Labor expert weighs in

Steve Greenhouse, labor and workplace reporter for The New York Times and author of The Big Squeeze will speak on campus this Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. in Porter Hall 100 on the changing workplace and his thoughts on the economic crisis and its impact on college graduates.

Recently, the turmoil on Wall Street precipitated by the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, a massive investment bank, and near-bankruptcy of American International Group has left the United States economy in peril.

With the crash, Greenhouse said, retirement security is suddenly reduced, the amount of layoffs will increase, and banks, already “gun-shy” about lending money, will become even more conservative in their lending habits.

For graduating students, the job opportunities suddenly become much grimmer.

It used to be, Greenhouse says, that a major goal for young people was to get a terrific job on Wall Street, something which recently has become exponentially harder.

It will be much more difficult for young workers than it was for their parents, he says. The nation lost 600,000 jobs this year alone, and it was already a tough job market.

Greenhouse noted that the economic crisis has not affected every job market, however.

Studies have shown that the incomes of people with professional degrees, such as lawyers and doctors, have actually increased, while law firms are not hiring as much and are less generous.
Greenhouse said that there is no field in which there is a safe bet for college graduates to study and then enter a good market.

He specifically cited computer engineering. He remembers how at one time everyone was encouraged to go into computer engineering, and was told that it was a great route for a solid career. Then the dot com bubble burst.

Greenhouse has been the labor and workplace reporter for The New York Times since late 1995 and through his job, has traveled extensively throughout the United States and seen the many differences in the workforce. He saw and reported on factory closings in Pennsylvania, tech workers being laid off after the current economic crisis, and Californians whose low earnings force them to live on the streets.

“It seemed out of whack that things weren’t the way they should be,” Greenhouse said. “I thought I’d become an expert on what was happening in the nation’s workplace and I wanted to bring it to the nation’s attention.”

Greenhouse said that this reality check was the underlying motivation for writing his book.

He claimed that since 2000, one in five manufacturing jobs have been lost. Now, workers are scared about losing their jobs. Adding to this fear is the stagnation and slight decrease of wages since the beginning of the decade.

“It’s an unfortunate squeeze on the nation’s workers, one that affects everyone: young, old, middle-class, etc.,” he said.

The picture Greenhouse paints is not an optimistic one. The American economy has been having a hard time for a while, he said, and now the stock market is down because banks do not want to lend.
He cited specific areas in which the United States economy and resource management have trouble. In the area of renewable energy, for example, America is far behind Europe and Asia.
The country is also behind in investing in infrastructure, shown by the Minnesota bridge collapse of Aug. 1, 2007, which killed 13 people.

Greenhouse’s sliver of hope, though, is that the United States can lift itself out of this downward spiral with more public investment in green industries.

According to Greenhouse, globalization contributes greatly to this downward economic spiral.

In Greenhouse’s experience, globalization squeezes America’s economy. It may be good for consumers as it holds down prices, but it has a much more negative effect upon the American workforce, particularly in job losses and decreasing wages. The opportunities that globalization does give can only be seized if the United States becomes more innovative and develops new technologies.

Greenhouse had mixed feelings as to the overall effect of illegal immigration on the economy and the American workforce.

To hold down wages, businesses will hire undocumented workers, which is, Greenhouse stresses, “against the law.” The illegal workers come to the country to make money to support their livelihood while the companies only want to cut costs.

One argument, Greenhouse says, is that illegal immigrants are actually helping America by holding down the cost of food, while the opposing argument states that illegal immigration is holding down wages, even for college graduates. Another take on the situation comes from a University of California-Davis professor, who argues that ninety percent of the workforce benefits. The last ten percent are the workers who are in direct competition with the illegal immigrants and are therefore the only ones that are hurt.

However, while illegal immigration and globalization play a key role in changing the American workforce, domestic issues produce their own challenges.

While there is no telling what lies on the horizon, Greenhouse wishes to see the squeeze of American workers end sooner rather than later. He believes this to be possible through greater public investment, education, and innovation.