populace because they don’t read.  They watch the MSM and this determines what they think they know about the world.  Americans are so provincial that their knowledge of the world would fill less than a page in MS Word.  There is serious shit afoot and diligence is required.

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By troublesum, June 6, 2008 at 6:12 am Link to this comment

No.  We may be uninformed and politically marginalized but we are not suicidal.  People are beginning to wake up.  The msm does not report this stuff which makes independent news organizations all the more important.  Who knew for instance that Fed-Ex drivers are required to buy their own trucks or that Walmart workers are forced to work a certain number of hours per week for free?  Books are not the best way to get information around.

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By Nobody, June 6, 2008 at 5:55 am Link to this comment

“For that to happen, Greenhouse recognizes, the National Labor Relations Board would have to be pried away from business control and laws governing union organizing and tactics restored to something like what they were in the New Deal period.”

“If enough people read “The Big Squeeze” that may come to pass. Well researched and written to be easily read, this book should get people out from in front of their flat-screen HD television sets to try to do something about what has been happening to us and our country.”

Fat chance!  This nation of lemmings is already running over the cliff.

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By Gloria Picchetti, June 6, 2008 at 5:00 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Give me your slaves.

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By troublesum, June 6, 2008 at 4:49 am Link to this comment


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By troublesum, June 6, 2008 at 4:21 am Link to this comment

People like Noam Chompsky and Ralph Nader who spoke the truth about trade agreements back in the early 90’s told us this would happen.  They called it “the Third-Worlding of America.”  It was all spelled out pretty clearly.  This is Bill Clinton’s legacy.

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