“At some point, we need to have a serious conversation about $5 t-shirts”

The title of this piece quotes a Facebook post by Jennifer Doe, a widely respected labor organizer here in Boston.

Jennifer is referring, of course, to the latest workplace safety horror in Bangladesh: Last week, an eight-story building housing garment factories collapsed, with the death toll approaching 380 and very likely to rise. (Go here for extensive coverage by The Guardian.)

Last November, some 120 people died in a fire at another Bangladeshi garment factory. It bore an eerie similarity to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York City, where 146 workers perished.

The $5 t-shirt, the $30 DVD player, and so on

The Bangladeshi workers were making clothes for U.S. brands. As we go about our business today, many of us could be wearing the results of their toil.

Which is exactly Jennifer’s point. Lots of consumer goods that we buy in shiny department, big box, and electronics stores carry low price tags in large part because they were made by workers in impoverished countries who earn subsistence wages while facing harsh, sometimes life-threatening working conditions.

Thrift vs. blood savings

I fully understand the value that many Americans put on thrift. Especially during these difficult times, inexpensive clothing, electronics, and other goods are especially appealing to anyone on a tight budget.

My mom grew up during the Great Depression. Throughout their lives, she and her sisters dutifully clipped coupons and waited for sales to buy things they needed. While concededly I have not wholly internalized their level of thrift, I get it: Hunting for a bargain is a good thing.

But we need to face the question of the human costs of these bargains. Most of us have purchased goods made by low-paid workers in other countries. In the case of products made in countries like Bangladesh, however, we’re talking about downright blood savings. These folks are dying so we can buy inexpensive stuff.

The path to labor globalization

The terrible situation in Bangladesh is hardly an isolated phenomenon.

The globalization of manufacturing involves the constant search for the cheapest, most exploitable labor possible. The rough pathway started with manufacturing jobs secured by union collective bargaining agreements in the north, followed by the flight of those jobs to anti-union southern states. When those wages got “too high,” manufacturers fled to other countries where workers were willing earn a tiny fraction of what even the lowest-paid Americans expected to receive.

More recently, as manufacturing workers in places like India have engaged in labor organizing, these companies are packing up again for new places to mistreat the rank-and-file, such as Bangladesh. However, now that Bangladeshi workers are protesting these recent disasters, I’m sure these companies will start looking elsewhere.

They may be running out of South Asian countries, but sub-Saharan Africa has yet to be fully exploited in this way. Wouldn’t it be obscenely ironic if American-led multinationals targeted the continent that supplied future slaves to the U.S. for their next round of exploitation? It’s not an implausible scenario.

Terrorism: Small businesses, wage earners pay a high price

Greater Boston is in lockdown mode at mid-afternoon of this otherwise lovely spring Friday, with law enforcement authorities pursuing the suspects from Monday’s Boston Marathon bombings. For some of us, it means a try-to-work-at-home day as we attempt to do something constructive while following news updates.

Of course, this is an unsettling day for just about everyone around here. But for so many small businesses, wage earners, and service providers like cabbies, it also is a costly day of lost income, even if the reasons for the shutdown are entirely justifiable.

I don’t know what political messages the perpetrators intended to send by their horrible actions, but among those paying a significant price are businesses and individuals who can least afford to do so. Big companies that can absorb a loss, and higher salary earners who will get their full paychecks regardless, will be okay, while many others will find it even more difficult to balance their books and to make ends meet.

Working Notes: Moyers on wealth inequality, EHS on workplace bullying, adjunct profs organize, and more

Several interesting items worthy of attention:

Moyers on American wealth inequality

Bill Moyers presents an excellent video essay on America’s out-of-control wealth inequality. Click above to watch, or go here for a preview:

The unprecedented level of economic inequality in America is undeniable. In an extended essay, Bill shares examples of the striking extremes of wealth and poverty across the country, including a video report on California’s Silicon Valley. There, Facebook, Google, and Apple are minting millionaires, while the area’s homeless — who’ve grown 20 percent in the last two years — are living in tent cities at their virtual doorsteps.

“A petty, narcissistic, pridefully ignorant politics has come to dominate and paralyze our government,” says Bill, “while millions of people keep falling through the gaping hole that has turned us into the United States of Inequality.”

EHS on Workplace Bullying

Laura Walter, in a lengthy, substantive piece for EHS Today (a periodical for environmental, health, and safety professionals), writes about the effects of workplace bullying. Here’s her lede:

A few years ago, Maria had never even heard the term “workplace bullying.” But by the time she shared with EHS Today the path her professional life has taken in recent years, she used words like “traumatized,” “powerless,”  “hostility,”  “retaliation,”  “mafia” and “war zone.” All this from a self-described happy, optimistic person who loved her job as a nurse and who never expected to become the target of bullying at work.

Dr. Gary Namie and the work of the Workplace Bullying Institute are featured prominently in this article.

Adjunct Professors Organizing

SEIU, America’s largest service workers union, is organizing part-time faculty in colleges and universities. Overall, adjunct professors comprise one of the most exploited groups in higher education, receiving paltry salaries and minimal, if any, benefits in return for heavy-duty teaching responsibilities. Peter Schmidt reports for the Chronicle of Higher Education:

A national labor union that has made strides in organizing adjunct instructors in Washington, D.C., and its Maryland suburbs is starting a similar regional campaign in Boston and is planning one in Los Angeles, too.

Service Employees International Union developed its “metropolitan” organizing strategy out of a belief that, by unionizing adjuncts at enough colleges in a large, urban labor market, it can put other colleges in that area under competitive pressure to improve their own adjunct instructors’ pay and working conditions.

As the article points out, Boston is among the cities selected for organizing efforts. On Saturday, Massachusetts Adjunct Action held a symposium at the Kennedy Library, drawing participants from some 20 area schools. Go here for social media commentary on the event.

Unpaid Internships Across the Pond

Peter Walker reports for The Guardian that the British government will investigate 100 firms for potential violations of wage laws stemming from their use of unpaid interns:

The government has referred 100 companies for investigation by HM Revenue and Customs after a campaign group told ministers they might be breaking the law through their use of unpaid interns.

The firms, which have not been identified publicly but are understood to include a number of household names, were referred by Jo Swinson, the junior employment minister, after a meeting she had with Intern Aware, which campaigns against the abuse of the internship process.

I hope this will inspire unpaid intern activists and the U.S. Department of Labor toward similar initiatives!

Hat tip to “Interns ≠ Free Labor” Facebook group

Fidelity exec on U.S. retirement savings

Fidelity’s head of asset management told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that America faces a crisis in terms of retirement readiness. Beth Healy reports for the Boston Globe:

Fidelity Investments’ president of asset management, Ronald O’Hanley, issued a stern warning Wednesday before a gathering of the US Chamber of Commerce that Americans are not saving enough for retirement and are in danger of living their later years in poverty.

O’Hanley told attendees at the chamber’s capital markets summit that the country needs to “act now to avert the looming catastrophe America faces if we don’t get serious about addressing the inadequacy of our retirement savings system.”

Already, nearly four in 10 retiree households do not have enough income to cover their monthly expenses, according to the Boston mutual fund giant’s research. And well over half of Americans have less than $25,000 in total savings, not counting their homes or pension plans, O’Hanley said.

It’s a message we cannot repeat too often.

The Future of Social Security

Of course, if we’re talking about retirement readiness, then the health of the Social Security program must be considered as well. The topic is all over the news right now because the folks in Washington D.C. are taking hard looks at how to shore up the Social Security retirement and disability funds. On the always interesting Next Avenue site, Richard Eisenberg has a good overview piece that examines the possible policy options:

You’ve probably heard a lot lately about President Barack Obama’s Chained CPI (Consumer Price Index) budget proposal, which would cut future Social Security annual cost of living increases, as I’ll explain shortly. But I’d like to tell you about other ways Social Security may be changing to remain solvent — and the one strategy for claiming benefits you might want to take advantage of before it disappears.

America’s economic meltdown continues for millions: Articles worth reading

The human costs of our ongoing economic crisis continue to mount. If your primary impressions of the economy are shaped by the rise in the Dow Jones Average, you might be wondering what I’m talking about. But for countless millions of others who are more concerned with the challenges of paying their bills, feeding their kids, saving for the future, and finding work, crisis remains an apt way to describe this economy.

I’ve collected a number of articles and blog posts that help us to connect the disturbing dots:

Bob’s cousin

Bob Rosner, blogging for Workplace Fairness Weekly, writes about “Broken Hearts: Unemployment’s Devastating Impact“:

Last week my cousin died of a heart attack. After working continuously for the first two-thirds of his career, recently he’d bounced from short term jobs to stretches of unemployment. This cycle is tough enough on someone just starting out a career, but for someone in their early 60′s, it can literally be a heartbreaker.

Read what he has to say about maintaining hope through the 4 “Ps”: perspective, pride, pals, and possibilities.

Profits over people — by a longshot

But hold on, it’s not as if our economy remains in complete meltdown mode. Nope, that just applies to the vast millions who are struggling to make ends meet and to secure decent work. Derek Thompson, business writer for The Atlantic, sums up the situation in meaty blog post:

Here are two things that are true about the economy today.

(1) The Dow Jones industrial average is poised to set a new record as corporate profits stretch to all-time highs.

(2) There are still fewer working Americans today than there were before the start of the Great Recession.

He goes on to explain:

When the economy crashes, we all crash together: corporate profits, employment, and growth. But when the economy recovers, we don’t recover together. Corporations rack up historic profits thanks to strong global demand, cheap global labor, and low interest rates, while American workers muddle along, their significance to these companies greatly diminished by a worldwide market for goods and people.

The forgotten

Although the official unemployment rate continues to improve very slowly, overlooked in those figures are the millions who are no longer included in the counts. Annalyn Kurtz reports for CNN.com:

An often overlooked number calculated by the Labor Department shows millions of Americans want a job but haven’t searched for one in at least a year. They’ve simply given up hope.

. . . These hopelessly unemployed workers have just been jobless so long, they’ve fallen off the main government measures altogether.

. . . Five years ago, before the recession began, about 2.5 million people said they wanted a job but hadn’t searched for one in at least a year. Now, that number is around 3.25 million.

The future of retirement

As I’ve written frequently here, the demise of retirement as a normal lifespan experience may be one of the longer-term effects of our economic condition. Steven Greenhouse, labor reporter for the New York Times, offers a thorough look at the future of retirement in the U.S.:

While retirement has assumed myriad forms across the country, many economists and other experts on retirement see some common, increasingly worrisome trends. A growing number of workers are convinced they will not have a comfortable retirement. A Boston College study in October found that 53 percent of Americans were “at risk” of being unable to maintain their pre-retirement standard of living once they retire, up from 30 percent in 1989. A study last May by the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that 44 percent may not have enough money to meet their basic needs in retirement.

Burdening next generations

As the cost of a college education continues to climb, student loan debt rises with it. Martha C. White reports for Time on the economic repercussions of massive student loan debt:

The broader economic implications are troubling. Graduates struggling to dig out from a mountain of student debt also tend to put off getting married, buying homes, and having kids. And since a bigger chunk of their income will go towards servicing the mortgages or car loans they are able to obtain at higher rates, they’ll have less spending power when they do eventually buy big-ticket items like homes and cars.

And that’s not even addressing the psychological impact of mountainous debt and reduced hopes. Cryn Johannsen of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project writes about the spectre of suicide in connection with student debt:

Suicide is the dark side of the student lending crisis and, despite all the media attention to the issue of student loans, it’s been severely under-reported. I can’t ignore it though, because I’m an advocate for people who are struggling to pay their student loans, and I’ve been receiving suicidal comments for over two years and occasionally hearing reports of actual suicides.

Inequality = more stress and illness

America’s wealth gap is widening despite the supposed economic recovery, reports Rick Newman for U.S. News & World Report:

The problem, however, is that the recession raised the bar for success while leaving fewer haves and more have-nots. America as a whole may be just as wealthy as it used to be, but the wealth is being shared by a smaller slice of the population. And that rearrangement may end up being permanent.

In this piece for BillMoyers.com, Theresa Riley interviews epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson, an authority on the destructive public health consequences of societal inequality:

The pattern we’ve found in our research is quite extraordinarily clear. More unequal countries, the ones with the bigger income differences between rich and poor have much more violence, worse life expectancy, more mental illness, more obesity, more people in prison, and more teenage births. All these problems get worse with greater inequality, because it damages the social fabric of a society.

The end of the American dream?

Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics, assessed our economy in the context of the November election:

In this election, each side debated issues that deeply worry me: the long malaise into which the economy seems to be settling, and the growing divide between the 1 percent and the rest — an inequality not only of outcomes but also of opportunity. To me, these problems are two sides of the same coin: with inequality at its highest level since before the Depression, a robust recovery will be difficult in the short term, and the American dream — a good life in exchange for hard work — is slowly dying.

Stiglitz’s public policy prescriptions “include, at least, significant investments in education, a more progressive tax system and a tax on financial speculation.”

Goodbye to trickle-down economics?

The policies that led us to this widening gap between the haves vs. the have-less and the have-nots have been at least 30 years in the making, with “trickle-down economics” being the policy mantra of the era. This concept held that if wealthy people could keep more of their money and businesses could be freed of regulatory safeguards, the benefits would trickle down to everyone else. The centerpiece of trickle-down theory was that tax cuts to the wealthy would give a jump start to America’s economic engine, an assumption rebutted in a non-partisan Congressional Research Service report discussed in this Huffington Post piece.

If you’re interested in learning more, read some of these articles and start connecting the dots for yourself. We’re at a critical economic juncture in America, and the well-being of all but the most fortunate is at stake.

Working in the fast food industry: We need to change our perceptions

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I didn’t grow up in a particularly wealthy area, but Northwest Indiana back in the day was home to steel mills that promised a decent paycheck to many a family. Most of the region’s cities and towns straddled the line between “working class” and “middle class.” For many young people, the future included possibilities such as working in the mills, going to a local college, or raising a family.

If you’re like me, you grew up thinking that working behind the counter at McDonald’s or Burger King was a classic entry-level job. It was not unusual to walk into a fast food place and to see one of your high school classmates taking orders or working the french fry baskets.

And if you had that job or something like it (mine was working as supermarket bagger), you might joke about making the minimum wage but mainly took it in stride. After all, you assumed that better opportunities would come your way.

Take another look

But hold on a minute. In truth, the vast majority of our low-wage workforce — including most who work in the fast food industry — are adults, and they’re not working behind that counter to pay for weekend movies or nights out with friends.

Fast Food Forward is a labor advocacy campaign on behalf of fast food workers in New York City, and their info graphic above shares the main points:

  • “Contrary to common belief, teens represent less than 12% of the low-wage work force.”
  • “Over 60% of low-wage workers are 25-64 years old…, many with families to support.”

And take a close look behind the counter

Okay, so maybe your dietary habits have evolved beyond Big Macs and Whoppers. But if you do find yourself ordering at any fast food restaurant, take a look at who is working there. At many of these places, you’ll find a good number of workers who are well past their teen years. It’s their main job (or one of them), and not infrequently they’re trying to support a family on it.

Just as there are wage-related reasons why we can walk into a big-box store and buy a DVD player for $40, the low prices of fast food items are partially enabled by the small paychecks of the people preparing and selling what customers consume.

Unions, yes!

I shake my head at people who scoff at the idea of fast food employees and other low-wage workers trying to unionize. These critics regard such organizing as an act of entitlement . . . Hey, I worked for the minimum wage before going to business school/marrying a doctor/winning Lotto . . . Why can’t they?

But let’s understand reality: Many people are trying to support themselves and their families in these jobs. And the Barons of the Low-Wage Workforce aren’t giving it up voluntarily. It will take workers organizing on their own behalf to push them beyond McWage-level paychecks. Here’s wishing it happens.

American elders: Human dignity and an aging population

At some point soon, America is going to have to come to grips with the massive psychological and economic implications of its aging population. It won’t be easy.

Later this week I’ll be participating in the annual Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict, sponsored by the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies Network and hosted by Columbia University, Teachers College, in New York.  In one of the sessions, I’ll be talking about American social attitudes and public policy concerning our aging population. In an abstract submitted for the workshop titled “American Elders: Human Dignity and the Aging Population,” I stated:

America’s population is aging.  The most senior members of its largest generation are now reaching traditional retirement age, and millions more are on their way.  This fast evolving reality will confront America’s cultural embrace of youth and youthfulness, and it will carry great significance for human dignity in a nation that does not naturally elevate its elders or easily accept the processes of growing older.  The aging population will implicate not only how we think about ourselves and relate to one another as individuals, but also how public policy responds to the economic, employment, public health, and human services challenges presented by these changing demographics.

My remarks will examine some of the central considerations of our aging population from a human dignity perspective, including:

Personal and Interpersonal

  • Personal attitudes toward aging;
  • Interpersonal dignity, civility, and acceptance as the population ages;
  • Avoiding “us vs. them”;
  • Creating communities of care and caring;
  • The roles of faith and spirituality.

Public Policy

  • The retirement funding train wreck (it’s about much more than Social Security);
  • Providing employment for those who work later into life, while creating opportunities for younger people to join the labor force;
  • Health care for an aging population;
  • The future of elder care;
  • Who will pay for all this?

Finding Direction

  • Let’s look to cultures with healthier attitudes toward aging.

Huge implications

These challenges will have significant implications for the world of work. They will impact the demographics of the workplace and employee benefit programs. They also will create an expanding sector of the labor market devoted to elder care and health care.

If we’re capable of philosophically redefining a crisis as an opportunity, then perhaps this is the best we can hope for. I believe these coming decades will be a test not only of our policy and economic ingenuity, but also of our hearts.

***

Related posts

Not “Set for Life”: Boomers face layoffs, discrimination, and bullying at work (2012)

Retirement expert: “Most middle-class Americans will become poor or near-poor retirees” (2012)

The press discovers the coming Boomer retirement crisis (2011)

When Boomers retire (or try to): America’s coming train wreck (2010)

For all posts on retirement-related topics, go here.

Working Notes: Business Week on workplace bullying, a “New World” concept paper, and a blog facelift

Some items of note:

1. Business Week on “Taming the Workplace Bully” – Adam Piore’s article examines the topic from a business standpoint — it’s even filed under the heading of “Competition” on the magazine’s website —  and closes with an anecdote about a bullying target befriending her aggressor. Still, it covers a lot of ground and presents a variety of perspectives, including the legal aspects on which Gary Namie and I were interviewed.

Here’s a snippet:

For decades researchers have used questionnaires known as Machiavellianism (or Mach) scales to measure an individual’s capacity to engage in the manipulative, amoral, and deceitful behaviors espoused by the 15th century ends-justify-the-means diplomat. Recently psychologists found that those who score high on the 100-point Mach scale are also among those likeliest to engage in office bullying.

2. Evelin Lindner’s 2008 concept paper on societal transformation — In December 2008, Dr. Evelin Lindner, social scientist and founder of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) Network, presented a terrific think piece paper, The Need for a New World, that calls for a global society grounded in sustainability and human dignity. Here’s the lede from her concluding section (p. 25):

The problem of our time is that the emperor has no clothes, that we, humankind, are the emperor, and that almost nobody dared, until recently, to admit to our nakedness. It needed an economic meltdown to expose this nakedness in shocking ways. Former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan said that he was “in a state of shocked disbelief” and had been wrong in thinking that relying on banks to use their self-interest would be enough to protect shareholders and their equity. Still, many don’t see the emperor’s nakedness even now.

Evelin gave this paper just months after the economy imploded, at the annual HumanDHS workshop on Humiliation and Violent Conflict at Columbia University in New York. Four years later, with so many people still hoping that things will return to some form of “back to normal,” it remains a very relevant piece of commentary. Evelin will be talking about her book, A Dignity Economy, at an open program offered as part of this year’s workshop, on Thursday, December 6, at 5:00-8:00 p.m (flyer here).

3. A new look for the blog — I gave the blog a quick facelift. WordPress.com offers a variety of themes for its blogs, and I found this one, titled “Elemin,” and thought it would provide a crisp and appealing new look. I hope you enjoy it.

Have we fallen prey to the “curse of conformity”?

There is only meager evidence that we Americans recognize the urgent task confronting us — to shift the emphasis from “bigger” to “better,” from the quantitative to the qualitative, and to give significant form and beauty to our environment. An evolution of this kind would add moral authority to material abundance, would open up frontiers that we have been slow to explore.

The writer of the piece from which this passage is drawn criticized the conformity and “extreme specialization” in our society. He noted the “triumphal march of the practical sciences ” over the “magic of life,” and he lamented how “(t)he artist, the poet, the prophet have become stepchildren of the ‘organization man.’”

Back to the future, once again?

These are the words of Walter Gropius, renowned architect and professor, from a 1958 essay — “The Curse of Conformity” — in the Saturday Evening Post. Founder of the Bauhaus school of design, he normally critiqued the lack of diversity and variety in modern architecture, but he diverted his focus in this piece to address society and organizations generally.

Significant elements of Gropius’s conceptualization of America circa 1958 certainly manifest themselves in our nation today. In fact, the Great Recession and the ongoing mess that has followed seem like a natural consequence of what Gropius wrote about some 54 years ago.

***

I was introduced to “The Curse of Conformity” via a delightful 1960 volume of Saturday Evening Post essays titled Adventures of the Mind, edited by Richard Thruelsen and John Kobler, once distributed as a dividend-book by the Book-of-the-Month Club. Inexpensive used copies are available from booksellers.

Dignity, where art thou?

Our goal-oriented society is full of political platforms, strategic plans, long-range plans, position papers, white papers, proposals, action memos, and self-study reports.

How many of them feature human dignity as a framing theme and objective?

Oh sure, we talk plenty about growth, outcomes, opportunities, profits, “measurables,” and the like.

But as for “dignity”? Well, we’ve got our work cut out for us.

In the workplace, a “markets and management” framework that embraces unregulated industries and unfettered management control continues to hold sway. It spills into our political realm, where trickle-down economic theories and practices dominate our domestic and international policy debates. It has been this way for at least the past 30 years.

I don’t know why we’re so afraid to embrace the concept and practice of dignity. Does it make us uncomfortable? Do we see it as an impossibility? Is it too threatening to the centers of profit and power?

***

Related posts

Donna Hicks on dignity (2012)

Building a global society that embraces human dignity (2011)

George Lakoff, Frameworks, and Dignity at Work (2010)

Human Dignity and American Employment Law (2009)

Websites of the Week: Dignity, Humiliation, and Rankism (2008)

Before the Fall of 2008: It seems like another epoch ago

Think back to four years ago.

Spurred by a corrupt housing market and easy credit, the economy was in a nosedive amidst credible fears of a total collapse. By October 2008, billions of dollars of wealth had disappeared, a lot of it from the already modest retirement accounts of everyday people.

The world of work was about to be profoundly affected. Job losses and layoffs started mounting quickly, first in the private sector, then in the public and non-profit sectors. Within a year, the official unemployment rate would edge on double digits. Those fortunate to keep their jobs would experience added stress at work and, very possibly, reductions in pay and benefits.

The presidential campaign was occurring against this backdrop. There remained the looming question of whether America was ready to elect a black President. Sarah Palin would experience a meteoric rise and fall, the latter with a big assist to Tina Fey. The Tea Party and Occupy movements weren’t even a part of our vocabulary.

For me, before the Fall of 2008 looks a lot like September 10, 2001: The day before our world changed.

Fast forward

Four years later, we’re still paying for the greed, excess, and irresponsibility that led us into this mess. And I challenge anyone, regardless of political affiliation, to find anything genuinely uplifting in the substance and rhetoric of the current campaign season. As for many of our business leaders, they continue to rake it in — the wealth gap in American keeps widening — while they vigorously oppose regulatory safeguards intended to prevent yet another meltdown.

I honestly don’t know how we’re going to chart a new course, but I’m certain that we must if the coming decades are to be good ones for the vast majority of people. As I’ve suggested before, for a lot of reasons — political, economic, psychological, environmental, spiritual, you name it — we’re at a fork in the road, choosing between a New Enlightenment and a New Dark Age.

I fear the latter but hope for the former.

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