Labor Day 2012 soapbox: Workers, meltdown politics, and workplace bullying

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.

Disappearing middle

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.

New vocabulary

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.

6 responses

  1. David
    Thank you for this post, you always, most always hit the nail right on the head. As you have heard many times from me that i was severely abused by a non for profit in the upstate ny area. When i say severely, it means until i became sick with PTSD and was unable to conduct the skills that i had mastered in several trades over a thirty year period. I was panic stricken and broken and feared my own skills, i had developed a severe form of phobia related to my job because of being ridiculed, bullied, taunted, stalked, publicly and privately humiliated repeatedly, called names, micromanaged to the point that i could not walk down the hall without being stalked by this woman.I was grabbed by the face, i was threatened, i was forced routinely to barter with my business clients to ask for lower prices after the work was completed, i was embarrassed in front of co workers, additionally i was forced to work 50-70 hours a week with no additional compensation and was given no choice. I ran 3 departments and serviced 7 departments.
    When we talk about bullying and how destructive it is and what is going on with the job market and the economy, it brings me back to the same thing when i think of the opposition that these agencies like chamber of commerce etc have. Soon i will go national with my story and i hope it is heard loud and clear, because what i suffered is real Dave, my life was taken from me as i knew it and my career was ruined and these pin heads that think it will hurt the job market to pose laws against bullying are ignorant at best if they truly believe that..
    Consider this: How much better would it be if an employer such as the large community center i worked for, embraced an employee like me that saved them over $100,000 a year by doing the amount of skilled labor i did for them? How much better would an employer be if they treated me like a human being instead of a slave? How much better would an employer be if they embraced an employee like me, helped me grow and learn to further benefit, them and future employers? How much better would an employer be if they did not subject other employees to witnessing the abuse i took? How much better would an employer be if an employee such as myself did not have to run to the doctor with, ulcers, stress, anxiety, depression, PTSD? It has to effect insurance rates. How much better would society as a whole and the workplace in society as a whole be if employers treated people like human beings, and made the environment enticing so people want to go to work every day vs fearing it. No one wants to be humiliated or tormented or stalked, or yelled at or interrogated, threatened and abused to the point that after becoming an accomplished skilled employee they now feel they are worth nothing and they believe it because the employer they put their trust in has betrayed them and abused them so that they are broken. Tell the opposing agencies to put that in their pipe and puff on that for a while!!!!!!!!!! I know what i went through and i lived the damage and it is COSTLY. This bill will get passed eventually and with or without them, hopefully one of them are not bullies and do not have an accident by one of thier own employees that goes postal like the guy in NY at the Empire State bldg. Because in this economy and with the middle class being pelted, robbed, abused and pounded on as we are, it is not surprising at all that people are losing their cool. It does not make it right, but it is happening and it will continue until employees get some rights and protection. I WILL SAY IT AGAIN TO ALL OF THOSE THAT OPOSE THE HEALTHY WORKPLACE BILL, WAKE UP!! EMPLOYEES ARE SICK OF SPENDING THEIR LATE TEENS, YOUNG ADULTHOOD TO GET TO A POINT THAT WE CAN SURVIVE IN SOCIETY AND TAKE CARE OF OUR FAMILIES, ONLY TO HAVE SOME RICH, FAT EXECUTIVE SIT IN THEIR OFFICE WAX THEIR CHAIR AND DESTROY SOMEONE ELSES LIFE. They want to see a worse econonmy keep it up, people will lose houses, wont be able to buy any, and many other things will crumble as well and see how the opposing parties like that!!!!!

  2. I will be spending the labour day weekend with family and friends…a luxury denied me when I worked in a 24/7 workplace before I quit citing work-life balance and health and safety concerns. My peers who remained at the workplace and did not stand up to support me will be working 8 to12 hour shifts this weekend.

    The supervisors, managers, executives, and union representatives in that workplace will be leaving work shortly to enjoy a three day weekend, as will the HR and OSH professionals and politicians who oversee the operation of that public and essential service. They will return refreshed on Tuesday to deal with the workplace concerns of the ambulance attendants who survived uninjured after falling asleep at the wheel after 20 hours on duty this week, the police officers who will have dealt with the predictable long-weekend insanity of our city streets, the hospital emergency workers who will have coped with the influx of injuries that occur (also predictably) with greater frequency on weekends…especially long ones. And all those workers will receive is an extra 4 to six hours pay, depending on the length of their shift. What a way to honour their contribution to our lives and communities. I will be wearing red on Monday in support of the anti-bullying movement. It’s a small gesture, and I’ll do it with great sincerity sporting a WBI anti-bullying button.

    Have a wonderful weekend, all.

  3. Fabulous observation! I work for a Government agency in Law Enforcement, and this is the only way they know how to supervise us. It comes from the Top (county executive) down (from Director through Supervisors). My thought is lack of training, caring and money causes these problems.

  4. “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!”

    That sentence says it all.

    As paranoid as it sounds, I don’t think this economic chaos is happening by accident. Reading “The Shock Doctrine” altered my sense of the world. I wouldn’t be surprised if the hardship we’re seeing was purposely engineered to make average people more desperate, more willing to sacrifice rights.

    (Mel, my experience was horrible, but yours sounds hellish and I feel badly for you. Who funds that nonprofit? Any chance you could approach the major funding agency and tell them your story? (ex: send them a carefully-written letter, attend a board meeting) If funding dried up, maybe it would give you back a sense of control. I’ve been seeing a counselor for over a year. She is knowledgeable about workplace bullying, PTSD, and psychopaths at work. She’s helped me so much! I hope you can find help as well.)

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