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Degraded Work

The Struggle at the Bottom of the Labor Market

Marc Doussard

Publication Year: 2013

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.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi

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Introduction: The Boom in Poorly Paid and Precarious Jobs

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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...

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1. New Inequalities: The Deterioration of Local-Serving Industries

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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...

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2. Beyond Low Wages: The Problem of Degraded Work

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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...

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3. The City That Sweats Work: Growth and Inequality in Post-Fordist Chicago

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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...

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4. Oases in the Midst of Deserts: How Food Retailers Thrive in Disinvested Neighborhoods

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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...

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5. “They’re Happy to Have a Job”: Midsize Supermarkets and Degraded Work

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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...

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6. Building Degradation: Dangerous Work and Falling Pay during a Construction Boom

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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...

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7. A Perfectly Flexible Workforce: Day Labor in a Precarious Industry

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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...

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8. New Answers to New Problems: The Creative Work of Reversing Degradation

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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...

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Conclusion: Building a Fair Labor Market in Postmanufacturing Economies

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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...

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pp. 237-240

...I am indebted to many individuals and organizations who assisted in the preparation of this book. I owe a particular debt to Nik Theodore and Rachel Weber, who first pushed me to study urban economies and who later made sure that I conversed equally well with scholars and practitioners...


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pp. 241-246


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pp. 247-262


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pp. 263-276

E-ISBN-13: 9780816685639
E-ISBN-10: 0816685630
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816681402

Page Count: 296
Publication Year: 2013