Recent annual editions of What Color Is Your Parachute?, the hugely popular job-hunting manual by Richard N. Bolles, open with a new chapter titled “How to Find Hope.”
It’s a not-so-subtle admission in this otherwise upbeat book that many people have been so demoralized by the economy and job market that they must first pick themselves off the ground before diving back into the search for work and a fulfilling livelihood. As this Labor Day weekend approaches, I take it as yet another small sign of how things have changed.
Four years ago, on the eve of Labor Day 2008, we were just weeks away from a rapid escalation of the economic meltdown. When things really started to go bad, they did so at a surreal pace that taught us how quickly a 401(k) plan can disintegrate. (Do you remember the news coverage back then? How many of us were asking, what the —- is going on?)
This catastrophe was not caused by school teachers, assembly line workers, retail clerks, firefighters, nurses, labor unions, radical professors, or even — heaven forbid — trial lawyers. No, this was courtesy of the financial masters of the universe on Wall Street, with a big assist from their allies in Washington D.C.
And today, we’re still sorting through the human rubble.
Thank goodness we’re not Greece. There still are millions of Americans who have good jobs with decent pay and benefits.
But those numbers are dwindling. In particular, our middle class is shrinking, with a few moving into the top, and many more joining the economically vulnerable. A major study recently released by the Pew Research Center (link here) concluded that we are living in the “lost decade of the middle class.” The official unemployment rate hovers at around 8 percent, and the unofficial rate — including the vastly underemployed as well as discouraged job seekers no longer tallied in the official one — falls anywhere from 15-20 percent.
The times even have spawned additions to our economic vocabulary:
Four years ago, the term “99ers” may have sounded like the name of a sports team. But now it refers to individuals whose unemployment benefits — extended during the recession to 99 weeks — have expired.
Four years ago, “underwater” was an aquatic term. Now, of course, it refers to a mortgage balance — in many cases, despite timely payments — that exceeds the declining value of the home.
Four years ago, I’m not even sure if “new normal” had a common meaning. Today it refers to accepting a higher official unemployment rate, say, 8 or 9 percent, as the new normal, replacing the “old” normal of maybe 3 or 4 percent.
Let’s get political
How targeted is this assault on everyday workers? Folks, it’s no longer about shared sacrifice or belt tightening when times are tough. Rather, in some circles it’s about paying rank-and-file workers as little as possible while top executives and shareholders reap the benefits of their labor.
If you need evidence of this, look at the recent strike at the Caterpillar plant in Joliet, Illinois. As reported by Steven Greenhouse for the New York Times (link here), management strong armed the union into accepting wage and pension freezes despite record profits and a 60 percent raise given to the CEO! Need more? Talk to veteran employees of major commercial airlines, who in the post-9/11 world of air travel took huge pay cuts to help the industry survive, while in many cases high-ranking airline executives were collecting obscene bonuses.
Perhaps you’re not surprised that I’m very concerned about the economic and social policies supported by the Romney-Ryan ticket. The hard right has so taken over the GOP that mainstream conservatives of 30 years ago would be branded as traitors to the cause today. Of course, I can’t promise that re-electing President Obama is going to result in dramatic progress either. But at least the Democrats aren’t serving up — as a featured convention speaker — the likes of South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who repeatedly boasts proudly about being a union buster.
Workplace bullying and politics
I respect the fact that some readers do not subscribe to my generally liberal political beliefs. But especially for those who found this blog because of their own experiences with workplace bullying, I ask them to consider the possible connections.
No, I’m not claiming that all Republicans are bullies and all Democrats are nice people. Far from it. I don’t see hard correlations between individual political beliefs and how people treat each other at work. Applied to my own political leanings, I readily admit there are some liberals I wouldn’t want to work for in a million years, while there are some conservatives I would trust and respect as my boss without qualification.
Nor do I suggest that workplace bullying is limited to the big bad corporations. As I’ve noted here, some of the worst workplace abuse can be found in do-gooder non-profits, labor unions, and government agencies.
But on a systemic, policy level, yes, differences emerge. For example, the two most powerful organizations opposing the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) are the Chamber of Commerce (a GOP favorite) and the Society for Human Resource Management. In Massachusetts, another powerful business lobby, the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, opposes legal protections for bullying targets.
In the meantime, labor unions and civil rights groups have been the leading sources of organizational support for the HWB.
It’s not as if opponents of the HWB are promising to discipline or dismiss the aggressors, in return for us dropping our support for legal reform. To the contrary, some are claiming that existing laws are sufficient to protect bullying targets, which they know isn’t true unless they’re listening to lawyers who don’t understand employment law.
Others complain that legal protections against severe workplace bullying would serve as “job killers” by undermining productivity and the spirit of healthy competition. But what’s “productive,” “healthy,” and “competitive” about interpersonal abuse?
There are honest differences of opinion as to where the law should draw the line on legal claims for workplace bullying. But shouldn’t it be wrong to treat another human being so abusively as to destroy one’s psyche and livelihood?
What will it take?
Yup, as we approach this Labor Day weekend, the world of work and workers faces very serious challenges.
And the stakes are too important for us to throw in the towel. Somehow, we must forge a more humane consensus about how people should be treated at work. Let’s claim human dignity as our starting place for employee relations and go from there. That embrace still leaves us to sort out the complicated questions of workplace laws, policies, and practices, but at least it recognizes the essential humanity of labor.
After all, it’s hard to get the details right when the core values are absent.
My law review article, “Human Dignity and American Employment Law” (free download here) contains a more detailed exposition on human dignity and the workplace. Ironically, I was completing the final manuscript right at the time the economy was melting down in Fall 2008.