Who are our heroes in public life?

With both major political party conventions now concluded and the presidential race in full swing, I find myself asking, who are our genuine heroes in public life today?

Two weeks ago I wrote that I recently discovered the works of renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell. In the fascinating PBS series of televised interviews that Campbell did with Bill Moyers (“The Power of Myth,” first aired in 1988), Campbell described the role of the hero in the stories we read and tell:

Even in popular novels, the main character is a hero or heroine who has found or done something beyond the normal range of achievement and experience. A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.

I’ve been a political junkie since I was a teenager. I also happen to think that a lot of good people can be found in public service. But as I consider our prominent political leaders, including the presidential nominees, I lament the paucity of transcendent heroes that Campbell describes.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh. After all, the heroes of our stories have the supreme advantage of being viewed through a hazy, rose-colored, and sometimes fictitious lens. What flesh-and-blood human being can match up to a myth?

Beltway realities

Nevertheless, it’s easy to despair as we view the current scene in the nation’s capital. Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times, reviewing Bob Woodward’s new book (The Price of Politics), captures it this way (link here):

As a plethora of election-year polls and surveys indicate, Americans are fed up with a deeply dysfunctional Washington paralyzed by partisan gridlock and increasingly incapable of dealing with the daunting problems facing the nation: a White House plagued by infighting, disorganization and inconsistent leadership; a Republican Party bent on obstruction and increasingly beholden to its insurgent right wing; and a Congress riven by party rivalries, intraparty power struggles, petty turf wars and an inability to focus on long-term solutions instead of temporary Band-Aids.

Kennedy and Lincoln

In view of the present Washington morass, we naturally yearn for something different. And for many born in the 20th century, John F. Kennedy stands as the fallen hero of our times. But despite Kennedy’s many compelling qualities, the tragedy of his death is in what he might have been, not necessarily in his brief accomplishments before he was assassinated. In fact, JFK’s Camelot was the posthumous invention of Jacqueline Kennedy, who created his legacy from the lyrics of one of his favorite musicals: Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot. With the help of Kennedy hagiographers, it would become so.

Rather, I regard Abraham Lincoln as the kind of leader we need.  To me, he represents the iconic mythological American political hero, as characterized by Joseph Campbell. Lincoln’s life story, chapters of which remain shrouded in mystery despite dozens of well-researched biographies, embraces the ideal of the tragic hero — a man who overcame poverty, loss, and personal demons, only to give his life to something much bigger than himself.

Lincoln was a complicated man. He was idealistic and pragmatic. Some regarded him as a naive, but actually he was very shrewd. He also possessed a great sense of empathy, yet he could order men to their deaths. Though hailed as the “Great Emancipator” of the black slaves, some of his views on race would be considered very objectionable today. He believed in the ideals of democratic government, yet he justified war-time restrictions on civil liberties as a means of saving it.

During the Civil War, Lincoln was burdened by a difficult marriage and the death of a beloved young son, and he struggled with what now would be diagnosed as clinical depression. The weight of the world — or at least of the nation — rested upon his shoulders. Ultimately he emerged triumphant after a terrible war, only to be killed by a Southern partisan.

Worthy of study and emulation

I get why figures like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton mean so much to so many people. And I understand why Ronald Reagan is so beloved by conservatives.

However, in searching for the qualities of wisdom, compassion, resilience, and courage that we need today, I keep returning to Abraham Lincoln as a singular figure worthy of study and emulation.

I admit that Lincoln does a number on me. The more I read about him, the more I sense that — if time travel was possible — he could walk onto virtually any stage and be that rare, selfless, transcendent leader. When I look into the sad, kind, and knowing eyes of his photographs, I see a wisdom that crosses the ages. It is downright chilling to me.


For more about Abraham Lincoln

The most well-regarded one-volume Lincoln biography (among many quality treatments) is David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (1995).


Lincoln photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Working Notes: September 5, 2012


From TCB Review article on workplace bullying

Periodically I use this Working Notes feature to highlight a variety of odds & ends worthy of mention:

1. The Conference Board Review on workplace bullying

It’s a good thing when The Conference Board Review, the flagship publication of The Conference Board — an influential, global research organization promoting best practices in business — runs a major feature on workplace bullying. That’s why I’ve been meaning to share this thorough, well-written article about workplace bullying by Vadim Liberman from the Summer 2012 issue:

Bosses have tormented workers ever since there were workers to torment, but only recently have we become sensitized to what studies indicate is four times more common than sexual harassment. Most workplace bullying doesn’t climax at the point of a pistol, but it can be devastating nevertheless to morale, productivity, and HR departments, strongly affecting not only the target but his whole department—and even the entire company.

Vadim interviewed me at length for the piece, and I am pleased that he dug well beneath the surface to present a lot of information and different points of view to his readers.

2. Brian Austin, Madison WI detective and labor activist, on Labor Day

Here’s a thoughtful, substantive, bracing blog post about the meaning of Labor Day 2012 from Brian Austin, a Madison, Wisconsin detective and labor activist:

Today is labor day.  This should be a day of celebrating the achievements of the labor movement in providing dignity and a voice for all workers, yet this year I am filled with a sense of both urgency and alarm.  Workers in this nation are in real trouble, and many don’t even know it.

Amen. Keep reading.

3. Sara Horowitz, Freelancers Union founder, on Labor Day for independent workers

Sara Horowitz, pioneering founder of the Freelancers Union, looks at the meaning of the labor movement for independent workers in this blog piece for The Atlantic:

At Freelancers Union, we’ve been heavily influenced by [labor leader Sidney] Hillman’s vision. It’s why we built our own social-purpose insurance company to serve our independent workforce. It’s why we’re sponsoring new nonprofit health plans in New York, New Jersey, and Oregon next year. And it’s why we’re opening a bricks-and-mortar, zero-co-pay medical center in Downtown Brooklyn this fall.

Sara and the Freelancers Union are blazing trails to create support for, and solidarity within, the growing sector of independent workers.

4. Employment lawyer Jon Hyman on preventing workplace violence

Ohio employment lawyer Jon Hyman has penned a concise, useful blog piece on preventing workplace violence for Workforce Management that discusses the importance of organizational culture:

1. Treat employees with respect—while they work for you, during a termination, and even after they are no longer your employees.

2. Flag at-risk employees for assistance.

3. Offer employee assistance programs for those who need them.

4. Involve security personnel and local law enforcement at the first hint that an employee might turn violent.

Over the years, Jon and I have had spirited exchanges over the need for workplace bullying legislation. His excellent Ohio Employer’s Law Blog is a terrific resource for employment lawyers and human resources administrators.

Labor Day role model: SEIU/NAGE tackles workplace bullying in Massachusetts

Labor unions are on the firing lines these days, especially those representing public sector workers. In this hostile climate toward organized labor, it’s essential for unions to remind us of their ability to fight for the interests of all working people — and for the rest of us to recognize those efforts.

Fortunately we have some prime examples of that in Massachusetts. For example, during the past five years, it has been my pleasure to witness a major Massachusetts public employee union — the Service Employees International Union/National Association of Government Employees (SEIU/NAGE) — take a lead role in the fight against workplace bullying.

November 2007 presentation

It’s worth repeating a story I shared here some three years ago, describing how SEIU/NAGE got involved with this cause.

In November 2007 I gave a presentation about workplace bullying to an assembly of several hundred SEIU/NAGE union activists. About a third of the way into my talk, I could tell that it was striking a chord with the union members. Heads were nodding in agreement, people were whispering to one another in animated ways, and some even smiled back in appreciation despite the subject matter.

I closed my remarks by urging them, among other things, to inject concerns about workplace bullying and abusive supervision into their contract negotiations. I hoped that they would take some of these ideas and run with them.

Yes, they did!

A few months later, Greg Sorozan, president of SEIU/NAGE Local 282 and a national vice president of NAGE, informed me that as a follow up to that talk, all of the union locals affiliated with SEIU and NAGE were bargaining over concerns about workplace bullying in their contract negotiations.  In January 2009, Greg reported that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had agreed to include a “mutual respect” provision in their new contract that covered, among other things, bullying and abusive supervision.  As a result, some 21,000 state workers became covered by a collective bargaining agreement that includes a workplace bullying provision.

This “mutual respect” provision was one of the first major American collective bargaining agreements to include express protections against bullying at work.  It isn’t perfect:  An alleged violation of the provision may be grieved, but is not arbitrable.  This is a real limitation; it means that unresolved bullying charges will not proceed to arbitration, thus precluding a worker from obtaining an enforceable order to stop the behavior or to make an award.  Nevertheless, it is a huge step forward to have a collective bargaining agreement that covers bullying and allows grievances to be filed when the behavior arises.

And more!

Greg Sorozan also joined the working group to lobby for introduction and passage of the Healthy Workplace Bill.  He asked the union’s lobbyists to seek a sponsor in the Massachusetts legislature, and consequently the assistant majority leader of the state senate, Joan Menard (now retired), agreed to be the lead sponsor for the 2009-10 legislative session.

SEIU/NAGE has continued to lend considerable support behind the Healthy Workplace Bill. They helped us to line up some one dozen sponsors in the House and Senate for the 2012-13 session, including new lead sponsors in Rep. Ellen Story and Sen. Katherine Clark. The bill made several important advances within the tortured legislative process, and we’re now gearing up for the 2013-14 session with a lot of momentum pushing us forward.

Today, Greg serves as a co-coordinator of the HWB campaign in Massachusetts. We’ve also received ongoing support and counsel from SEIU/NAGE lobbyists Jim Redmond and Ray McGrath and communications specialist Lisa Smith. SEIU/NAGE members have been contacting their legislators and asking them to support the HWB.

MTA and MNA too!

SEIU/NAGE isn’t the only Bay State union to play a leadership role in building awareness of workplace bullying and calling for change. For example:

The Massachusetts Teachers Association has endorsed the Healthy Workplace Bill and brought people to testify on behalf of the legislation at hearing on the bill last year before the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development.

The Massachusetts Nurses Association has hosted workshops and educational programs on workplace bullying and violence in healthcare workplaces.

The Role of Organized Labor to Combat Workplace Bullying

Together, these unions exemplify how organized labor can take a stand against workplace bullying. Unions that would like to join them can participate in at least four ways:

• Negotiate CBA Provisions — Unions should bargain for collective bargaining agreement provisions that protect their members against abusive supervision. (I can provide suggested contract language upon request. Please contact me at dyamada@suffolk.edu).

• Use Existing Contract Provisions — Even in the absence of specific protections against abusive supervision, the general substantive and procedural rights in an agreement may provide legal protections for a bullied union member.

• Educate Members and Resolve Disputes – Shop stewards can be trained to help to identify and resolve bullying situations, including those between union members.  Unions can encourage a culture of safety and respect among their members.

• Support Legal Reform – Unions can back the enactment of anti-bullying legislation such as the Healthy Workplace Bill.

Role models

Unions, like any form of organization, are not perfect. But their presence is a needed source of countervailing power and worker voice. And good unions, like the ones mentioned here, remind us that organized labor stands up not only for their own members, but also for all workers. I’d say that’s a pretty good point to remember on this Labor Day.

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