Nickel and Dimed

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Individuals and Corporate Rhetoric Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
The Economics of Poverty Theme Icon
Labor Theme Icon
Shame and Solidarity Theme Icon
Individuals and Corporate Rhetoric Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Nickel and Dimed, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Individuals and Corporate Rhetoric Theme Icon

Nickel and Dimed makes an explicit contrast between the experience of individual workers and the corporations for which they work. Indeed, the “corporation” is portrayed as a shadowy, distant entity that initially seems to have little impact on the daily working life of Barbara and her colleagues. However, Barbara soon comes to understand how much of low-wage work is dictated by both the needs and the rhetoric of corporations. Corporate rules are, in some cases, tied to the culture of surveillance and suspicion that is also linked to shame. At Jerry’s, the Key West restaurant, headquarters decides to reduce break time to squeeze out more productivity from the staff. And at Wal-Mart, employees are constantly warned against “time theft,” or spending any time chatting or otherwise failing to make money for the company—which in the employers’ view is a dire crime. For the corporation, Barbara argues, profits are what ultimately matters, and workers are little more than drones rather than human beings, meant to work in pursuit of profits.

Nevertheless, the corporations for which Barbara works also employ a whole language and rhetoric around how they support and enrich individual workers’ experiences. Videos produced by Wal-Mart and The Maids are meant to make workers develop a sense of loyalty and belonging to the corporation, while still stressing the possibilities of individual growth. Barbara shows how effective this marketing can be as she describes the guilt of her coworkers at the possibility of failing to achieve their employers’ standards. But she argues that corporate rhetoric is deeply disingenuous, no more than a myth that hides how little corporations care for individual development. Instead, this rhetoric serves to strengthen a system in which corporations benefit far more than the individuals they employ.

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Individuals and Corporate Rhetoric ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Individuals and Corporate Rhetoric appears in each chapter of Nickel and Dimed. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Individuals and Corporate Rhetoric Quotes in Nickel and Dimed

Below you will find the important quotes in Nickel and Dimed related to the theme of Individuals and Corporate Rhetoric.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Cooks want to prepare tasty meals, servers want to serve them graciously, but managers are there for only one reason—to make sure that money is made for some theoretical entity, the corporation, which exists far away in Chicago or New York, if a corporation can be said to have a physical existence at all.

Related Characters: Barbara Ehrenreich (speaker)
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

As Barbara begins her job at Hearthside, the restaurant, she begins to witness a disconnect between the lowest-rung employees, the servers and busboys, for instance, and the management. Even though managers are often former cooks, Barbara argues that once they are promoted they are no longer as interested in keeping employees and customers happy, but rather become more concerned with following the instructions from a far-away corporation. For a place like Hearthside (not the restaurant's real name) there may be thousands of franchises across the country, all accountable to this corporation, often at the expense of those on the ground in each location. Indeed, Barbara claims that often these two groups have competing, even opposite interests—that making money and preparing and serving well-made meals are often at odds with each other. Still, Barbara shows how this is hardly a well-matched fight, since the disembodied, abstract nature of a corporation can be difficult to understand when one is working on the ground. Furthermore, all the money comes from the corporation, and when one is living hand-to-mouth, one often has to sacrifice quality for cash.


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Chapter 2 Quotes

The hands-and-knees approach is a definite selling point for corporate cleaning services like The Maids. […] A mop and a full bucket of hot soapy water would not only get a floor cleaner but would be a lot more dignified for the person who does the cleaning. But it is this primal posture of submission—and of what is ultimately anal accessibility—that seems to gratify the consumers of maid services.

Related Characters: Barbara Ehrenreich (speaker)
Page Number: 83
Explanation and Analysis:

It is a 95-degree day as Barbara participates in the cleaning of Mrs. W's house, and as she moves, sweating, from room to room, she muses on the nature of the task at hand, and the disconnect between the service she is really supposed to provide—a cleaned home—and the rhetoric and appearances around the job. By getting on her "hands and knees," Barbara is supposed to show just how hard she is working: the management of The Maids therefore can "prove" to their customers that the money they spend is worth it for the labor they get in return. 

Barbara recognizes that the posture is much more about symbolism than about competence: she could clean the floor much better with a soapy mop standing up, but she realizes that the hands-and-knees approach is not about providing as good a service as possible. Instead, it places the employees in a position of subordination, echoing the hierarchical relationship between customer and employee by the very space that each takes up, one standing over the other bent over. The posture is not just painful but also lacks dignity, Barbara shows, serving only the purpose of gratifying both management and customer.

Chapter 3 Quotes

There’s no intermediate point in the process in which you confront the potential employer as a free agent, entitled to cut her own deal. The intercalation of the drug test between application and hiring tilts the playing field even further, establishing that you, and not the employer, are the one who has something to prove. Even in the tightest labor market—and it doesn’t get any tighter than Minneapolis, where I would probably have been welcome to apply at any commercial establishment I entered—the person who has precious labor to sell can be made to feel one down, way down, like a supplicant with her hand stretched out.

Related Characters: Barbara Ehrenreich (speaker)
Related Symbols: Drug Tests
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

Barbara has gone through the job application process at two places, Menards and Wal-Mart, and now she realizes that she's technically been hired at both, almost without realizing it, and without the chance to negotiate her salary or work hours. Barbara argues that corporations string potential employees along, making them feel like contingent, replaceable figures, until they can benevolently extend a job offer that one can only gratefully accept. Drug tests, for Barbara, are a clear example of how corporations subject individuals to embarrassing, undignified procedures in order to underline the true balance of power between them.

By describing her experience in a place like Minneapolis, which at the time Barbara was there was in great need of labor, Barbara argues that it's impossible to explain this hierarchical process as a result of high supply and low demand. Instead, she claims, the purpose of such processes is to put the potential employee in his or her "proper place." Part of the motivation for this might stem from the need to keep workers feeling lucky to have a job and less likely to pose problems or leave for another place. In addition, Barbara believes that another result is to cut off the possibility for salary negotiation, so that companies can get away with paying their employees as little as possible. 

But now I know something else. In orientation, we learned that the store’s success depends entirely on us, the associate; in fact, our bright blue vests bear the statement “At Wal-Mart, our people make the difference.” Underneath those vests, though, there are real-life charity cases, maybe even shelter dwellers.

Related Characters: Barbara Ehrenreich (speaker)
Page Number: 175
Explanation and Analysis:

Barbara is driving back from the Community Emergency Assistance Program, where a woman has given her non-perishable and other food items that will be able to fit in the hotel room where she is now living. Barbara is thinking over what the woman admitted to her: that she had mixed Barbara up with another employee from Wal-Mart who had come in a few days earlier. Barbara has proof, then, that she is not alone in struggling to make ends meet even with a full-time job. And she recognizes that the bright blue vests that all Wal-Mart employees wear unite them outside the workplace as well, as emblematic members of the working poor.

For Barbara, these vests are also a cruel reminder of the gap between the cheery, employee-first language that Wal-Mart strikes as a corporation, and the reality of those individual employees. Wal-Mart may claim that their employees "make the difference," but ultimately they are not interested in what it takes for the employees to arrive at work each day and even to achieve the basic necessities of food and shelter. Barbara's point is that the blue vests create an abstract, homogeneous group of "employees" that denies the lived experience of each one.

Alyssa looks crushed, and I tell her, when Howard’s out of sight, that there’s something wrong when you’re not paid enough to buy a Wal-Mart shirt, a clearanced Wal-Mart shirt with a stain on it.

Related Characters: Barbara Ehrenreich (speaker), Howard, Alyssa
Page Number: 181
Explanation and Analysis:

Alyssa has been paying close attention to a clearanced seven-dollar polo shirt, and has found a stain on it. As she tries to ask the fitting-room lady to lower the cost for her, the manager Howard appears and says that there is no employee discount on clearanced items. Alyssa is frustrated and upset, and Barbara's words are meant less to cheer her up than to confirm her frustration with the unfairness. At the very least, Barbara claims, Wal-Mart employees should be able to afford the items that they sell, especially when Wal-Mart champions its reasonable prices. In addition, Howard seems far more concerned with keeping a hawkish eye on his employees, preventing them from straying at all from the company regulations, than with the potential contradiction with which Alyssa is faced—that of struggling to afford a shirt that would most likely just be used as part of her uniform.

Evaluation Quotes

The money taboo is one thing that employers can always count on. I suspect that this “taboo” operates most effectively among the lowest-paid people, because, in a society that endlessly celebrates its dot-com billionaires and centimillionaire athletes, $7 or even $10 an hour can feel like a mark of innate inferiority.

Related Characters: Barbara Ehrenreich (speaker)
Page Number: 206
Explanation and Analysis:

Barbara attempts to apply the laws of economics to the realities that she's experienced, and identifies several ways in which these laws fail to be confirmed. One is in the assumption that workers are well-informed and well-educated enough to choose rationally between a number of options, such that they are always maximizing their self-interest. Barbara argues that in practice this doesn't happen, in large part because of what other social scientists have labeled the "money taboo." In a society that celebrates wealth but looks down on sharing one's own salary or financial information in public, such a disconnect virtually ensures that low-wage workers keep quiet about their own situations, both out of shame that their wages are so low, and out of a socially prescribed norm that disapproves of their discussing such wages. As a result, companies benefit, since they don't need to keep up with other companies in order to ensure that they have enough employees or are paying reasonable wages.

My guess is that the indignities imposed on so many low-wage workers—the drug tests, the constant surveillance, being “reamed out” by managers—are part of what keeps wages low. If you’re made to feel unworthy enough, you may come to think that what you’re paid is what you’re actually worth.

Related Characters: Barbara Ehrenreich (speaker)
Related Symbols: Drug Tests
Page Number: 211
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Barbara explicitly identifies a number of the procedures that work to keep low-wage workers "in their place." She calls them "indignities," but they are just a synonym for what earlier has been labeled infringement on civil liberties. For Barbara, the economics of the working poor are not to be isolated from the social and ideological elements of their lives. Indeed, she argues that the shame workers are made to feel, the degrading nature of the procedures to which they are subjected, are directly tied to the absurdly low wages that they are paid. Indeed, as she has argued elsewhere, it is in companies' interest to prevent their workers from considering themselves as worthy of a higher wage, so it is also in their interests to make employees feel as unworthy as possible.