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.