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

A new Economic Policy Institute report indicates that shareholders, not everyday workers, have reaped the lion’s share of the benefits from America’s considerable productivity gains over the past 20 years. According to Zachary Roth, writing for Yahoo! News (link here):

Despite large gains in productivity over the last two decades, the report finds, wages for American workers have been stagnating.

The study… by Lawrence Mishel and Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute, found that productivity grew by a whopping 62.5 percent between 1989 and 2010, but that real hourly wages increased by just 12 percent over the same period. That suggests that companies are giving far more of their profits to shareholders, and far less to workers. Indeed, corporate profits are 22 percent above where they were before the recession.

Perhaps there are no big surprises here, as the EPI study merely documents what a lot of workers have been experiencing in their paychecks. Still, it’s useful to assemble this data to show how our economic system has been rigged to benefit the most fortunate.


The full report by Mishel and Shierholz, The Sad but True Story of Wages in America, can be downloaded here.

Ezra Klein comments further about the EPI report for the Washington Post, here.

Website of the Week: eBossWatch

Many readers of this blog are familiar with eBossWatch (link here), the popular website founded by businessman Asher Adelman that chronicles the stories of bosses you’d least like to work for, but for the uninitiated, I’d like to call this to your attention.

100 worst bosses

Every year, eBossWatch assembles its list of the nation’s 100 worst bosses, as judged by a panel of experts in employment relations, organizational behavior, and workplace consulting. It serves as an important reminder that bad bossism remains a part of the work experiences of so many workers. Through links to relevant news stories, we also learn more about specific situations that led to including someone on the list.

Two Bay State bosses on the 2010 list

Two Massachusetts bosses share the dubious distinction of making 2010 “Worst Bosses” list (link here):

  • Dentist Nelson Wood of Affordable Care, Brookline, MA, is No. 22.
  • Lieutenant Barbara Bennett of the Massachusetts State Police is No. 87.

Next step: Understanding organizational cultures

Most bad bosses also happen to work at organizations that enable and/or protect their behaviors. In fact, some of the accounts of bad boss behavior detail how employers ignored complaints from workers about sexual harassment, bullying, and ethical lapses.

eBossWatch serves a valuable function in highlighting the continuing abuse that workers experience. If we want to tackle these horrible behaviors more pro-actively, we also need to get at the organizational cultures that fuel them.

Workplace bullying in the military

When I first started talking to people about workplace bullying, many would use military references, drawing upon images of hard-core drill sergeants and demanding officers. I’ve never felt comfortable with that instant association, perhaps because most of the career military folks I’ve known have struck me as being fair, even-keeled, and self-disciplined individuals.

Nevertheless, it would be equally wrongheaded to assume that the military services are immune from such behaviors. After all, we’re talking about people. Indeed, U.S. Air Force captain Genieve David recently speculated that high suicide rates in her branch of the service may be attributable, at least in part, to workplace bullying (link here):

Last year the U.S. Air Force lost 84 lives to suicide and this year the statistics have surpassed that. You’ve seen Wingman down days, taken the suicide awareness training, and have read commentaries from senior Air Force officials on taking care of each other–but no one has talked about bullying in the workplace as a possible factor that may contribute to these feelings of hopelessness or considering suicide.

My hypothesis

I am going to hazard a guess that workplace bullying is no more or less frequent in the military than in many other demanding, high stress vocations. However, when workplace bullying does occur in the armed forces, it may well be harsher and more aggressive due to the chain-of-command structure of the military and the macho culture of everyday military life. I further would guess that bullying behaviors are especially severe when the target is a non-conformist or is regarded as a boat rocker or whistleblower.

This is a topic worthy of deeper investigation, but for now, here are two stories about bullying in the military:

Bullied out of the Irish army

At the 2010 International Conference on Workplace Bullying & Harassment in Cardiff, Wales, I attended a compelling session on whistleblowing and bullying that featured retired Irish Army captain Tom Clonan. Clonan shared with us the disturbing story of how he was retaliated against after submitting a report to his superiors about extensive levels of bullying, sexual harassment, and sexual assault directed at female soldiers by their male colleagues.

Clonan had done the report as part of his doctoral research. As a result of this research project, he was subjected to an ongoing campaign of ostracizing by fellow officers and publicly accused by the military of fabricating his study.

It took an inquiry by the Irish Minister for Defence and Tom’s own libel suit against the Minister of Defence and the Chief of Staff for the Irish Defence Forces (eventually settled) to vindicate his name.  Nevertheless, his military career — until these events on an upward trajectory — was in shambles. He now is the Security Analyst for The Irish Times and a lecturer at the Dublin Institute of Technology School of Media.

A pioneering career run aground

Last year, Time magazine ran a piece (link here) detailing the career of U.S. Navy officer Holly Cowpens, whose style of command was so abusive that when her ship ran aground, the sailors on board were singing “Ding dong, the witch is dead,” knowing that such a major screw up could result in her being relieved of duty.

Time‘s Mark Thompson continues with the story:

Graf’s next command, as captain of the guided-missile cruiser U.S.S. Cowpens, would be her last. Graf was relieved of duty in January, after nearly two years on the Cowpens, for “cruelty and maltreatment” of her crew, according to a blistering Navy inspector general’s report obtained by TIME. The report has rocked the service to its bilges because it calls into question the way the Navy chooses, promotes and then monitors its handpicked skippers.


Hat tip to eBossWatch for the Capt. David blog post.

Hope for worker dignity comes out of a union meeting in Massachusetts

Being an academician and a lawyer, it’s rare that I get inspired by meetings, but thankfully there still are exceptions.

On Thursday, it was my good fortune to be a guest speaker at the monthly Joint Executive Committee meeting of SEIU/NAGE in Massachusetts. The invitation came by way of Greg Sorozan, president of SEIU/NAGE Local 282 and one of the leading labor activists in the anti-bullying movement.

Union leadership toward worker dignity

Thanks to Greg, union state director Kevin Preston, union legislative agent Jim Redmond, and others, SEIU/NAGE has become a national example of how dedicated labor leadership can play a critically important role in addressing workplace bullying, to the benefit of all workers in the state.

Two years ago, they successfully negotiated a “mutual respect clause” in their collective bargaining agreement that includes bullying behaviors, covering some 21,000 state workers.

Soon afterward, they played a critically important role in getting State Senator Joan Menard to introduce the Healthy Workplace Bill for the 2009-10 session of the Massachusetts legislature. They have carried through on their commitment by helping us to reintroduce the bill for the 2011-12 session, this time with 2 main sponsors and 11 co-sponsors in tow.

Yesterday’s meeting was more of an update and discussion than a rally-the-troops speech. We talked about the legislation and upcoming contract negotiations, as well as the realities of handling claims of workplace bullying as shop stewards and union leaders.

And there, folks, was the best thing about it. It was part of an ongoing conversation. I first talked to the union several years ago about how organized labor can respond to workplace bullying. My remarks were aspirational then — hope, not reality. However, these union leaders took up the challenge and have been at it ever since.

Humanizing public workers and public employee unions

The nation’s anti-union forces currently are mounting a virulent campaign to demonize public workers and their unions. To build public support for squashing them, it helps to dehumanize, caricature, and ridicule them, right?

During the meeting, I learned about efforts being undertaken to counter that assault. It’s a labor coalition campaign called Working Massachusetts (website here), and one of its major projects is a series of radio spots airing across the state, containing short interviews with public workers talking their jobs and the work they do. For a link to the latest, go here.

Lisa Smith, NAGE’s senior communications officer, explained the rationale: It’s about sharing stories of public workers with the public. They include personal accounts of training police officers to do CPR, of engaging in flood control efforts to save communities from destruction, and of clearing snow away from hospital driveways. Through these spots, the public is reminded of the vital, commonplace work being done by state employees.

I have long believed that organized labor needs to take its case more directly to everyday Americans. This gives me hope that labor leaders are starting to understand the need to do so.

Thuggery in Wisconsin, but hope in the Bay State

The meeting was held the morning after the Republicans in the Wisconsin state senate used a procedural technicality to approve Governor Scott Walker’s bill stripping most state workers of almost all of their collective bargaining rights. I must admit that, with human rights on the wane in Wisconsin, it was heartening to see smart, committed, pro-worker union activism and messaging here in my own backyard.

More importantly, the meeting reminded me of the central importance of the labor movement in watching out for the rights, safety, and dignity of workers everywhere.

Not convinced? Think again…

If you don’t get the need for unions, consider the opposition to legal protections against workplace bullying:

  • The Chamber of Commerce routinely opposes the Healthy Workplace Bill on the ground that the complete management discretion and the free market, not pesky lawsuits for treating workers abusively, will best solve all problems of unfair treatment.
  • The Society for Human Resource Management calls workplace bullying legislation unnecessary and costly, instead preferring that most abused workers trust their HR rep to rectify the situation while the law offers few incentives for employers to act responsively.
  • If all else fails, armies of highly paid corporate lawyers are ready and willing to put workers through years of litigation hell if they dare bring a lawsuit against their employer.

On the other hand, labor unions have been amongst the most committed organizational supporters of the Healthy Workplace Bill. They have devoted staff resources toward advancing the legislation, submitted written statements in support of the bill, and urged their members to contact their elected officials.

Labor voice a must

I realize that not all supporters of the Healthy Workplace Bill are fans of unions. Some may have had unpleasant personal experiences with them.

True, unions are fallible organizations, like any other kind of group endeavor. And a bad union is just that. But these imperfections render the labor movement no less necessary. A world without organized labor is a world that has declared open season on everyday workers.

If you doubt my words, go to Wisconsin and do whatever you can to arrange a meeting with Governor Walker. Tell him you understand the need to strip workers of collective bargaining rights, but that you’d really like him to endorse a bill protecting employees — including state workers — against severe bullying and abuse at work. Tell him he can be a hero by standing up to “special interests” like the Chamber of Commerce, Society for Human Resource Management, and the management-side employment bar.

And then let me know when he stops laughing.

Workforce Management on sexual orientation at work

Cheers to Workforce Management for a lead feature article and closing editorial on sexual orientation at work in its March 2011 issue. James Walsh leads with a piece about the possibility of extending employment discrimination protections to cover sexual orientation and gender identity:

Emboldened by the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, gay rights groups have set their sights once again on the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA. The act would prohibit public and private employers, employment agencies and labor unions from using an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity as a basis for discrimination.

The article goes on to describe the growing political support for the legislation and changing attitudes toward gay and lesbian concerns at work.

Supportive op-ed

In an issue-closing editorial, Ronald Alsop notes that “gays who were just beginning their careers back in 1974 are still vulnerable to workplace homophobia.”

Alsop expresses hope “that ENDA becomes law before yet another generation of gays retires from the workforce,” but he also recognizes that “corporate trailblazers…will continue to have the greatest impact in making gays feel welcome and safe at work and in expanding their career opportunities.”

Right balance

I think Alsop gets it right. Legal protections are needed to support those who are subjected to discriminatory treatment, but genuine inclusion and acceptance will do more to help folks on an everyday basis.


The March issue is not yet posted to the magazine’s website; typically free online access is provided several months after the publication date.

Plutocracy in America: A term for our times

Recently I wrote about Bertram Gross’s Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America (1982), a remarkably prescient book in which the author — a social scientist and veteran of two presidential administrations — warned about “a slow and powerful drift toward greater concentration of power and wealth in a repressive Big Business-Big Government partnership” (link to blog post here).

I was hesitant, however, to use the obvious term that captures what our society has become, fearful of sounding like I was leading a seminar on political economy. But I realize that we should use the label. defines plutocracy in three ways:

1. the rule or power of wealth or of the wealthy.

2. a government or state in which the wealthy class rules.

3. a class or group ruling, or exercising power or influence, by virtue of its wealth.

I’ve noticed the term popping up much more frequently of late. Two examples:

Bill Moyers in The Progressive

I’ve never thought of Bill Moyers as being a fire-breathing radical.  Oh sure, his politics are solidly liberal, but those beliefs have been strongly shaped by his religious faith, and he always has been on the side of civil public discourse.

Nonetheless, in the February issue of The Progressive, Moyers states his case clearly and unambiguously: American is becoming a country ruled by the super rich. Here’s a snippet from his essay (link to excerpt, here):

Let that sink in: For millions of garden-variety Americans, the audacity of hope has been replaced by a paucity of hope.

Plutocracy and democracy don’t mix. Plutocracy too long tolerated leaves democracy on the auction block, subject to the highest bidder.

Socrates said to understand a thing, you must first name it. The name for what’s happening to our political system is corruption: a deep, systemic corruption.

Kevin Drum in Mother Jones

Kevin Drum, in a cover story for Mother Jones magazine (link here), points to two factors in our political system that are fueling an American plutocracy.

First, “(i)ncome inequality has grown dramatically since the mid-’70s—far more in the US than in most advanced countries—and the gap is only partly related to college grads outperforming high-school grads.

Second, “American politicians don’t care much about voters with moderate incomes. Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels studied the voting behavior of US senators in the early ’90s and discovered that they respond far more to the desires of high-income groups than to anyone else.”

More on Wisconsin

The situation in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker continues his attempt to strip most public workers of collective bargaining rights, is a prime example of the story behind a story.

On the surface, this may appear to be yet another contentious battle between labor and management in the midst of tough economic times. In reality, it is an attempt to deny workers a collective voice and to advance the interests of the Koch Brothers, the billionaire industrialists who bankroll Gov. Walker and other hard right conservatives.

Work in America…and elsewhere

All of this carries grave implications for our workplaces, jobs, and economic and political well-being, ranging from the individual and collective voices we have at work, to the division and distribution of wealth in our society, to access and participation in our political system.

It also has serious repercussions for our neighbors around the world, as American-style anti-worker practices are being exported to other countries. These include the most exploitative aspects of corporate globalization and virulent labor opposition tactics that have proven so successful in the U.S.

America’s Bullying Culture

As I have written on other occasions, I hope that we as a society will connect the dots between seemingly different forms of bullying and abuse and understand their commonalities. That’s why I was pleased to see this piece by Sam Ali, writing for DiversityInc, noting the growing public concern over America’s culture of bullying at school, work, and in our political discourse:

In poll after poll, Americans have voiced concern over the erosion of civility in modern life and human interactions, in government, business, media and online. According to a poll released in June by Weber Shandwick, 65 percent of Americans say the lack of civility is a major problem in the country and feel the negative tenor has worsened during the financial crisis and recession.


For a related observation, consider Henry Giroux’s piece on, positing that America has embraced a culture of cruelty (link here):

The culture of cruelty is important for thinking through how entertainment and politics now converge in ways that fundamentally transform how we understand and imagine politics in the current historical moment – a moment when the central issue of getting by is no longer about working to get ahead but struggling simply to survive.

Does bullying at work keep us productive and competitive?

In the U.S., we put bullying bosses on a pedestal. In fact, here’s a celebrated Harvard Business Review article by organizational behavior professor Roderick Kramer (link here), praising the “great intimidators” of the management world:

They are not averse to causing a ruckus, nor are they above using a few public whippings and ceremonial hangings to get attention.

Kramer insists that the great intimidators aren’t your “typical bullies” driven by ego and the desire to humiliate others. No, he claims, these are people of vision.

Bullying the anti-bullying legislation

For more evidence, consider the most twisted criticism of the Healthy Workplace Bill that I’ve encountered so far. In a 2007 article, employment lawyers Timothy Van Dyck and Patricia Mullen — a senior partner and associate, respectively, at one of the nation’s largest corporate law firms — claimed that legal protections against workplace bullying are contrary to high performance expectations for workers and the value of healthy competition (link here).

The very title of their article, “Picking the Wrong Fight: Legislation That Needs Bullying,” is suggestive of their mindset. But the substance of their views is even creepier. They posit that “tension created by competition” fuels productivity at work, and that workplace bullying legislation “would not only inhibit productivity and employers’ freedom to hire and fire at-will employees but moreover, it would chill critical workplace communication.”

It comes from the top

Regardless of the type of organization, the role of leadership is key. Kevin Kennemer of The People Group wrote about how organizational leaders play the crucial role in establishing the culture of a workplace (link here):

Today, more than ever, I believe company culture is king and the CEO is the torch bearer and champion for building a great workplace. As a business leader, spending time on your company’s work environment is like money in the bank for all stakeholders in the long-run.  The creation of a great company culture trumps the richest of compensation or benefits programs.  When your culture is toxic, you may overspend on various incentives to tie people to their cubicles.  However, employees can tolerate a bad workplace for only so long, even if the company has the best dental plan money can buy.

Bullying tends not to be an anomalous behavior in a given organization. When bullying occurs, typically it has been encouraged or enabled — directly or indirectly — by those at the top.


Hat tip to the Workplace Bullying Institute for the DiversityInc article.

What’s the relationship between individual change and social change?

I’m spending the end of this week participating in a series of seminars and discussions at the Western Institute for Social Research in Berkeley, California, where one of the many interesting talks examined the linkages between individual change and social change.

Larry Berkelhammer, a licensed marriage and family therapist in California, presented a paper examining different approaches to practicing mindfulness and related them to broader themes of social change. His basic thesis is that “positive social change will most likely result from positive personal change.”

On a more superficial level, I have long believed this was the case, but Larry’s remarks and the ensuing discussion took these ideas much deeper, examining ties between personal identity, various faith traditions, and social action.


I found myself responding to the discussion in two ways. First, positive personal change, as a simple aggregation of more individuals finding themselves in better places (figuratively speaking), will indeed lead to a positive cumulative impact on a social level. Second, as we look within ourselves, we may find the wisdom and understanding to deal better with the injustices and absurdities of the world, even as we pursue our endeavors as change agents.

Also, as others emphasized during the discussion, we cannot look at individual change or transformation absent the political and social realities of the day. I might characterize it more bluntly: Someone who is truly in a state of bliss must be living in the psychological equivalent of a gated community, unaware of the dire challenges facing others.

Workplace bullying movement

The overall theme resonated with me deeply due to my involvement in the workplace bullying movement. If we are to reduce the frequency and harm caused by this form of abuse, then we need individual education, understanding, and behavioral change to connect to practices, policies, and laws. What happens at an individual level must intertwine with progress on a systemic level.

Recycling: Recipe for an abusive boss, our inner child at work, and the recession as stressor

From the archives of this blog, here are three posts of possible interest:

1. Recipe for an Abusive Boss: Power + Low Self-Esteem (October 2009) — Reporting on a study showing when and why people in power at work act abusively.

2. Yikes! Our Inner Child at Work (May 2009) — Hmm, maybe that shrink isn’t wrong for taking us back to our childhoods.

3. The Recession as Stressor (April 2009) — Reporting on a study about the negative health impacts of the recession.

[Editor’s Note: In addition to maintaining a list of articles that have remained very popular on this blog — see the Popular and Notable Posts page — every month or so I’m recycling relevant posts from more than a year ago. Hopefully they will be of interest to newer readers.]

In Massachusetts House, Rep. Ellen Story and colleagues lead way on 2011-12 Healthy Workplace Bill

The Healthy Workplace Bill has been introduced in the Massachusetts House of Representatives (2011-12 session) as House No. 2310, with Representative Ellen Story serving as lead sponsor.

Rep. Story is joined by co-sponsoring Representatives Peter V. KocotLouis L. KafkaKay KhanAlice K. WolfKevin G. HonanNick CollinsDenise Andrews, and Benjamin Swan.

The Healthy Workplace Bill provides targets of severe workplace bullying with a legal claim for damages and offers incentives for employers to act preventively and responsively toward bullying behaviors at work.

Contact your Representatives

Bay Staters, please contact your State Representative and urge him or her to support the Healthy Workplace Bill. If your Representative already is a sponsor, please convey your thanks.

For the House member directory, go here. For the Find My Legislator online lookup, go here.

Also, please express your support to members of the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, to which the HWB has been referred.

Follow the HWB

To follow House No. 2310 in Massachusetts, go to this link, where you can track the bill’s history and read the text of the bill.

On the Senate side

Senator Katherine M. Clark is lead sponsor of the HWB on the Senate side, and we are awaiting a bill number.


Disclosure note: I am the author of the Healthy Workplace Bill, variations of which are being considered by state legislatures across the country. The HWB provides targets of severe workplace bullying with a legal claim for damages and creates legal incentives for employers to act preventively and responsively toward bullying behaviors. For more information, go to the Healthy Workplace Bill website.

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