Bloated and Cantankerous

by The Inmate

a review of
Fat and Mean:  The Corporate Squeeze of
Working Americans and the Myth of Managerial “Downsizing” 

by David M. Gordon
The Free Press, published in 1996
hardback / 320 pages / $25.00

Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should like to fly like Perseus into a different space.  I don’t mean escaping into dreams or into the irrational.  I mean that I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification.  The images of lightness that I seek should not fade away like dreams dissolved by the realities of present and future . . . . .

—Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium

About nine months ago my colleagues and I, delivery drivers for DHL Worldwide Express, attended a meeting.  In it we were told if our performance did not meet expected standards we should go look for a job somewhere else (Strange, even after meeting many of those standards we’re all looking for jobs somewhere else).  This came after months of being badgered about our statistical performance often based upon things that were out of our control.  Morale had been low for a long time and a big reason for it was this confrontational mentality that not only we experienced from our supervisors but that our supervisors also experienced from theirs.   The hoops my supervisors had to leap through made ours seem a lot more tolerable.  Still, one of my colleagues used to tell me, “When I make that left turn out of the driveway, I’m the boss.”

David Gordon calls this in-your-face attitude the “stick” mentality and in 1996 he was convinced that it was still the motivational program of choice for most corporations.  The bigger the stick the better.  Seven years later not much has changed.

Gordon states his general diagnosis of corporations in his introduction:

I contend that we have been ignoring a major source of our economic problems over the last twenty years: the way most U.S. corporations maintain bloated bureaucracies and mistreat their workers. [italics his]

The mistreatment of employees entails several things:  the decline of real wages, longer hours on the job, “intense supervision”  by management and no real voice in the workplace.

These are obvious problems recognized by many people, but Gordon, who died a month before this book was published, backs up his assertions with copious statistical data.  At times this makes the book difficult reading and a bit dry, but the results are persuasive and impressive.

His statistics show that from 1948 to 1972 “real spendable hourly earnings” for production and nonsupervisory employees increased steadily. Earnings dropped from 1972 to 1975, increased back to 1972 levels through 1978, but declined steadily from then to 1994.  Gordon notes that while real take home pay for production workers decreased by 7% in the 80’s the yearly earnings of CEO’s increased by about 66%.  Gordon writes,

Falling wages have pushed members of many U.S. households to work longer hours–often for both  parents in married-couple households.  Longer hours and spreading job insecurity have eroded job satisfaction and exacerbated pressure on the job.  Longer hours and job stress have spilled over into the family, causing strain, breakup, even domestic violence.

The effect of longer hours on human happiness and contentment receives little attention either in Washington or in corporate board rooms, but the correlation between overwork and health, family problems, depression, alcoholism and drug abuse are becoming more and more apparent.  Longer hours mean more tax dollars which is why the government is willing to pay for or subsidize childcare with tax breaks.  Washington wants both parents to work.  So much for family values.

The week that I was laid off I took some early morning walks to think, get some exercise and enjoy my neighborhood.  I watched children being dropped off at a daycare center well before 7 a.m.  The other night we were driving home and saw at least a dozen children at a grammar school at 5 p.m. under school supervision.  A ten hour day, not including travel, is a long day for a child.

Whose fault is it?  The blame can, in many cases, be shared by both parents and corporations.  Parents who don’t need a two income family but want a two-car garage with two cars deserve some blame and so do corporations that constantly ask and/or require their employees to work more than 40 hours a week.  I’ve started looking for a job and often see “hours” as “40plus.”  That’s the only hint I need to discard a “wonderful opportunity for the right person.”

Corporations need people to work longer hours because, as most everyone knows by this time, it’s cheaper than hiring someone else and they need high production and the lowest wages they can get away with in order to support management which is not involved in the process of making the products or providing the service that brings in revenue.  We have a meaner corporation, but it’s not a leaner one.

Gordon explains that in 1994 20% of all the money we “paid for goods and services went to cover the salaries and benefits of supervisory employees.”  That didn’t even include the support that management needed via equipment, secretaries and supplies.  Gordon argues that part of the reason we have so many supervisors is because of the “stick” mentality.  Trust and morale are low so workers need to be prodded and that requires supervisors and those supervisors also need to be supervised and so on.  Gordon writes,

By almost every conceivable measure, advanced economies which rely on more cooperative systems of labor management have outperformed the U.S. economy for at least the past twenty years.

Think about that.  We’ve been fed for so long that we are the most productive nation in the world(for a long time we were) that it’s hard not to continue believing it.  Much of the data used to prove our continuing preeminence is based not upon per hour statistics but per employee, so that U.S. employees who work on average 9 weeks longer than Europeans appear more productive.  They’re not.  They’re just overworked.

We’ve also been told that productivity is of the utmost importance.  It’s not!  That’s an assumption that is daily reinforced in our culture in part because it’s easier to report on the nightly news than psychological health.  After 9-11 part of our “duty” was to go out and buy things at a time when, ironically, the incident had caused many people to question their values regarding money and material things.  When productivity replaces time for ourselves, our families and our communities it becomes a burden that lessens not only our quality of life but also the lives of those with whom we are most intimate.

Gordon lists five remedies to fix the corporate world:

  • Increase the minimum wage
  • More effective worker voice through unions and mandated employee participation councils
  • Flexible work by prohibiting mandatory overtime(including salaried employees), give comp time and mandate 3 weeks vacation.
  • Subsidies for corporations who take a cooperative approach
  • Training for corporations who take a cooperative approach

For most of my life I’ve been someone who has thought that the less the government gets involved in our lives the better, but in this area of work I’m beginning to change my mind.  People should not have to work more than 40 hours a week.  Period.  That should be a law and it should include salaried employees.  If people want to work past sunset, let them, but no one should be forced to or face repercussions because they want to enjoy life.  35 hours would be better and I could make a good argument for 30.

Health care has to be changed.  So much of the reason that people are overworked is because corporations face exorbitant costs to have more employees.  This is self-defeating.  If it was attractive financially for CEO’s to hire more employees(and it’s obvious they won’t be persuaded for moral or ethical reasons), then more people would have jobs and the people who do work would work less.  I like the idea of catastrophic insurance for all, the rest of us pay our way directly to doctors and providers and the poorest among us are provided coverage for routine care.  This would essentially eliminate medical insurance companies(the middle-man) and reduce medical costs.

I agree with Joe Robinson and others who advocate a minimum three-week vacation law.  Coupled with less hours during the week vacations would feel more like vacations than simply time to recover from a grueling work schedule.

Fat and Mean is an excellent book and a worthy read to understand where current corporate practices have taken and are taking us.   It is time to exchange our tickets for a different destination:  “You’d rather see Life instead of Work?  No problem at all.  Here you go.  That flight departs every hour from gates 1, 7 and 41-60.  You are now free to enjoy yourself.”

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