Dignity work

2012 workshop participants

December 2012 workshop participants (photo: Anna Strout)

Dignity work. In a blog about work, that’s the best way I can tag the array of projects, initiatives, and passions that drew people from around the world to the annual Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict, sponsored by the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies Network (HumanDHS) and hosted by Columbia University, Teachers College, in New York.  This year’s workshop ran last Thursday and Friday.

About HumanDHS

HumanDHS is a unique association. Here’s a self-description from the website:

We are a global transdisciplinary network and fellowship of concerned academics and practitioners. We wish to stimulate systemic change, globally and locally, to open space for dignity and mutual respect and esteem to take root and grow, thus ending humiliating practices and breaking cycles of humiliation throughout the world.

We suggest that a frame of cooperation and shared humility is necessary – not a mindset of humiliation – if we wish to build a better world, a world of equal dignity for all.


In other words, HumanDHS is not your typical academic assemblage. For example, in the Round Table in which I participated, we heard presentations about sojourns to the Amazon rainforest, conflict resolution on large and small scales, America’s aging population base, and the criminal justice system. Theory, research, and action all play important roles at this gathering and often come together in individual talks.

A group ethic of respectful exchange frames the event. On topics as difficult as, say, the impact of required English education on the preservation of traditional languages in Africa, emotions can run strong. It may take an effort, at times, to keep certain expressions in check and to listen to others amid earnest discussion. Nevertheless, such attempts are far preferable to imposing a cloak of superficial dialogue that dodges hard topics, or allowing exchanges to disintegrate into angry barbs tossed back and forth.

Group hug

Yes, there’s a group hug at the end, but we shouldn’t dismiss this as a standard-brand “feel good” event. Not, for example, when a participant shares a personal story of childhood sexual abuse. You see, the founders of HumanDHS included the word humiliation in the group’s name for a reason: You can’t affirm human dignity without facing what’s uncomfortable and painful.

And yet it does feel good to be a part of this group. These gatherings are life-affirming in a world where the embrace of human dignity remains too rare an event.



Evelin Linder, Linda Hartling, Tonya Hammer, and a crew of other dedicated volunteers deserve our thanks for making the workshop such a meaningful gathering.

Congratulations to friend and colleague Michael Perlin (New York Law School), who received the HumanDHS Lifetime Achievement Award at the workshop. Michael is a leading authority on mental disability law and is among a core group of law professors who extended a warm welcome to me when I became involved with the therapeutic jurisprudence movement.

For more photos of the event by the ever present (but never intrusive) camera of Anna Strout, go here and scroll down to the links.

OSHA cites convenience store owner for workplace violence risks

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which administers and enforces the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act, has cited a convenience store owner for allegedly failing to safeguard its employees from robberies and other forms of violence on the job.

In the Matter of TMT Inc.

Bruce Rolfsen reports for the BNA Daily Labor Report (Nov. 30, by subscription only):

Citations issued Nov. 19 against a Texas convenience store owner for allegedly failing to protect workers from robberies and other violence marks an increased willingness on the part of the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration to use the general duty clause as a tool to prevent workplace violence.
OSHA cited TMT Inc. with four alleged violations of the general duty clause, one each for Whip In stores in Garland and Mesquite, and citations for two stores in Dallas. Proposed fines total $19,600.
. . . The citation announcement marked the first time in recent memory that OSHA has used the general duty clause to cite a convenience store operator for violations related to workplace violence, according to observers who follow convenience store safety.


General duty clause

OSHA issued the citation under the law’s general duty clause, which requires employers to provide workers with conditions of employment “that are free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”

Despite thousands of individual regulations addressing workplace safety promulgated under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, there is no specific provision addressing workplace violence. However, OSHA has released a fact sheet on workplace violence and engaged in educational initiatives for employers about the subject.

Application to workplace bullying?

OSHA’s recognition of workplace violence as a serious hazard raises hopes that workplace bullying, too, will get greater attention.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the federal government’s research arm on workplace safety, has included bullying in its studies of workplace violence and aggression and hosted meetings of leading researchers to discuss the impact of bullying on worker health.  NIOSH researchers have examined organizational dynamics of workplace bullying and the implications for intervention strategies.

Back in 2005, I participated in a working group convened by NIOSH to examine workplace bullying and psychological aggression. This included a day-long session in Cincinnati that, to this day, remains one of the most intense and insightful exchanges I’ve participated in on this topic.

We can now at least imagine the possibility that research findings about the harm caused by bullying will lead to a stronger regulatory response.  As I’ve noted earlier on this blog, some of the analysis for that response may be found in the work of professor Susan Harthill of Florida Coastal School of Law, who has argued persuasively that occupational safety and health law can be part of a multi-pronged approach that includes collaborative and cooperative efforts between public and private employment relations stakeholders.


Of course, mild penalties are one of the genuine limitations of current federal workplace safety law, as reflected by rather paltry proposed fines (under $20,000) in the TMI case. In addition, this statute does not allow individual claims for damages by injured workers. Identical limitations would apply in workplace bullying situations as well.

Nevertheless, this is a step in the right direction, and with the current Administration in place for another four years, it bears watching.

American elders: Human dignity and an aging population

At some point soon, America is going to have to come to grips with the massive psychological and economic implications of its aging population. It won’t be easy.

Later this week I’ll be participating in the annual Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict, sponsored by the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies Network and hosted by Columbia University, Teachers College, in New York.  In one of the sessions, I’ll be talking about American social attitudes and public policy concerning our aging population. In an abstract submitted for the workshop titled “American Elders: Human Dignity and the Aging Population,” I stated:

America’s population is aging.  The most senior members of its largest generation are now reaching traditional retirement age, and millions more are on their way.  This fast evolving reality will confront America’s cultural embrace of youth and youthfulness, and it will carry great significance for human dignity in a nation that does not naturally elevate its elders or easily accept the processes of growing older.  The aging population will implicate not only how we think about ourselves and relate to one another as individuals, but also how public policy responds to the economic, employment, public health, and human services challenges presented by these changing demographics.

My remarks will examine some of the central considerations of our aging population from a human dignity perspective, including:

Personal and Interpersonal

  • Personal attitudes toward aging;
  • Interpersonal dignity, civility, and acceptance as the population ages;
  • Avoiding “us vs. them”;
  • Creating communities of care and caring;
  • The roles of faith and spirituality.

Public Policy

  • The retirement funding train wreck (it’s about much more than Social Security);
  • Providing employment for those who work later into life, while creating opportunities for younger people to join the labor force;
  • Health care for an aging population;
  • The future of elder care;
  • Who will pay for all this?

Finding Direction

  • Let’s look to cultures with healthier attitudes toward aging.

Huge implications

These challenges will have significant implications for the world of work. They will impact the demographics of the workplace and employee benefit programs. They also will create an expanding sector of the labor market devoted to elder care and health care.

If we’re capable of philosophically redefining a crisis as an opportunity, then perhaps this is the best we can hope for. I believe these coming decades will be a test not only of our policy and economic ingenuity, but also of our hearts.


Related posts

Not “Set for Life”: Boomers face layoffs, discrimination, and bullying at work (2012)

Retirement expert: “Most middle-class Americans will become poor or near-poor retirees” (2012)

The press discovers the coming Boomer retirement crisis (2011)

When Boomers retire (or try to): America’s coming train wreck (2010)

For all posts on retirement-related topics, go here.

Working Notes: A possible workplace bullying-related suicide in New Mexico, NYC fast-food workers call for decent pay, and NBC to pay student interns

Here are three news items worthy of attention:

1. Bullying-related suicide in New Mexico? — Staci Matlock reports for the Santa Fe New Mexican on the suicide of a 50-year-old woman whose family is claiming had to do with ongoing bullying at work (link here):

…The family members of Annette Prada say she told them she was a victim of workplace bullying at the Public Regulation Commission.

Prada, 50, was found by police Thursday, according to her family. Prada had worked for the corporations bureau at the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission for 23 years, according to her daughter Andre Prada. “She had been dealing with bullying and stress there for years,” Andre Prada said, claiming the abuse was verbal, through email and in demotions. “She was only two years away (from retirement). She tried to stay strong.”

Hat tip to Kathy Hermes, Connecticut Healthy Workplace Advocates, for the article.

2. NYC fast-food workers engaging in labor actions — Steven Greenhouse reports for the New York Times on labor actions calling for higher wages, staged by New York City fast-food workers (link here):

The biggest wave of job actions in the history of America’s fast-food industry began at 6:30 a.m. on Thursday at a McDonald’s at Madison Avenue and 40th Street, with several dozen protesters chanting: “Hey, hey, what do you say? We demand fair pay.”

That demonstration kicked off a day of walkouts and rallies at dozens of Burger King, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants in New York City, organizers said. They said 14 of the 17 employees scheduled to work the morning shift at the McDonald’s on Madison Avenue did not — part of what they said were 200 fast-food workers who went on strike in the city.

Could this be the start of something big? Let’s hope so! I recall a talk by the late Beth Shulman, drawn from her book The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 50 Million Americans and their Families (2003), reminding us that all those “good jobs at good wages” in the manufacturing sector weren’t simply created that way; it took labor action and collective bargaining.

3. NBC to pay its student interns — The emerging movement against exploitative unpaid internships appears to have scored another victory. Richard Prince reports on the Maynard Institute blog that NBC is planning to institute a paid internship program (link here):

NBC News is planning to pay its interns starting in the spring of 2013, according to a well-placed source at the network, addressing a long-held contention that requiring interns to work only for the experience or for college credit amounts to favoring students with well-to-do parents.

The number of internships and the salary level have yet to be determined, the source said.

The arguments for and against unpaid internships have been made for years.

The post quotes news anchor Brian Williams’s concerns about declining diversity among “Nightly News” interns.

Hat tip to Eric Glatt for the blog piece.

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