“Work is broken” (Can we fix it and remake it?)

Work is broken. This line was invoked by several speakers during opening sessions of the annual meeting of the Labor and Employment Relations Association (LERA), held on January 6-9. It stood as a repeated acknowledgment of the deterioration of the employment relationship, the loss of good jobs, and the overall state of work in America.

LERA (website here) is the nation’s leading non-profit, interdisciplinary research and education association for scholars and practitioners in fields concerned with workplace relations. Work is broken was a telling admission from folks who have been researching and practicing for decades.

Let me count the ways

Of course, work may be broken in different ways to different people.

To workers who have been unable to obtain work for months or perhaps longer, we’re talking about the enduring effects of a recession that economists claim ended in June 2009. (That reminds me of a certain President who stood on the deck of an aircraft carrier with a big “mission accomplished” banner behind him….)

To workers who have been bullied or harassed out of their jobs while company executives or HR officers turned the other way, we’re looking at work environments so bereft of ethics that basic human dignity has been cast aside.

To workers who now are hearing that their pension plans may go under, we’re witnessing the breach of a social and legal contract that offered a decent retirement in return for many loyal years on the job.

Fixing work

Straight jobs

We need to rebuild our base of what some call straight jobs. By that I mean conventional jobs in the service, retail, and manufacturing sectors that provide a fair day’s pay for a good day’s work. Solid jobs where people are treated decently — some perhaps short on thrills and challenges, but at least paying for life’s expenses while providing the dignity of a paycheck.

Straight jobs anticipate working in offices and cubicles, factories and construction sites, and retail outlets of various shapes and sizes. They are fine for many people. After all, conventional employment can provide security, stability, and built-in resources — not a bad deal!

Recovering a balance of power

On a systemic level, we need to re-embrace the 3-way structure of employment relations in which workers, management, and government have a voice at the table in determining workplace governance. This was the case during the heyday of the American economy, covering roughly the late 1940s through 1960s. Our system reflected a better balance of countervailing power between major stakeholders in the employment relationship.

Labor movement

Accordingly, we need to rebuild our labor movement. Intense employer hostility to unions, weak government enforcement of labor laws, and changes in the labor market have resulted in that balance going way out of whack, especially in the private sector where individual workers are largely on their own to secure better pay and working conditions.

Unions are not a panacea. The bad ones are no more virtuous than lousy corporations, and I have heard many, many complaints from workers who were let down by theirs. Nevertheless, strong, effective, and inclusive unions remain the best way to channel concentrated employee power and voice for the largest number of workers.

Something different…

Equally important, we have to empower the creative and entrepreneurial instincts of those who want to do something different. Here’s why:

Our economy badly needs the jump start effects of new businesses. Supporting the creation of small businesses is a means to that end.

Furthermore, for some, straight jobs are limiting or even stifling. The 9 to 5 thing may be a long-time American staple, but it’s not for everyone.

In addition, many of these traditional work settings are, by their very nature, breeding grounds for dysfunctional and unethical behaviors. For example, unchecked workplace bullying rarely occurs in a vacuum; those who bully typically have been enabled by their organizations. Similarly, organizations where executive pay has become excessive usually have created the conditions that allowed it to happen.

Increasingly I am skeptical that most organizations with entrenched, dysfunctional cultures are capable of significant change. Perhaps a “marketplace” of ethical behavior can supplant some of the bad apples with entities capable of both productivity and decency.

Remaking work

So, what are some of these new ways of working? To encourage your brainstorming and visionary thinking, take a look at these resources, the first two of which I have mentioned before on this blog. Together they raise a world of possibilities:

Freelancer’s Union

The Freelancers Union (link here) is an advocacy and support organization for America’s 42 million independent workers, who represent roughly 30 percent of the workforce. These include “freelancers, consultants, independent contractors, temps, part-timers, contingent employees, and the self-employed.”

Seth Godin

Godin (blog here) is a bestselling author of books on work, careers, and entrepreneurship. His pithy works, in the forms of books and free online materials, encourage us to think imaginatively about how we spend our time working. For previous posts on Godin, go here.

Chris Guillebeau

Guillebeau (website and blog link here) is a writer on a crusade to encourage people to follow their dreams, not what others suggest for them, even if it puts them at odds with the mainstream.

He is the author of The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World (Perigree 2010). Although the book suffers from a touch of youthful arrogance (he appears to be in his early 30s), his message may resonate strongly with folks experiencing a midlife crisis who are in search of inspiration and guidance to do something different with their lives. It’s a quick and excellent read.

Much of the book was developed out Guillebeau’s much-downloaded free pdf, A Guide to World Domination. He has a lot of great ideas, and I’ll be returning to his work in future posts.

***

Panel on Psychological Health at Work

If we’re going fix and remake work, then psychologically healthy workplaces must be part of the mix. Thus, I appreciate that LERA hosted a panel I organized titled “Psychological Health at Work: The Roles of Law, Policy, and Dispute Resolution.” I’ll have more to say on the subject matter of the presentations in future posts, but for now, here was our lineup:

Moderator

Heather Grob, Saint Martin’s University

Panelists

John F. Burton, Jr., Rutgers University (NJ)—Workers’s Compensation Benefits for Workplace Stress

Krista Hoffmeister, Colorado State University (CO)—Beyond Prevention Through Design: Perspectives from Occupational Health Psychology

Debra A. Healy, Healy Conflict Management Services (OR)—Mediating Workplace Abuse: Does It Work?

Tapas K. Ray, National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (OH)—Costs of Stress at Work: Who Bears Them?

David C. Yamada, Suffolk University (MA)—Workplace Bullying, Mobbing, and Harassment: Emerging Legal Responses


6 responses

  1. Great post. Even though I can’t seem to get back into the workforce, it’s helpful to know that someone is working on the broken world of work.

  2. Confidence and a sense of purpose are often mistaken for arrogance — if you keep writing great articles like this one, I expect people will say the same about you.

    Nevertheless, I appreciate you mentioning the AONC book, and I’m glad you liked much of it. Seth Godin is a friend and mentor to me, so I’m glad you mentioned him too.

    • Chris,

      Thank you for writing. Yeah, I took issue with some of the tone of your book. Not because I disagree with the substantive points, but rather because in my old age (51 — hah) I better appreciate how some people — especially those with family obligations — have led very rich, meaningful, and difference-making lives in more conventional ways, and I think the book would benefit from more acknowledgement of that.

      That said, I think we need more of your message, not less of it, in our society today. I bought your book last week and it has been with me, or in my backpack, since then. If a legacy is what you want, a legacy is what you’ve created. Really, this is enabling stuff. Thanks.

      David

      P.S. Stay tuned for a post this week discussing gatekeepers. As a denizen of academe, boy did that resonate with me.

    • Oh, and as a further P.S., I’ve already been called arrogant, though without being credited for having either confidence or sense of purpose! 🙂

  3. Thanks for mentioning Freelancers Union in your post.

    The organization just released its Annual Independent Worker Survey. Survey results inform the public (with previous survey coverage in The Wall Street Journal and USA Today) and policymakers about issues that affect independent workers-self-employed, temps, and part-timers. Based on data from previous surveys, policymakers have made concrete changes to help support independent workers—from reforming the Unincorporated Business Tax to introducing legislation (S8084/A11520) to help independent contractors collect what they’re owed from nonpaying clients. Needless to say, the more respondents there are, the better the data is, and the greater the chance of helping independent workers. So please take a few minutes to complete the survey and/or share with your freelancer friends.
    Link to survey: http://www.surveywriter.net/in/survey/survey937/2010Advocacy.asp

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