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Degraded Work

Degraded Work: The Struggle at the Bottom of the Labor Market

Marc Doussard
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Degraded Work
    Book Description:

    Critics on the left and the right typically agree that globalization, the loss of manufacturing jobs, and the expansion of the service sector have led to income inequality and rising numbers of low-paying jobs with poor working conditions. In Degraded Work, Marc Doussard demonstrates that this decline in wages and working conditions is anything but the unavoidable result of competitive economic forces. Rather, he makes the case that service sector and other local-serving employers have boosted profit with innovative practices to exploit workers, demeaning their jobs in new ways-denying safety equipment, fining workers for taking scheduled breaks, requiring unpaid overtime-that go far beyond wage cuts. Doussard asserts that the degradation of service work is a choice rather than an inevitability, and he outlines concrete steps that can be taken to help establish a fairer postindustrial labor market. Drawing on fieldwork in Chicago, Degraded Work examines changes in two industries in which inferior job quality is assumed to be intrinsic: residential construction and food retail. In both cases, Doussard shows how employers degraded working conditions as part of a successful and intricate strategy to increase profits. Arguing that a growing service sector does not have to mean growing inequality, Doussard proposes creative policy and organizing opportunities that workers and advocates can use to improve job quality despite the overwhelming barriers to national political action.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8563-9
    Subjects: Business, Political Science, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Introduction: The Boom in Poorly Paid and Precarious Jobs
    (pp. vii-xviii)

    Most of us know the image well. Dozens of men stand on a street corner or maybe at the edge of a park looking simultaneously bored and anxious. Many of them wear baseball caps against the sun, but they are otherwise clad in paint-spattered pants, heavy work boots, and other clothing poorly suited to the hot day. The sleepy lull of the day labor corner seems permanent until a white van approaches, and torpor turns to chaos. The men leap forward, their bodies crushing against the van the instant it pulls to a stop. The driver, a construction contractor on...

  4. 1 New Inequalities: The Deterioration of Local-Serving Industries
    (pp. 1-22)

    Deep inequalities have become such a fundamental part of U.S. cities that it is increasingly hard to see them. From the late 1930s until 1973, income convergence was a central fact of American life. The growth of the middle class seemed as natural as the seasons. Recessions, including steep ones in 1948 and 1969, slowed the expansion of the middle class but did not halt it, much less reverse it. But we now stand amid a forty-year period in which these trends have been reversed. Real wages began to stagnate in the 1970s. They continued to stagnate in the 1980s...

  5. 2 Beyond Low Wages: The Problem of Degraded Work
    (pp. 23-48)

    In 2001 Boeing announced a peculiar high-stakes auction. After a century in the Pacific Northwest, the aerospace giant put its headquarters up for sale. Announcing its intention to relocate to a commercial air hub with a business-friendly climate, Boeing placed Chicago, Denver, and Dallas on a list of suitor cities and asked them to bid for its services. The ensuing frenzy saw the finalist cities offer hundreds of millions in tax incentives and outdo one another in lavish personal appeals to Boeing’s executives, all in an effort to land a uniquely appealing prize in the battle for corporate headquarters. Boeing’s...

  6. 3 The City That Sweats Work: Growth and Inequality in Post-Fordist Chicago
    (pp. 49-80)

    The taxi ride from Midway International Airport to the Chicago Loop speeds visitors through a century’s worth of industrial history in the space of twenty minutes. Packed tightly against L tracks, rail yards, and the industrial waterways carved out of the South Branch of the Chicago River, the Stevenson Expressway offers an unsentimental view of the manufacturing past that moved the poet Carl Sandburg to label Chicago “the City of big shoulders”—a phrase as obsolescent as it is overused. Halfway through the journey downtown, visitors pass the belching smokestack of the Fisk power plant, a decidedly ugly landmark that...

  7. 4 Oases in the Midst of Deserts: How Food Retailers Thrive in Disinvested Neighborhoods
    (pp. 81-106)

    After decades of disinvestment by international chains, food deserts—neighborhoods whose typically low-income residents lack access to fresh and affordable food—strain the budgets and bodies of tens of thousands of households on Chicago’s historically African American South and West Sides (Cotterill and Franklin 1985). But the spread of food deserts has been reversed in the city’s expanding immigrant neighborhoods, where the news that many Chicago residents lack access to fresh food seems like a bulletin from another world. Bright, bustling supermarkets crowd the major thoroughfares of the Little Village, Pilsen, Portage Park, Rogers Park, and Belmont-Cragin. They celebrate fresh...

  8. 5 “They’re Happy to Have a Job”: Midsize Supermarkets and Degraded Work
    (pp. 107-142)

    Orthodox economic analysis insists that undocumented workers earn low wages due to the risk employers take in hiring them. Because U.S. law forbids hiring foreign nationals who do not possess visas and other required paperwork, employers cut their wage payments in order to set aside funds for potential fines, or so the story goes.¹ The employers themselves know better. During the 2000s, high-profile Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids on employers such as Perdue were the rare exception to the reality of nonenforcement in industries dominated by small workplaces. Rather than shrink from hiring undocumented workers owing to their precarious status,...

  9. 6 Building Degradation: Dangerous Work and Falling Pay during a Construction Boom
    (pp. 143-170)

    The grueling work of day laborers offers few certainties. When jornaleros rise well in advance of dawn to queue for work, they have no assurance it will materialize. When a contractor pulls his truck to the curb and asks, “¿Quién quiere trabajar?,” no worker can be certain that he will be at the front of the line or that the pay on offer will be fair or that the contractor warrants trust. The day begins with the singular goal of finding work, and jumping into a contractor’s truck is always a relief. But arriving at the work site brings on...

  10. 7 A Perfectly Flexible Workforce: Day Labor in a Precarious Industry
    (pp. 171-202)

    Seen from a distance, the residential construction industry of today appears to be a place-bound cousin of the globe-hopping industries commonly described by the epithet sweatshop. The extreme contingency of day labor and the quick physical toll construction work takes on laborers suggest a Hobbesian industry: nasty working conditions, brutishly low pay, and a short career. For good measure, employers have harnessed technology to deskill work previously thought to be immune from deskilling, a fact to which the high coincidence of day labor shape-ups with Home Depot parking lots testifies.

    But the core reasons why scholars view residential construction as...

  11. 8 New Answers to New Problems: The Creative Work of Reversing Degradation
    (pp. 203-224)

    The solutions to the problem of degraded work are clear. Scholars and practitioners routinely point to the importance of raising the minimum wage, improving funding for workplace enforcement, stiffening penalties for violations of labor laws (and especially union-organizing laws), and passing immigration reform legislation that removes legal grey areas that make undocumented workers easy to exploit. But political barriers keep these measures beyond the realm of possibility. That fact should be no surprise. Inequalities of the scale visited upon the U.S. labor market in recent decades do not happen latently or because politicians and the body politic somehow remain ignorant...

  12. Conclusion: Building a Fair Labor Market in Postmanufacturing Economies
    (pp. 225-236)

    Workplace inequalities in the United States widened during the Reagan years. They widened further during the celebrated 1990s economic boom. Workers fell behind during the anemic 2001–7 business cycle (which treated upper-echelon professionals and financiers kindly) and fell further behind during the disastrous 2007–9 recession. Three years into an anemic economic recovery, unemployment remains high, and labor force participation rates remain low. Union membership and health care coverage continue to fall, and workers’ organizations across the country report the ongoing violation of basic labor laws by employers in a broad range of industries.

    This litany of bad news...

  13. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 237-240)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 241-246)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 247-262)
  16. Index
    (pp. 263-275)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 276-276)