What Workers Say: Decades of Struggle and How to Make Real Opportunity Now (Paperback)
What have jobs really been like for the past 40 years and what do the workers themselves say about them? In What Workers Say, Roberta Iversen shows that for employees in labor market industries—like manufacturing, construction, printing—as well as those in service-producing jobs, like clerical work, healthcare, food service, retail, and automotive—jobs are often discriminatory, are sometimes dangerous and exploitive, and seldom utilize people’s full range of capabilities. Most importantly, they fail to provide any real opportunity for advancement.
What Workers Say takes its cue from Studs Terkel’s Working, as Iversen interviewed more than 1,200 workers to present stories about their labor market jobs since 1980. She puts a human face on the experiences of a broad range of workers indicating what their jobs were and are truly like. Iversen reveals how transformations in the political economy of waged work have shrunk or eliminated opportunity for workers, families, communities, and productivity. What Workers Say also offers an innovative proposal for compensated civil labor that could enable workers, their communities, labor market organizations, and the national infrastructure to actually flourish.
Roberta Rehner Iversen is an Associate Professor in the School of Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also a Faculty Associate in Penn’s Institute for Urban Research. She is the coauthor of Jobs Aren't Enough: Toward a New Economic Mobility for Low-Income Families (Temple).
"Iversen probes the nature of working- and middle-class jobs via interviews with workers from a variety of different social, economic, and ethnic backgrounds.... This book will appeal to sociologists, social policy researchers, and anyone interested in how the predicaments of American workers may actually contain answers to how to navigate the uncertain waters of a rapidly evolving workplace. A timely and well-researched study."—Kirkus Reviews
"[T]he book makes for engaging and enlightening reading, providing a sensitive, and often ennobling view of the contemporary economy from the ground up. Studs Terkel would have been pleased."—Social Forces
"[T]his book tells stories drawn from 1,200 interviews and research studies Iversen and her colleagues conducted between the 1980s and 2019. The narratives, illuminating the difficult conditions of workers' working and personal lives, are the soul of the book.... Attuned to the problems of contemporary work and the policy solutions that might correct them, Iversen's book radiates empathy and hope for American workers. Summing Up: Recommended."—Choice
"[A] comprehensive analysis.... Iversen writes a primer for readers interested in the historical and contemporary realities of working people in the United States.... The strengths of the book may be in its readability, longitudinal nature, and the sheer amount of data that so clearly supports Iversen’s arguments."—Social Services Reviews
"What Workers Say vividly describes workers’ experiences with the transformations of work in the United States since the 1980s. Contrary to the promises of the American Dream, the quantity and quality of jobs are insufficient to provide many workers with economic security and opportunities to utilize their capabilities. These workers’ accounts provide the impetus for reimagining what work is and how it can be expanded to include civil labor that is compensated by time or exchange, in addition to money.”—Arne L. Kalleberg, Kenan Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and author of Precarious Lives: Job Insecurity and Well-Being in Rich Democracies
“In What Workers Say, Iversen brings new insights and commentary about paid work through an exhaustive review and reanalysis of her forty-plus years of interviewing low- and moderate-income workers employed in jobs across multiple industries. Her biographical-interpretive approach offers a new look at the labor market changes experienced by workers over the last four decades. She presents a thought-provoking remedy to the ongoing and persistent labor market challenges that so many workers face. By placing her contemporary notions into historical relief, she offers an expanded and reformulated set of ideas about a system of paid civil labor that in her view would work side by side with traditional market work to achieve a society that is at the same time productive and fulfilling for its members. What Workers Say ultimately reveals how changing labor market demands, managerial practices, and government policies have largely failed workers, their families, and the broader community.”—Julia R. Henly, Professor of Social Work, Policy, and Practice at the University of Chicago