Just read this NYTimes.com article adapted from Steven Greenhouse‘s new book The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker. Chapter One is available here on the NYTimes.com website or here on the author’s website.
Greenhouse, a labor and workplace reporter for The New York Times, examines the stresses and strains faced by workers at companies like FedEx and Wal-Mart (as wages have stagnated, health and pension benefits have grown stingier, and job security has become virtually nonexistent), and points to Patagonia and Costco and even the casino-hotels of Las Vegas as models for corporate America.
Patagonia sounds like an awesome company to work for! Isn’t that everyone’s dream to be able to go to work wearing whatever you want, take long lunch breaks or leave early to enjoy life, and to get paid to do volunteer work? Okay, probably not, but it certainly is part of my dream.
On the other hand, FedEx has hired most of its drivers as “independent contractors” to increase the company’s earnings. If the same people were employees, they’d have to pay benefits, social security, and would not be able to fire people simply for missing work due to illness.
Reading about this book makes me think of Barbara Ehrenreich‘s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2001). The author left her usual journalist job and spent 1999 and 2000 working jobs paying $7/hour (less than half of a living wage and what millions of low-skilled Americans make). She worked as a waitress in Key West, FL, as a cleaning woman and a nursing home aide in Portland, ME, and in a Wal-Mart in Minneapolis, MN and found that it is nearly impossible for such Americans to lift themselves to middle class.
It also makes me think of Small Giants: companies that choose to be great instead of big by Bo Burlingham, which describes several privately held businesses that have become “giants” in their field without becoming huge corporations. These companies all seemed to honestly care about their employees and the community. I think that many publicly traded companies are focused too much on growth and return — rightfully so since they are obligated to do what is best to increase returns for shareholders — and I think the world would be a better place if companies instead aimed to do what’s best for the community (owners, employees, existing customers, and potential customers).