Arts & Letters Daily
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Volume 11, No. 4May/June 2001
Dalton Conley, associate professor of sociology at New York University and author of Honky (California, 2000).
"Recent upheavals in the world of work are not limited to dot-coms; these changes have extended all the way to the other end of the economic spectrum. In Sidewalk (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999), the result of five years of fieldwork, Mitchell Duneier chronicles the difficult financial realities faced by New York City street vendors who hawk used books and old magazines. These vendors, many of whom are former convicts, are unacknowledged victims of the new economy, Duneier shows. The massive expansion of the prison system over the past twenty years has landed more and more poor people in jail; once released, these people often discover that their criminal records frustrate their efforts to get jobs in traditional workplaces. The informal street-vendor economy thus offers a few of them a way to put their lives back together. Recently, though, the city government has made their lives harder, not easier, as Duneier demonstrates: A few years ago, as part of its focus on 'quality of life' issues, the Giuliani administration amended the regulations governing the vending of printed matter; the regulations now require vendors to ply their trade at least twenty feet from the entrance to 'traditional' retail establishments. These new rules have forced most vendors out of prime selling spots, making it very difficult for them to sell enough merchandise to make a living. The political economy of the street is changing right beneath our noses. Duneier makes us take notice."
Jefferson Cowie, assistant professor of history at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University and author of Capital Moves: RCA's Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor (New Press, 2001).
"Richard Sennett's The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism (Norton, 1998) is a thoughtful meditation on the dark side of today's economy, where workers feel increasingly disposable and are rarely allowed to develop meaningful relationships with their employers. In one telling example, Sennett returns to a bakery he wrote about in The Hidden Injuries of Class (Knopf), his 1972 collaboration with Jonathan Cobb. Where twenty-five years earlier he had found proud, hardworking Greek bakers, Sennett now finds a tangled web of part-time, nonunionized workers of various backgrounds who have little interaction with each other and even less contact with the bread they produce: Many employees work with computer images of bread, not the bread itself. Moving beyond classic Marxian notions of alienation, Sennett explores how the influence of new technologies and flexible production strategies has compromised workers' sense of self and integrityin both the white-collar and blue-collar worlds."
Kathryn M. Dudley, associate professor of American studies and anthropology at Yale University and author of The End of the Line: Lost Jobs, New Lives in Postindustrial America (Chicago, 1994).
"Coverage of dot-coms dominates the business media, reinforcing the common belief that low-skill 'McJobs' play a marginal role in today's economy. Yet as the anthropologist Katherine S. Newman shows in No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City (Knopf and Russell Sage, 1999), the work lives of hamburger flippers are not fundamentally different from the work lives of those in many 'mainstream' fields. Newman takes us behind the counters of a fast-food restaurant chain in Harlem, illuminating the predicament of countless men and women who struggle to support families on jobs that do not pay a living wage. The fast-food workplace, she persuasively shows, can be an oasis of stability in a poverty-stricken ghetto. Like workers in every walk of life, Harlem's working poor participate in the construction of a 'workplace' that puts work at the center of their identity; they are ever conscious ofand complicit inthe morally charged distinction between the employed and the unemployed."
Susan Porter Benson, associate professor of history at the University of Connecticut and author of Household Accounts: Working-Class Family Economies in the Inter-War United States (Cornell, forthcoming).
"Julie Willett's Permanent Waves: The Making of the American Beauty Shop (NYU, 2000) is a cut above most workplace histories. Looking at the separate but sometimes overlapping development of Euro-American and African-American hairdressing from the early twentieth century to the present, Willett shows how race shaped different trajectories for black and white salons. Though both black and white hairdressers were usually in lower income brackets, she writes, African-American salons occupied respected places in their communities, often serving as gathering places for activists involved in struggles against racism and other societal problems. But Euro-American salons rarely achieved such legitimacy within their own communities. Often using the words of the hairdressers she studied, Willett braids together central themes of twentieth-century U.S. labor history: She shows how scientific management practices undermined work culture and how increasing professionalization within the industry worked against women's interests and gave disproportionate power to white men, who operated the largest and most lucrative salons. Willett's book will make readers look at salons, and other workplaces, in a new light."
David Bills, associate professor of sociology of education at the University of Iowa and author of The New Modern Times: Factors Reshaping the World of Work (SUNY, 1995).
"Is the customer always right? Maybe not, but today increasing numbers of people around the world make their living as customer-service representatives, working to calm angry customers and solve the problems of confused ones. To write On the Front Line: Organization of Work in the Information Economy (Cornell, 1999), Stephen Frenkel, Marek Korczynski, Karen Shire, and May Tam spent four years studying more than a thousand so-called frontline workers employed by eight large corporations in the United States, Australia, and Japan. As the authors show, customer-service representatives must walk the delicate line between sincerity and disingenuousness: They must be friendly and helpful to demanding customers while watching out for their employers' interests. The authors contrast two possible futures for customer-service employees: an empowered one of rewarding and autonomous work and a regimented one of intensified work performed under increased surveillance. A strong customer-service organization often makes the difference between a successful company and an unsuccessful one. On the Front Line shows us why."
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