Making human dignity the centerpiece of American employment law and policy

The cover story of the March/April 2008 issue of Foreign Policy was an article by New York University economist Nouriel Roubini, warning that growing American economic instability was primed to trigger a devastating financial crisis that would reverberate around the world. Of course, Roubini was spot-on in predicting what would happen. Roughly six months later, the economy went into meltdown mode, and we have been living with the terrible consequences since then.

In the fall of that year, I was working on a law review article of much more modest ambition, attempting to pull together an argument for why human dignity should become the framing concept for American employment law. In the article (“Human Dignity and American Employment Law,” University of Richmond Law Review, 2009), I posited that human dignity should supplant the prevailing “markets and management” framework that embraces unregulated markets and unbridled management control of the workplace.

Over the weekend, I thought about how we are now in Year Six of the “new normal,” as defined by high unemployment and flattened paychecks that confront so many Americans — not to mention the millions of others around the world who have suffered from our hurtful system of trickle-down economics. I pulled up my 2009 article and turned to the conclusion, where I had offered some points on how to shift our workplace laws in the direction of valuing human dignity:

First, we must remain steadfast and unapologetic in calling for dignity in the workplace, even at the risk of being labeled foolish or naive. . . . In the face of likely criticism and even ridicule, we must make the case, without embarrassment, that workers should not have to check their dignity at the office or factory door.

Second, it is important to understand how we got to this place. The markets and management framework did not achieve dominance overnight or by accident. Its current, enduring incarnation has been the result of careful, patient, and intelligent intellectual spadework and political organizing. . . .

Third, just as the emergence of the markets and management framework was part of a broader political, social, and economic movement, the call for dignity at work cannot be made in a vacuum. . . . [D]enials of dignity occur throughout society, and therefore call for connected rather than atomized responses.

Finally, we must work on crafting messages that persuade the general public and stakeholders in employment relations. . . . [W]e need to translate these ideas into messages that reach people in legislatures, courts, administrative agencies, union halls, board rooms, and the media. This will not be easy, but at stake is nothing less than the well-being of millions of people who work for a living and those who depend on them.

Some five years after publication, I don’t think I’d change many of the words or points in that article. If anything, they are more compelling today, as the ravages of the Great Recession continue and worker power remains at a low ebb. Government measures undertaken in the immediate aftermath of the stock market crash helped to stave off complete disaster, but they fell well short of the needed paradigm shift for our economy, jobs, and workplaces.

To be sure, we still have our work cut out for us.

6 responses

  1. At the risk of being labeled foolish AND naïve, I offer this without embarrassment:

    The Potential for a County Healthy Workplace Ombudsperson/ Liaison

    I was so encouraged when Obama said the legalization of marijuana in a couple of states are important experiments. We also must not be afraid to experiment and seize every opportunity for ways of making human dignity prevail in the workplace.

    Over the years, anti-bullying, respect and dignity language has increasingly been included in our County’s HR and public employee union’s policies. I know the awareness and support is out there as all of our County Supervisors signed the Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week Resolution as I had encouraged. And our State union employees now have, as of August 2013, a Dignity Clause in their contract requiring employees to be treated with generally accepted standards of human dignity and courtesy.

    But what if your workplace dignity and courtesy rights are not covered by a state or local HR policy or union?

    A County Healthy Workplace Ombudsperson could be a liaison between existing County agencies and unions and work sites not covered by dignity and courtesy policies and procedures. By applying existing or modified County policies to all the vendors and agencies that have financial, consultative, business or legal relationships with the County, the reach of workplace respect and dignity awareness could be greatly expanded.

    The County would benefit by having the trust and confidence that the businesses it deals with in the community are also leaders in respecting employees’ rights to human dignity, civility and courtesy.

    The position of County Healthy Workplace Ombuds/Liaison could be, as I sort of exploratorily envision it, like a paid internship position with some funds from the County and/or County sponsored grant, along with some funds from those businesses and vendors that deal with the County.

    I could see this position as a lifelong learning opportunity with support offered for classes and experience in counseling, law, psychology, human resources, reference and referral services, management, negotiation, media and public outreach, community health research, training and leadership, etc. It could be a great position for tapping the leadership enthusiasm of someone who has experienced being targeted and mobbed by workplace abuses in County positions.

    If just one person, needing to be heard and seeking a solution in an unhealthy workplace situation, could be prevented from escalating their frustration in a damaging way, to their self or others, this kind of position would definitely be worth it.

    This is a position I would want with my County. I say, let’s experiment!

  2. Pingback: Pilant's Business Ethics Blog | David Yamada Talks about Human Dignity

  3. Is there a published list of the “generally accepted standards of workplace dignity” as I see the phrase often in union contracts, but can’t seem to find an actual list to substantiate the phrase such as the defined list of “generally accepted accounting principles” (GAAP). Obvious components come to mind such as respect, courtesy…..If the components are truly generally accepted, then there should be a defined list agreed upon by some body.

  4. Pingback: Meet the Author: Workplace Bullying Expert Judith Geneva Balcerzak | Social Workers Speak

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