From “punk-styled kids” to airline pilots, is Occupy Wall Street the start of something big?

The Occupy Wall Street movement started with a small but growing collection of folks you might expect to be marching on Wall Street. As Jeanne Mansfield recounts for the Boston Review (link here):

The crowd looks like maybe 300 people, mostly punk-styled kids and folks carrying their computers (for live streaming, we found out later) and some aging-hippie types. People are beating drums, blowing whistles, carrying signs, and chanting: “Banks got bailed out, you got sold out!” and “We are the 99 percent!” and “All day, all week, occupy Wall Street!” and of course the classic “This is what democracy looks like!”

The mainstream media largely ignored them. And as this video attests, some presumably well-monied folks considered them an amusing diversion, enjoying a sip of bubbly as they watched the protesters on the streets:

Airline pilots, too

But this movement is gaining steam. The mostly young folks who launched Occupy Wall Street appear to be serving as role models for their elders.

The labor movement is taking note, and mainstream unions now recognize this as a potentially important moment. For example, earlier this week, some 700 uniformed airline pilots staged their own protest over pay and working conditions. Perhaps the fact that “professionals” are now part of this movement may be the reason why even Forbes magazine was moved to cover it (link here):

Hundreds of uniformed pilots, standing in stark contrast to the youthful Occupy Wall Street protesters, staged their own protest outside of Wall Street over the past couple of days, holding signs with the picture of the Hudson river crash asking “What’s a Pilot Worth” and others declaring “Management is Destroying Our Airline.”

Forbes fairly observed that entry-level pay for commercial pilots can be abysmal:

…(P)ilots are among the most dismally paid workers in the country – at least when they start flying.

According to FltOps.com first year pilots make as little as $21,600 a year. Some airlines, such as Southwest, pay more than twice that. On average, starting pay for the major airlines is just above $36,000 a year.

Let’s not forget

The addition of more established players to the scene may give the protests credibility that a bunch of scruffy looking young people could not. But let’s not forget the seeds of anger, resentment, and fear that drove the original protesters to take their message to the locus of America’s wealth.

America’s younger generations face a very uncertain future. The economic meltdown has had a devastating effect on their current employment prospects, and the ripple effects threaten to endure for years, if not decades. They know darn well that they risk being tossed under the bus, economically speaking.

It’s about voice

Paul Crist, an economist, political activist, and fellow board member of Americans for Democratic Action, captured the promise of an emerging movement when he shared these remarks with Facebook friends this morning:

The protests are about to get much bigger! Thanks to NY Transit Workers, SEIU local, United Federation of Teachers, Working Families Party…let’s see the national labor leaders get behind this! The 99% of us who can’t afford a lobbyist WILL BE HEARD!

Yup, it’s about voice. When it comes to peaceful protest about the widening wealth gap and lack of jobs, Americans have been disturbingly quiet and acquiescent in the midst of this crisis. Perhaps Occupy Wall Street, and its welcomed imitators, are on the verge of changing that. As Arun Gupta writes for AlterNet (link here):

They have created a unique opportunity to shift the tides of history in the tradition of other great peaceful occupations, from the sit-down strikes of the 1930s to the lunch-counter sit-ins of the 1960s to the democratic uprisings across the Arab world and Europe today.

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Related commentaries, differing perspectives (added Oct. 1)

Michelle Chen, “Labor Movement Rolls Into Wall Street Occupation,” In These Times 

Charles M. Blow, “Hippies and Hipsters Exhale,” New York Times 

Bruce E. Levine, “How Anti-Authoritarians Can Transcend their Sense of Hopelessness and Fight Back,” Alternet.org

Chris Hedges, “The Best Among Us,” Truthdig.com

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Related posts 

Post-meltdown America: An economic recovery for the wealthy

“It’s no use pretending”

Plutocracy in America: A term for our times

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

Unpaid interns for “Black Swan” file wage claim against Fox Searchlight Pictures

Two unpaid interns who worked on the crew of the movie “Black Swan,” Alex Footman and Eric Glatt, are suing Fox Searchlight Pictures, alleging that the failure to pay them violated minimum wage and overtime rules.

As reported by Steven Greenhouse for the New York Times (link here):

One plaintiff, Alex Footman, a 2009 Wesleyan graduate who majored in film studies, said he had worked as a production intern on “Black Swan” in New York from October 2009 to February 2010.

He said his responsibilities included preparing coffee for the production office, ensuring that the coffee pot was full, taking and distributing lunch orders for the production staff, taking out the trash and cleaning the office.

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The other named plaintiff, Eric Glatt, 42, who has an M.B.A. from Case Western Reserve University, was an accounting intern for “Black Swan.” He prepared documents for purchase orders and petty cash, traveled to the set to obtain signatures on documents and created spreadsheets to track missing information in employee personnel file.

This is a welcomed development.  I have long argued (see link to law review article below) that most unpaid internships violate minimum wage laws and other labor standards.

In addition, the failure to pay interns leaves them more vulnerable to discrimination and sexual harassment. At least one federal court has held that unpaid interns cannot bring a claim under the Civil Rights Act because they are not employees within the meaning of the law.

This will be an interesting case. Stay tuned!

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Additional information

For more blog posts on interns and the law, go here.

To download, without charge, a copy of my 2002 Connecticut Law Review article, “The Employment Law Rights of Student Interns” — hailed by Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation (2011) as “the best single source of information” on student internships and the law — go here.

On press, paparazzi, privacy, and work

Joe McGinniss’s controversial new biography of Sarah Palin, The Rogue (2011), raises important questions about connections between work, privacy, and individual dignity. From various published reviews it appears the book is a wildly contrasting mix of solid investigative reportage on matters related to Palin’s conduct as a politician and a lot of gossipy, trashy stuff about the personal lives of Palin family members.

I confess I’m not a fan of Sarah Palin. I don’t think she’s got much substance, and her widely acknowledged track record of viciously going after people who cross her and personalizing political disputes is disturbing. Still, there’s some consensus that McGinniss has crossed the line at times in his book, and my inclination is that the criticism is on target.

I don’t claim to have all the wisdom about when the public figure ends and the private person begins, but here are some questions worth asking:

1. Is it true?

If not, there’s no excuse for deliberate or reckless falsehoods. If so, the inquiry doesn’t end there.

2. Even if it’s true, does it bear upon the individual’s public life, whether it be in politics, the media, entertainment, or any other highly visible vocation?

For public officials, the personal can and perhaps should become public if it relates to decisions made and positions taken while in office or on the campaign trail.

That said, there are certain aspects of one’s personal life that should be off limits as a matter of individual dignity. It appears we have fairly obliterated that standard in our current popular culture.

3. Does the subject of the coverage deliberately seek out the limelight and stoke the very attention s/he claims is exploitative or invasive when the subject matter becomes uncomfortable?

This is a fine line, but individuals who encourage a culture of celebrity or a cult of personality-type following may have less to complain about when the media coverage is unflattering. (Live by the limelight, die by it too.) This is especially true for celebrities or wannabes who feel the need to expose or exploit aspects of their private lives and engage in ostentatious displays of personal conduct that beg for attention.

What do you think about Harvard’s “kindness pledge”?

Joshua Rothman, blogging for the Boston Globe (registration may be required), writes about a “kindness pledge” that Harvard University is asking all entering first-year students to sign:

The pledge requires students to “act with integrity, respect, and industry, and to sustain a community characterized by inclusiveness and civility.” “As we begin at Harvard,” it continues, “we commit to upholding the values of the College and to making the entryway and Yard a place where all can thrive and where the exercise of kindness holds a place on par with intellectual attainment.”

Hmm…

Those who have followed the anti-bullying theme of this blog may think I’d be in favor of such a pledge, but actually, I find it troubling.

I believe we do need laws and policies to establish boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. But aspirational pledges drafted by an organization give rise to hard questions of interpretation and even dicier issues of possible enforcement or discipline.

Defining terms such as “integrity, respect, and industry” and “inclusiveness and civility” is difficult, subjective business. Accusations that someone has “violated” the pledge are almost sure to follow, and subsequent events may lead to more bad feelings.

Instead…

I’d prefer that there be strong lines drawn on abusive behaviors such as bullying, harassment, and stalking, combined with efforts by university leadership to create an organizational culture that embraces respect, inclusiveness, and civility.

No wonder folks at Harvard are vigorously debating this pledge! At the very least, if incoming students are feeling pressured to sign it, I hope their professors and senior administrators have agreed to sign and be subject to it as well.

Should you confront your workplace bully?

This suggestion is popping up with increasingly frequency in well-meaning advice columns about bullying at work: Make your concerns known by confronting your workplace bully.

Recently I praised British journalist Jackie Ashley for calling upon us to stand up to the bullies in our society. But I should’ve been more specific. In agreeing with her, I meant that we should be standing up against bullying behaviors as a community.

That’s different than telling a target to confront her abuser individually and await the consequences.

Questionable advice

Nevertheless, career advice columns that address workplace bullying often urge targets to do just that.

Minneapolis business author Harvey Mackay suggested this option in a syndicated piece that ran in newspapers across the country (link here):

Speak up to the harasser. Your first step should be to tell the person that his or her behavior, comments or requests aren’t welcome. In some cases, the matter may end there. But don’t hesitate to inform management if you can’t comfortably confront the other person on your own.

Risks of direct confrontation

If there is one suggestion that causes me to question the wisdom behind one-size-fits-all advice columns on workplace bullying, this is it.

When objectionable behavior involves milder forms of incivility or disrespect, tactfully and directly speaking up may prove to be an effective way to address it. But targeted, malicious bullying is different; it’s a form of abuse. In any situation involving genuine abuse, face-to-face confrontation is fraught with risks. Here’s why:

First, if there’s no third party to observe the conversation, it’s the target’s word against the bully’s as to what transpired in that interaction. The bully could even attempt to turn the tables, suggesting that he was the actual “victim” of the encounter.

Second, targets of abuse usually (and understandably) are not in the best frame of mind when dealing directly with their abuser. People in these circumstances are more likely to say or do something they later regret.

Third, when bullying is covert or indirect, it’s doubly hard to confront the tormenter, who often will deny there’s any such behavior going on and may even act like she was wrongfully accused.

Fourth, even if one does not wish to confront the bully alone, the question of which third party to enlist can be a vexing one, because frequently the bully is a member of management and/or has friends at that level.

Finally, and most importantly, we know that many bullying targets have tried this approach with disastrous results. Over the years, I have spoken to scores of people who have paid a price for thinking that they could work it out with their tormenter(s).

Evaluate each situation individually

People are different. Bullying situations are different. Stock advice columns about dealing with workplace bullying can be dangerous in that they offer suggestions that may be effective in some situations, while backfiring horribly in others.

As I wrote in a post here last month, there is no substitute for doing your homework in planning a course of action. Keeping a cool head in these situations is very difficult. People who believe they are targets of bullying will benefit from learning and understanding before acting.

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For more about dealing with workplace bullying situations, please go to the Need Help page of this blog, here.

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Correction: I had erroneously summarized a column by Tia Benjamin (link here) as recommending that a target directly confront a bully. She contacted me and kindly explained that her recommendations are for organizations, not individual bullying targets. My apologies to Tia and thanks for pointing out my mistake.

Website of the Week: Working Families Win

For many years, I’ve been a big fan of Working Families Win (WFW), a grassroots community education and organizing project that:

works to change the economy in favor of working families, provides education about economic decisions made in Washington and the impacts within our local communities, and engages individuals through neighbor to neighbor communication to hold our elected officials accountable.

As an initiative of the progressive Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), WFW believes that:

New trade rules can distribute the benefits of a globalizing economy more equitably to workers here and abroad.  Health care for all Americans would address a major burden facing working families today.  A real “living wage,” investment in jobs, producing clean energy, and stronger rights for workers to join unions and bargain collectively would all help maintain and rebuild our nation’s middle class.

Working Families Win was created by the late Jim Jontz, a three-term Member of Congress from northern Indiana, who understood the need to educate and organize voters in hard-fought battleground and heartland states such as Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Ohio. Jim founded WFW after serving as President of ADA.

Check out the WFW website here.

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Disclosure note: I currently serve, on a pro bono basis, as Chair of ADA’s National Executive Committee.

“Mentally injured” vs. “mentally ill”: On changing attitudes, removing stigmas

As I will demonstrate below, I make no claim to limiting myself to politically correct terminology. However, here’s an important memo to self: Whenever applicable, use the term “mental injury” instead of “mental illness.”

During the past decade, my work in the realm of workplace bullying has provided an education in psychology and psychiatry. This has included plenty of hanging around those who study, diagnose, and heal the damage caused by psychological abuse at work. It has had a transformative effect on how I look at the law and public policy.

But my informal course of study has been far from thorough or systematic, and consequently I’m still learning the vocabulary. And oftentimes I use the term mental illness when mental injury strikes me as being much more appropriate.

Illness vs. injury

When someone is wounded by a gunshot, do we say they are “ill”? No, we say they are injured.

But what happens when, say, someone experiences violence or bullying at work so terrible that they develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? Well…we’re more apt to say they’re suffering from a mental illness or disorder.

And yet, haven’t they, too, suffered an injury, a psychological trauma? So why do we use terms that unnecessarily stigmatize the person who suffers that injury?

What’s “abnormal” psychology?

While I’m at it, I also find myself questioning the term “abnormal psychology.” Writer and educator Kendra Cherry defines the term this way:

Abnormal psychology is a branch of psychology that deals with psychopathology and abnormal behavior. The term covers a broad range of disorders, from depression to obsession-compulsion to sexual deviation and many more. Counselors, clinical psychologists and psychotherapists often work directly in this field.

Here again, a similar point: So many conditions labeled “abnormal” — such as depression triggered by situations in one’s life — strike me as being natural responses to difficult experiences and setbacks. (And on the extreme end, there’s nothing abnormal about suffering PTSD after doing two tours of duty in Iraq.)

Unnecessarily stigmatizing terms

Over the past decade, some of the most insightful and empathetic people I’ve met include those who have suffered from depression, PTSD, and other conditions triggered or exacerbated by horrible experiences at work.

By contrast — with apologies for my lack of precise terminology  — some of the most screwed up, uptight people I’ve ever met would likely get clean bills of health from therapists or psychiatrists.

Terms like “mental illness” and “abnormal” scare people. They create in our minds a fearful Other. My friends holding doctorates in psychology may have plenty of good reasons to tell me I’m wrong, but I’d really like us to think about how we use these labels.

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