Work and Workplaces of the New Decade: Notes on a “Dignitarian” Agenda

As we turn to a new decade, permit me to set out some notes on a “dignitarian” (to borrow Robert Fuller‘s wonderful term) agenda for work and workplaces for the next 10 years. Obviously this is far from the last word on the subject, but establishing some basic themes may be helpful:

1.  Let’s put human dignity at least on par with markets and management.

Enough of this blind worship of unfettered free markets and management power. This mentality led us to the current meltdown and to workplaces that are top-down and stressed out. We need to place human dignity front and center in our systems and practices of employment relations. How these values play out will vary among workplaces, public policy initiatives, and whatnot, but recognizing their centrality is a good first step.

2.  Let’s tackle all forms of mistreatment at work, especially bullying and discrimination.

Bullying and discrimination remain significant problems in the modern workplace. Better management, worker activism, enactment of workplace bullying laws, and effective enforcement of existing discrimination protections will point us in the right direction.

3.  How about a genuine safety net for the unemployed, injured, and sick?

If you lose a good job or suffer some other misfortune that prevents you from working, life’s challenges can pile up pretty quickly. We need to develop a better safety net for those who face life’s inevitable ups and downs. Health insurance (it looks like we may be getting there), adequate disability and workers’ compensation, and transitional assistance and training should be integrated in a way that helps people reclaim and rebuild their lives.

4.  We badly need to reform our ways of resolving workplace disputes.

Current approaches to resolving workplace disputes too often lead to expensive, lengthy, angry, and torturous proceedings for all parties involved. Even claimants who “win” their lawsuits often feel like they have been battered along the way by our justice system. We need to streamline these proceedings and find a way to use them to repair, not fracture, troubled employment relationships.

5.  The revival of an active, inclusive labor movement will fuel a dignitarian agenda.

Labor unions provide an important source of countervailing power to the authority exercised by management. Good, inclusive unions can give rank-and-file workers a rallying point for living wages, decent working conditions and fair treatment when problems arise.

6.  Automation isn’t the only reason why that new VCR costs only $40.

The globalization of markets has led to the exploitation of workers at home and abroad. It’s easy for us to forget this reality when we pick up that $40 VCR at the local “big box” superstore. Too many workers are toiling in sweatshop conditions in order for some of us to enjoy life niceties at a lower cost.

7.  With rights and privileges come responsibilities.

I fear that we are suffering from an integrity deficit in our workplaces, highlighted by scandals, corruption, and excessive executive compensation. This is not a screed against the big bad corporation; it cuts across the private, public, and non-profit sectors. We cannot have dignitarian workplaces without deeper individual commitment to doing our jobs ethically and competently.


This is something of responsive sequel to my post last week, “The Terrible 2000s: Goodbye and good riddance.” 

For a much lengthier, law & policy oriented discussion of these themes, see my law review article, “Human Dignity and Employment Law” (University of Richmond Law Review) which can be freely downloaded by clicking the title. 

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