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Book Review - White Collar Sweatshop by Jill Andresky Fraser

 White Collar Sweatshop: The Deterioration of Work and Its Rewards in Corporate America
 

by Jill Andresky Fraser
WW Norton, 2001
$26.95, 352 pages
Buy this book from Powell's, an independent bookstore

America's white collar workers may be even worse off than their blue collar brethren.

In light of the Enron fiasco, that's no longer such a surprising conclusion. In White Collar Sweatshop, Jill Andresky Fraser looks at the lives of middle managers—the bulk of the men and women who run corporate America. This brilliant exposé is ultimately a description of the war on America's middle class by Wall Street investors and top corporate brass, an onslaught far more nuanced and subtle than sending blue collar jobs overseas or the sickening conditions under which workers in developing countries function as bona fide slaves.

Much of the information in this book is no secret to anybody trying to survive in the jungle economy of the millennium. Take compensation. Workers have been nickel-and-dimed to death, and Fraser cites all the statistics. It's not just that salaries have been cut and record numbers of jobs eliminated. Health care benefits have eroded and retirement funds have been converted so that employees rather than employers pay most of the bill. Small wonder that workers—not just CEOs—hoped to make up for their shortfalls with a killing in the stock market during the latter half of the 1990s. The CEOs did, but most workers did not.

Nor did workers make up for their sacrifices with an increase in leisure time. In fact, Fraser shows that free time has all but disappeared—thanks in no small part to personal computers, laptops, beepers, cell phones, and Palm Pilots. Fraser calls it “job spill,” as insidious and difficult to stop as an oil spill that seeps into a body of water. Lunch hour? An anachronism. Commuting time? A good chance to return phone calls. Sleep? Never mind if you were up until 2 am on the phone with a client across the globe. Be at the office at eight. These days, workers are expected to be on call 24/7—24 hours per day, seven days per week.

Stress—or rather, fear—is the new name of the game. Intel chairman Andy “Only the Paranoid Survive” Grove is not the only executive to use fear as a motivating force. Big Brother surveillance tools abound. Not just those hideous telephones and video cameras that complaining customers must put up with. Phone call tracking. Email monitoring. Software surreptitiously placed in employee computers to monitor what they are doing. My favorite passage in the book concerns something not usually associated with surveillance at all: those wretched office cubicles.

“Far from creating the collaborative, open environments that many top executives boast of when describing their “bullpen” designs, cubicles foster all kinds of negative feelings,” Fraser writes. “Their ticky-tacky one-size-fits-all, institutional-gray designs demean white-collar professionals just as surely as do the lack of a door and any illusion of privacy. Meanwhile, their very air of impermanence—since most can be set up, moved, or reconfigured at will—is a not-so-subtle daily reminder of the lack of stability and security in the corporate workplace. If there is any lesson that the 1980s and 1990s have taught white-collar workers, it is that they can be replaced easily.”

Perhaps the most unsettling fact of the corporate life that Fraser reports is the treatment of America's older workers—older, that is, than 40 years old. Once upon a time, a person whose job was not physical was thought to reach his or her prime at around age 55. No more. Now “experience” is more apt to imply that one's job skills are out of date.

One of the more outrageous parts of the book is Fraser's description of Intel's explicit strategy to eliminate these “older” workers from the payroll. She also describes displaced workers who have been shunned by the very outplacement agencies designed to help them. “If you are over 45, we can't help you,” one over-the-hill 40-something was told.

Even though the outlook for white collar workers is grim, Fraser is able to report some good news. Namely, she cites examples of white collar workers fighting back by using the Internet to regain the pension benefits their employers tried to take away. A website can attract disgruntled workers at one company, demonstrate to workers at other companies how the company really treats its employees, and attract the attention of journalists. Suddenly one is not fighting alone or in secret. Suddenly a corporation can be embarrassed into acting ethically.

Fraser acknowledges that the Internet by itself is not enough. Will white collar workers form unions? By the time they do, it will probably be too late. By then, many of them will have lost their jobs—and their pensions—by the ripe old age of 50.


Reviewer Ellie Winninghoff has written for Forbes, Fortune, Barron's and the New York Times.

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