Tea Party views on the economy and the safety net: Taking us back to the 19th century

If you’re wondering about the wish list of policies behind the Tea Party rhetoric, ponder these snapshot examples of the positions of two newly-elected, Tea Party-supported Members of Congress, drawn from an Associated Press piece by Charles Babington (link here, via Yahoo! News).

Save the rich, punish the unemployed

Here’s the economic platform of first-term GOP Representative Allen West of Florida:

In southeast Florida last week, first-term GOP Rep. Allen West, a tea party favorite, called for changes that some might consider radical: abolish the Internal Revenue Service and federal income tax; retain tax cuts for billionaires so they won’t shut down their charities; stop extending unemployment benefits that “reward bad behavior” by discouraging people from seeking new jobs.

Does this Congressional newbie not understand that we simply don’t have enough good jobs (i.e., those that pay a living wage) to go around? Does he realize that tax rates on the wealthy already have plummeted from their high point during the post-WWII era, when America’s economy happened to be at its zenith?

Hey, let’s stop brainwashing these kids!

Another first-term GOP Representative, Trey Gowdy, sees sinister things being taught in our schools:

According to a Greenville News account posted on his website, Gowdy “described a recent school classroom where most children indicated they think it’s the government’s job to provide health care, Social Security and education. ‘We’ve got to do something about the sense of entitlement,’ Gowdy said.”

OK, I get the debate over government-sponsored health care, but this guy is suggesting that public education somehow is wrong???

America, meet your deep end

This is a very different Republican Party than the one that once hosted the likes of Senator Mark Hatfield of OregonRepresentative John Anderson of Illinois, and — going further back — Governor Robert LaFollette Sr. of Wisconsin.

We are dealing with folks who want to take us back to the 19th century, and that’s no exaggeration. Voters are electing extremists who want to do away with the very safety net that many of them would want to access if they found themselves facing hard times. They are empowering those who want to eliminate retirement and disability benefits and to privatize education.

The Tea Party folks are pushing the GOP off the deep end, and I’m afraid they’re willing to take a lot of everyday Americans with them.

What bad employers do: Treating job applicants and the unemployed like dirt

Finding a job in these recessionary times is hard enough, but what happens when employers decide to rub a little salt into the wound?

Don’t call us, we won’t call you

Katie Johnston Chase reports for the Boston Globe on the practice of employers treating job seekers shabbily (link here):

As their searches for employment stretch on, some job seekers are getting a rude awakening from the companies they apply to. Nearly a third of the executives surveyed online by search firm Korn/Ferry International said candidates aren’t being treated respectfully by prospective employers.

One of the most common complaints, adds Chase, is that “companies disappear in the middle of the hiring process, failing to let applicants know they didn’t get the job, even after multiple interviews.”

Refusing to hire the unemployed

Some of America’s less-than-wonderful employers (and staffing agencies, too) are refusing to hire the unemployed, even to the point of listing current employment as a requirement in job announcements. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that enforces workplace discrimination laws, recently held hearings on this emerging phenomenon (link here) in light of possible discriminatory impact on older workers, women, and people of color.

For example, University of Colorado law professor Helen Norton was among those who testified:

(E)mployers and staffing agencies have publicly advertised jobs in fields ranging from electronic engineers to restaurant and grocery managers to mortgage underwriters with the explicit restriction that only currently employed candidates will be considered. “Some employers may use current employment as a signal of quality job performance,” Norton testified. “But such a correlation is decidedly weak. A blanket reliance on current employment serves as a poor proxy for successful job performance.”

Can’t find work? Too bad…at least if you’re in Michigan

It’s not just lousy employers who are out to punish the unemployed. At a time when there are not enough jobs to go around — let alone jobs that pay living wages — Michigan Governor Rick Snyder enthusiastically signed into law a six-week reduction in unemployment benefits for those without work, claiming this will spur job growth by minimizing the unemployment tax burden on employers.

Kick ’em while they’re down

These dots connect. It’s all about kicking people while they’re down. It’s part of a culture of cruelty — or at least pathological insensitivity — towards those who could use some respect, a helping hand, and hopefully a job.

A union health & safety conference reinforces the importance of worker solidarity

I’ve just had the privilege of spending several days with members of the New York Public Employees Federation (PEF) at their annual health and safety conference in Albany. It was a welcomed reminder that — at least on occasion! — even a hotel conference center can be the site of a big dose of inspiration.

Great speakers and programs

There were several dozen sessions during the conference, and these were among the highlights for me:

  • A passionate, heartfelt keynote address by Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, underscored the critical importance of labor unions in safeguarding the health and dignity of workers;
  • A Friday morning plenary included an insightful talk by Andy Coates (physician and PEF shop steward) linking health & safety challenges at work to broader indicators of distribution of wealth and resources;
  • A workshop on occupational stress led by PEF’s Geraldine Stella taught participants how to break down sources of workplace stress and analyze them in ways that lead to specific solutions; and,
  • A 100th anniversary remembrance of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire featured readings by Jemma Marie Hanson (PEF), Kristina Willbrant (PEF’s very able conference coordinator), and Maureen Cox (NY Dept. of Labor).

Nurses on the firing line

I was especially pleased that two fellow Bay Staters, both affiliated with the Massachusetts Nurses Association, made the trip to Albany to lead a program on working with law enforcement authorities to address workplace violence.

Christine Pontus, RN, opened with an informative presentation on how changes in mental health treatment policies over several decades have put health care workers in harm’s way. Ellen Farley, RN, detailed her brave, persistent, and ultimately successful efforts to spur a Massachusetts prosecutor’s office to deal with a serially abusive patient who had committed some 55 reported assaults in a single year.

They were followed by members of the local district attorney’s office who gave a useful mini-tutorial on the criminal offenses most likely to arise out of violent situations involving patient behavior.

PEF “gets it” concerning workplace bullying

I was at the conference to speak about workplace bullying, sharing an afternoon plenary session stage with PEF’s Matt London, who is working with Jane Lipscomb of the University of Maryland and others on a superb study of bullying and aggression in public agencies. (Seriously — they have a ton of great data, and we’ll be hearing more about the results in the months to come.)

PEF is taking workplace bullying very seriously. They are educating their membership about this phenomenon and supporting the Healthy Workplace Bill before the New York legislature.

In fact, my role was merely to explain how their extensive efforts relate to the broader national and international movement to respond to workplace bullying. It was heartening to talk to so many PEF members who already had taken time to learn about workplace bullying and to apply this knowledge to addressing situations at work.


The PEF Health & Safety Department deserves a warm round of applause for putting together this successful gathering. Thanks especially to director Jonathan Rosen, whose long-time commitment to addressing workplace bullying and violence led to this speaking invitation.

Why we need unions

We’re hearing a lot about state budget crises right now. Some of these concerns are serving as smokescreens to launch a virulent assault on public employees and the right to bargain collectively, as we’re seeing in Wisconsin.

Don’t be fooled about the true intentions behind these attacks. Those who had the good fortune of taking part in this conference experienced why good unions are so threatening to those who want to consolidate power and wealth: First, there is strength in organized numbers. Second, the core meaning of worker solidarity is good people helping other good people to improve the work lives of all, not just the most fortunate few.

No wonder why some folks would prefer that unions simply disappear. We have to do everything we can to ensure that will not happen.

Losing a voice, for now: Bob Herbert leaves the NY Times

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, a passionate and compassionate voice for economic and social justice, is leaving the paper “to write a book and to expand [his] efforts on behalf of working people, the poor and others who are struggling in our society.” In his final column today, “Losing Our Way” (link here), he wrote:

So here we are pouring shiploads of cash into yet another war, this time in Libya, while simultaneously demolishing school budgets, closing libraries, laying off teachers and police officers, and generally letting the bottom fall out of the quality of life here at home.


Overwhelming imbalances in wealth and income inevitably result in enormous imbalances of political power. So the corporations and the very wealthy continue to do well. The employment crisis never gets addressed. The wars never end. And nation-building never gets a foothold here at home.

New ideas and new leadership have seldom been more urgently needed.

Hopefully he’ll be back at us again soon.


I included links to previous Herbert columns in this post, Jobs, Unemployment, and the Great Recession.

Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, March 25, 1911

On March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers in Manhattan — mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women employed by the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory — died in one of the nation’s worst industrial fires.  Here’s a description of what happened from an online exhibit hosted by the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations (link here):

Near closing time on Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Asch Building in the Triangle Waist Company. Within minutes, the quiet spring afternoon erupted into madness, a terrifying moment in time, disrupting forever the lives of young workers. By the time the fire was over, 146 of the 500 employees had died. The survivors were left to live and relive those agonizing moments. The victims and their families, the people passing by who witnessed the desperate leaps from ninth floor windows, and the City of New York would never be the same.

The tragedy led to legislation covering worker health and safety, spurred the growth of the American labor movement, and shined a light on working conditions of those toiling in sweatshops in the nation’s cities.

Pictured above

The fire occurred on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of this building, located just east of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, Manhattan.

The photo on the left is a contemporary view looking at the building’s south side, from which some 50 women jumped to their deaths rather than face being burned alive.

The photo on the right is the building today, now known as the Brown Building and owned by New York University. (Both photos courtesy of Wikipedia.)

I recently walked by the building and gazed upwards. Other than two modest plaques marking the historical significance of the building and the fire, there is no visible evidence of the tragic event. On a nice fall or spring afternoon, with the Washington Square area alive with students, tourists, and locals enjoying the day, it’s hard to imagine the horror of what happened there. I don’t know whether that’s a good or bad thing.

To learn more

Cornell online exhibit

The Cornell website (link to front page, here) is a treasure trove of information about this tragedy, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about what happened.


These two books provide vivid, informative accounts of the fire and its aftermath:

Leon Stein, The Triangle Fire (1962)

David von Drehle, Triangle: The Fire That Changed America (2003)


PBS recently aired American Experience: Triangle Fire (2011).

HBO is airing Triangle: Remembering the Fire (2011).

Do the “seven stages of hate” help to illuminate mobbing behaviors at work?

Former FBI behavioral analyst Jack Schafer, blogging for Psychology Today (link here), summarizes the “Seven-Stage Hate Model” that he first presented in a 2003 co-authored piece in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin:

Stage 1: The Haters Gather

Stage 2: The Hate Group Defines Itself

Stage 3: The Hate Group Disparages the Target

Stage 4: The Hate Group Taunts the Target

Stage 5: The Hate Group Attacks the Target Without Weapons

Stage 6: The Hate Group Attacks the Target with Weapons

Stage 7: The Hate Group Destroys the Target

Schafer’s full post — which elaborates on each stage — is worth printing out and reading.

Mobbing and bullying at work

Schafer aptly recognizes that the model has “wider application,” and he takes us through a workplace scenario, applying the seven stages:

For example, when a coworker, for various reasons, becomes a hate target, the hater immediately seeks out others in the office who dislike, or can be persuaded to dislike, the hated coworker (Stage 1).

It’s about insecurities

Those who have studied workplace bullying will find themselves nodding at Shafer’s identification of a central characteristic among the haters:

Hate masks personal insecurities. Not all insecure people are haters, but all haters are insecure people. Hate elevates the hater above the hated. Haters cannot stop hating without exposing their personal insecurities. Haters can only stop hating when they face their insecurities.

This observation dovetails with the findings of a 2006 study by professors Nathanael Fast and Serena Chen (reported on this blog), indicating that “power paired with a lack of self-perceived competence” can lead to aggression at work.

Pioneering researchers

Heinz Heymann

Schafer’s model also resonates with the work of the late Swedish psychologist Heinz Leymann, whose pioneering investigations during the 1980s constituted the starting point for conceptualizing and understanding the phenomenon of workplace bullying.  Leymann used the term “mobbing” to describe the kinds of abusive, hostile behaviors that were being directed at workers. (Go here for the website about Leymann’s work.)

Davenport, Schwartz & Elliott

Noa Davenport, Ruth Distler Schwartz and Gail Pursell Elliott would build on Leymann’s work in their important 2002 book, Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace.

Ken Westhues

Also on point is the masterful work on mobbing in academe by University of Waterloo sociologist Kenneth Westhues. His detailed accounts of the mobbing of university professors are worthy of close study and carry lessons for well beyond academic settings. (Go here for Westhues’s website.)


Hat tip to CiviliNation for the Schafer blog post.

Lisa Dodson on the moral underground economy

The term “underground economy” typically suggests something irregular, perhaps even shady or illegal.

But in a piece for Yes! magazine (link here) drawn from her recent book The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy (2010), Boston College sociologist Lisa Dodson writes of everyday Americans who are bending or breaking the rules, fueling a “moral underground economy” to help others in need.

Class bonding, not class warfare

In researching her book, Dodson realized that she had stumbled onto an interesting phenomenon, that of middle-class people — such as mid-level managers at retail shops and local businesses — empathizing with their lower-paid co-workers and finding ways to help them out:

They found a little opening, a little chink in the system, and used it to treat working people better. Even if they had to break company rules, they were determined to treat people as though their survival mattered in a business environment that valued nothing but bottom-line profitability.


She heard stories such as these:

  • “Bea” is a big-box chain store manager who somehow ordered an “extra” prom dress for an employee who couldn’t afford to buy her daughter a prom dress.
  • “Andrew” is a manager for a food company who finds ways to pad the modest paychecks of his workers and gives them food to take home.
  • “Ned” is a grocery store worker who “detours some of the ‘product’ that doesn’t quite pass muster—dented cans, not-quite-fresh produce—to his low-wage employees.”

Going underground to survive

Of course, the very term underground economy often obscures the real motivation for working off the books or bending the rules to help people who are struggling to make ends meet: Good jobs at decent wages are in terribly short supply, and available public assistance doesn’t bridge the gaps.

The upshot of Dodson’s examination is that in a nation where minimum wage laws do not mandate a living wage, where public assistance is inadequate, and where the gap between the most and least fortunate continues to grow wider and deeper, practicing simple morality becomes a form of humanitarian civil disobedience.


Recent related posts:

Workers aren’t reaping the benefits of America’s productivity gains

Plutocracy in America: A term for our times

Does it boil down to the rich & powerful vs. the rest of us?

Los Angeles Times piece on workplace bullying and the Healthy Workplace Bill

Tina Susman of the Los Angeles Times leads her excellent piece on workplace bullying and the Healthy Workplace Bill (link here) with the story of Kathie Gant, who worked as an administrative assistant for an attorney who treated her abusively. The lawyer yelled at her, threw things at her, and once even locked her in a storage closet.

From target to advocate

Gant sought counseling and eventually brought herself to testify recently on behalf of the Healthy Workplace Bill before a Maryland state legislative committee:

After months of taunts and needling by her boss, Gant said she ended up on a psychiatrist’s couch and nearly in a psych ward.

With a quavering voice and tearful demeanor, Gant testified about her job situation during a legislative hearing this month at the state Capitol as Maryland became one of the latest states to consider legislation against workplace bullying.

Fixing misconceptions

It’s obvious in reading objections to creating legal protections against workplace bullying — both in Susman’s article itself and posted comments — that there remains a wide chasm between those who have experienced, witnessed, or otherwise come to understand workplace bullying and those who have not.

Too many believe that workplace bullying is about managerial style.  Nothing could be further from the truth, unless you consider routinely screaming at people, becoming physically threatening, or deliberately setting up someone for failure to be valid management techniques. Workplace bullying is about abuse, not legitimate management practice.

Still, others are either uninformed about the limitations of current employment protections or deliberately trying to confuse people into believing that workplace bullying is adequately covered by existing laws. I drafted the Healthy Workplace Bill only after my exhaustive assessment of existing employment laws led to the inescapable conclusion that too many targets of severe workplace bullying had little or no recourse under the law.

Suicide of Wisconsin schoolteacher connected to state budget cuts

Matthew Rothschild, editor of The Progressive magazine, reports that the March 8 suicide of a Wisconsin schoolteacher has been tied to her distraught state over the attack on state workers (story link here):

Jeri-Lynn Betts, an early childhood teacher in the Watertown, Wisconsin, school district, died on March 8 of an apparent suicide.

A colleague says she was “very distraught” over Gov. Scott Walker’s attacks on public sector workers and public education.

Betts, 56, was a dedicated teacher who was admired in the Watertown community.

Very complicated matter

We must be careful in attributing specific causes to suicide, but it appears that the Madison-based political magazine has checked out this story carefully before going public with it.

Soon after Betts’s death, “two members of the school district contacted The Progressive about her death, calling it a suicide and saying it was connected, at least in part, to the policies that Walker has proposed.” The magazine’s investigation found, among other things, that:

. . . A police [officer] took a statement from Susan Kemmerling, who worked with Betts as a special education paraprofessional for the past decade.

“Susan advised me that Geri had a long history of depression,” Officer Jeffrey Meloy wrote in his report. “Susan stated that the last several weeks had been ‘stressing her out’ due to the protests and the introduction of the budget repair bill and the uncertainty involved in the teaching world, as far as who was going to have jobs and what services were going to be cut.

The article doesn’t dodge the fact that Betts had suffered from depression. It does point out, however, that many teachers across Wisconsin are experiencing high amounts of stress and anxiety due to the budget cuts and the public bashing they are receiving in the media.


The Betts tragedy bears a sad resemblance to the phenomenon of “bullycides,” discussed previously on this blog:

An unfortunate but apt term entered our lexicon this year, “bullycide,” referring to suicides linked to bullying at work and schools.

In the workplace context, two such deaths became especially prominent. One involved the July suicide of Kevin Morrissey, an editor at the University of Virginia’s Virginia Quarterly Review, which was linked to severe bullying by his supervisor, the journal’s editor-in-chief.

Another involved the 2008 suicide of Jodie Zebell, a health care worker whose story was shared with the Wisconsin legislature when it deliberated upon the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill (see below for more on the HWB).

Granted, Betts and other teachers are not being targeted personally by these budget cuts. But the tone of public ridicule and dismissiveness about the value of their contributions to the greater good — fueled by politicians who need to demonize them in order to justify the cuts and strip them of collective bargaining rights — no doubt has been a source of considerable demoralization and stress.

In other words, when people experience their dignity being taken from them, tragic consequences are bound to follow.

Work on TV: American Idol without Simon Cowell

Two years ago I considered the question of whether Simon Cowell, the famously caustic judge on “American Idol,” was a workplace bully (post here):

Because Simon is the toughest judge, contestants often appear apprehensive when it’s his turn to comment.  If Simon praises the performance, the contestant breathes a sigh of relief and beams with delight.  If he pans the performance, the poor contestant tries to take it in stride.

I concluded that while Simon is something of a bully, many have experienced worse:

I’m not endorsing or defending Simon’s style or practice.  He’s a bonafide jerk, and he sometimes abuses the power his role confers upon him.  His Idol fame makes him a workplace bullying poster boy.  But as some readers can certainly attest, there are many, many bosses out there much worse than Simon Cowell.

Exit Simon

Simon is gone now, having moved on to other (equally or more lucrative) projects. Two other judges from last season, Kara DioGuardi and Ellen DeGeneres, were not retained, creating an opportunity to remake the judges panel.

The corps of Idol judges now includes holdover Randy Jackson and newcomers Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler. The addition of two famous performers obviously was designed to bolster ratings, but both Lopez and Tyler have proven to be solid in their roles.

Kinder, gentler, and still entertaining

The remodeled Idol judging panel also shows the dramatic effect of removing a bully from the workplace. Although I’ve missed several episodes, I feel comfortable saying that the 2011 edition of American Idol is a kinder place, even when the judges issue pointed critiques of less-than-stellar performances.

Both Lopez and Tyler bring a natural sympathy and respect for those who are auditioning and performing.

Tyler, surprisingly, also happens to be a bit of a class clown. Lopez has shed her diva personality and at times plays the role of maternal softie when it comes to dealing with the young performers.

What’s missing is the gratuitous meanness that Cowell often brought to reviewing performances he didn’t like. The palpable apprehension on the faces of contestants awaiting his critique and the deer-in-the-headlights looks as some struggled to react to one of his heavily barbed criticisms are no longer standard parts of each episode.

The effect of Simon Cowell’s departure on ratings is harder to determine. Ratings have been down, but they have been on the decline during the past few seasons, and this may be only a continuation of that trend.

Back to focusing on the talent

This appears to be a talented group of finalists, with a few of the contestants showing real star qualities early in the season. Think what you may about the talent show format, but during its 10 years, “American Idol” has unearthed some genuine stars. Perhaps the focus away from Simon Cowell’s bullying reviews will help to shine a more proper light on the young folks who are trying to make a splash on the Idol stage.

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