Union Density Up in 2008

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the number of union members rose by 428,000 in 2008, which translates into a jump in union density from 12.1 to 12.4 percent of wage and salary workers.  This is the second successive year of increase, perhaps marking a reversal of fortunes for the nation’s labor unions after decades of steady declines.

This is the most encouraging news for the American labor movement in many years.

It’s too early to tell how the current economic crisis will affect this emerging trend.  During the past 30 years, the decline of America’s heavily unionized manufacturing sector has been a significant factor behind the lower union membership figures.  The current downturn has been especially difficult on non-union professional and service sector labor markets, leading one to suspect that union density may not fall even as many jobs are shed.  However, plenty of construction and manufacturing jobs have been lost as well, and declining tax revenues will force layoffs in the heavily-unionized public sector.

Here’s the BLS news release and summary: http://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.nr0.htm.

Here’s the BLS full report (pdf link): http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/union2.pdf.

Meeting with the Founder of the “Dignitarian” Movement

Last week I had the pleasure of having lunch with Robert Fuller, a physicist by training, former Oberlin College President, and founder of an emerging movement to affirm human dignity throughout society.  I recently featured Fuller’s “Breaking Ranks” website (http://www.breakingranks.net) on this blog, but my conversation with him prompted me to ponder more extensively the possibilities for a “dignitarian” movement.

Because our lunch was not intended to lead to a public blog posting, I won’t go into the details of our very enjoyable discussion, but suffice it to say that I was able to imagine, with greater clarity and even optimism, a broader, more significant social movement in support of human dignity, one that crosses many social, political, economic, geographic, and ideological lines.

Fuller’s own experience led him to this place.  In his writings, he explains how as a college president, he was treated as a “somebody.”   But once he stepped down and no longer had the exalted title, people treated him differently, and he experienced life as a “nobody.”  This helped him to identify with others who may be marginalized in our society for any reason.  He began to see the common threads between many of these forms of mistreatment, and he coined the phrase “rankism” to capture these abuses of rank, authority, and power, whether grounded in institutional status, social and economic conditions, or “isms” such as racism and sexism.

Too many workplaces are rife with rankism, run and controlled by individuals, cliques, and core groups who find ways to exclude others and maintain power.  Fuller’s great success is his understanding that human dignity must be valued in all settings in which people conduct their lives, including the workplace.

Fuller has authored or co-authored three books on dignity and rankism, all of which are easy reads:

Robert W. Fuller, Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank (2003 pb avail) — Fuller’s first book to introduce the terms “dignitarian” and “rankism.”

Robert W. Fuller, All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (2006 hc only) — A more prescriptive examination of how to respond to rankism and how to create a more dignitarian society.

Robert W. Fuller and Pamela A. Gerloff, Dignity for All: How to Create a World Without Rankism (2008 pb avail) — A short, handbook-length work, distilling Fuller’s key ideas, bolstered by Gerloff’s perspectives as a change consultant.

Website(s) of the Week: Jobs with Justice

Jobs with Justice (http://www.jwj.org/) plays a pivotal role towards educating the public and organizing workers around the need for better wages and working conditions.

Since its founding in 1987, Jobs with Justice has become one of the most visible and effective grassroots labor organizations, advocating for the rights and interests of people who are struggling to make ends meet in today’s economy.  JwJ has spearheaded organizing campaigns for workers such janitors and home health care workers, it has organized labor coalitions to support those who are fighting to be treated with basic dignity at work, and it has educated the public on the need for stronger labor laws and better enforcement of existing legal protections for workers.

JwJ’s website gives you an excellent view of what this pioneering organization is all about.  Especially if you are unfamiliar with unions, this is a great starting place towards understanding the need for a strong and inclusive grassroots labor movement in the United States.  Also, JwJ’s friends and allies page (http://www.jwj.org/about/friends.html) will give you a broad-ranging perspective of how an effective labor movement connects with other social and economic justice initiatives.

What’s a psychologically healthy workplace?

Each year, the American Psychological Association sponsors a Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award program, recognizing employers who excel in these five categories:

  • “Employee involvement”
  • “Work-life balance”
  • “Employee growth & development”
  • “Health & safety”
  • “Employee recognition”

These are all important considerations, and employers that value them in practice are likely to be better places to work than those that do not.  However, as phrased, the five APA categories turn the question of what constitutes a psychologically healthy workplace into something of a safe, non-threatening HR checklist

What’s missing from the APA formulation is a deeper inquiry into psychological health at work that is harder to describe in a categorical sense but that may hold a more significant key.  Here are eight questions more likely to reveal the presence (or lack thereof) of a psychologically healthy workplace:

  • Is there a sense of zest, “buzz,” and opportunity in the workplace?
  • Do employees feel they are valued and treated with respect and dignity?
  • Is the organizational culture friendly, inclusive, and supportive?
  • Is organizational decision making fair, transparent, and evenhanded?
  • Are diversities of all types accepted or merely tolerated?
  • Does the organization face or dodge tough questions concerning employee relations?
  • Are allegations of mistreatment of employees handled fairly and honestly, even when the alleged wrongdoers are in positions of power?
  • Are compensation and reward systems fair and transparent?

These inquiries implicate organizational culture and power, which may threaten bad and/or insecure employers.  But if we want to get to the heart of whether a given workplace is psychologically healthy, we must ask these more difficult questions.

To learn more about the APA’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award Program, go here.

[Addition: For a slightly revised version of these questions, see “NWI’s Eightfold Path to a Psychologically Healthy Workplace”]

Workers in the Service Sector: An Appreciation

I just got back from a trip to California to present a seminar, and I found myself thinking about the work that service sector workers do.  Here are some of the folks I met:

  • The cook/server at the Pizzeria Famiglia at Logan Airport in Boston, who prepared a serving of spaghetti and sauce that was of restaurant quality.  When I told him it was the best plate of food I’ve ever had at an airport (really, it hit the spot), he gave me a thumbs up and a thank you;
  • The young bellman at the Hotel Durant in Berkeley, who was so helpful in arranging a shuttle ride to the airport and remembered my name with a big smile the next day;
  • Faculty at the Western Institute for Social Research in Berkeley, where I am completing a graduate degree and presented my seminar, whose intellectual and personal fellowship and support went above and beyond the call; and,
  • The employees at JetBlue, including a ticket agent, a pilot, and a gate agent, who handled my situation with a flight delay with genuine friendliness and helpfulness.

The service sector covers many different job and income categories, as my trip illustrated.  But the core essence with all of these folks was a certain spark, emotional intelligence, and interest in doing a good job for others, qualities that can make a good day even better and take the edge off of a bad one.  Especially for those of us who also work in the service sector, these people are role models and deserve our thanks.

From the Web’s Archives: “The Management Myth” (2006)

One-time management consultant Matthew Stewart advises future business leaders to study philosophy instead of getting an MBA in “The Management Myth,” a June 2006 piece in The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200606/stewart-business.

Stewart pokes fun at the origins of modern management theory, especially the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor around the turn of the last century.  Taylor, the father of “scientific management” theory, performed time-and-motion studies to determine what physical movements were required to complete work tasks and claimed that productivity expectations and employee compensation should be based on those findings.

Instead, suggests Stewart, the study and application of philosophy can help managers sort through difficult decisions at work.  He calls management theory “a sadly neglected subdiscipline of philosophy.”

The piece is not as wacky as my brief summary makes it out to be.  For many years, supporters of education in the liberal arts have pointed out that the study of disciplines such as philosophy can make for more thoughtful, insightful leaders and problem solvers.   Stewart makes a good case for that kind of intellectual grounding.

Status of Workplace Bullying Legislation

Some readers know that I am the author of the “Healthy Workplace Bill,” model legislation designed to give severely bullied workers a right to sue for damages and to impose upon employers legal incentives to act preventively and responsively to workplace bullying.  Since 2003, variations of the bill have been introduced in some 12 state legislatures.  I believe that someday soon we will see the Healthy Workplace Bill enacted in one or more states.

Dr. Gary Namie, whose pivotal public education and advocacy work has been noted several times on this blog, has been instrumental in supporting state-level organizations to advocate for this legislation.  Here is a status report of where things are: http://workplacebullyinglaw.org/.  This page includes contact information for those who would like to get involved.

For Massachusetts readers who would like to get involved in the newly formed Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Advocates, please contact Greg Sorozan at gsorozan@nage.org.  We’ll be sharing news of our progress soon.

America has fallen behind Canada, Australia, and many European nations on enacting workplace bullying laws.  In the meantime, hardworking employees who have been psychologically pummeled at work are told by lawyers that they have no legal recourse.  When cruelty and psychological violence are perfectly legal in the workplace, something is very wrong.

Talkin’ ’bout my generation

As I watched the remarkable Inauguration Day events on television, I realized that they represented a huge step forward for my “generation.”

You see, tail-end Baby Boomers — those of us born in the late 50s and early 60s — often have found ourselves sandwiched between the heart of the Boomer generation and Generation X.  Though technically Boomers, we did not experience the 1960s the same way; we missed being a part of that by just a few years.  Though schooled during the early dawn of the computer age, our formative years predated the Digital Revolution.  Again, we just missed.

To many, Obama vs. Clinton represented diversities of race vs. gender, but for me personally, the generational difference carried a ton of meaning as well.  To see someone in his late 40s — a person of the ‘Tweener Generation — assuming the mantle of national leadership is an encouraging sign that finally we’ve been able to leave the kids’ table and compel our older Boomer siblings to make some room for us, however grudgingly.

Does this mean we’ll see a proverbial “new generation of leadership” in the workplace as well?  The Baby Boomer generation on the whole has not been noted for its ability to share the torch (much less pass it), and this has definite implications for power, inclusion, and opportunity at work.

Against that reality, it’s hard to say whether Obama symbolizes the arrival the ‘Tweeners.  But it does suggest that we’re staking our claim.

Website(s) of the Week: Journal of Values-Based Leadership

The Journal of Values-Based Leadership is a new journal published by Valparaiso University in Indiana (my collegiate alma mater). The journal describes its content this way:


“JVBL is dedicated to publishing articles related to:         

·       Leading with integrity, credibility and morality

·       Creating ethical, values-based organizations

·       Balancing the concerns of stakeholders, consumers, labor and management, and the environment

·       Teaching students how understand their values and how values impact organizational performance”


This is a very innovative and exciting new periodical, appealing to scholars and practitioners alike in fields such as business management, organizational behavior, leadership studies, and employment relations.  Its editorial philosophy is open towards, and welcoming of, different voices and perspectives.  In fact, what makes JVBL distinctive is its embrace of a specific theme — leadership informed by values and ethics — that cuts across traditional doctrinal, economic, social, and political lines.


The JVBL website provides free access to the journal’s first two issues.  They are well worth printing out and perusing.


I recently had the pleasure of publishing a piece in JVBL, “Workplace Bullying and Ethical Leadership,” which can be downloaded here.

Labor, EFCA, and the Obama Administration

Barack Obama enjoyed strong support from organized labor during his historic campaign for the White House.  Now, labor leaders and grassroots union activists are looking to the new President to put his political weight behind the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA).

EFCA’s most notable provision holds that if a majority of workers sign authorization cards that say they want union representation, then the employer must recognize that union and agree to bargain collectively.  This allows unions to bypass costly and contentious campaigns, during which many employers pressure and intimidate workers into voting against union representation.

EFCA also calls for mediation and arbitration to be used to facilitate collective bargaining agreements for newly recognized unions and beefs up penalties for unfair labor practices.  Overall, EFCA is designed to effectuate the original intent behind the National Labor Relations Act, which is to include collective bargaining as a key component in an American system of employment relations.

Obama expressed support for EFCA during the campaign, but many are wondering whether it will be a legislative priority during the early period of his presidency.  Organized labor sees EFCA as a vitally important legal tool towards reviving union membership rolls and worker power in America.  Given the intense employer opposition to EFCA at a time when a new President needs all hands on deck to deal with the economic crisis, it will be interesting to see how Obama navigates this one.

Fifty years ago, American business regarded labor unions as a pesky, sometimes difficult, but inevitable presence, according them — reluctantly perhaps — a seat at the table in the world of industrial relations.  Since then, we have witnessed an unprecedented amount of money and resources being devoted to bring down unions and defeat union organizing drives.

I support unions because, warts and all, they are necessary for maintaining and building a middle class and for serving as a source of countervailing power against the enormous ability of American business to shape the national and global policy agenda.  A strong, inclusive labor movement is a central key towards affirming dignity for all workers.  EFCA is a meaningful step forward towards that end.

If you want to learn more, here are some helpful links:

For an article by journalist Esther Kaplan in The Nation magazine examining the political fight over EFCA from a perspective sympathetic to the labor movement, go to: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20090126/kaplan.

For a short briefing paper explaining and supporting EFCA that I helped to author for Americans for Democratic Action, go to: http://www.adaction.org/media/EFCA.pdf.

American Rights at Work is a labor-friendly research and advocacy group engaging in extensive public education about EFCA: http://www.americanrightsatwork.org/employee-free-choice-act/home-102/.

For a thought provoking piece by Professor Roy Adams that says EFCA does not go far enough to affirm and protect the dignity of workers, go to: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/labor_studies_journal/v031/31.4adams.pdf.

For a contrary view, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is putting maximum resources into opposing EFCA and unions in general: http://www.uschamber.com/unions.htm.

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