American employment law has been dominated by a belief system that embraces the idea of unfettered free markets and regards limitations on management authority with deep suspicion. Under this “markets and management” framework, the needs for unions and collective bargaining, individual employment rights, and, most recently, protection of workers amid the dynamics of globalization, are all weighed against these prevailing norms.
The creation of New Deal labor and social legislation during the 1930s, and the expansion of employment rights during the 1960s and 1970s, provided tangible benefits to workers in terms of collective bargaining, minimum wage, discrimination, and modest wrongful discharge protections. However, these gains have been under continuous and vigorous attack for several decades, to the point where today the state of American employment relations is at a critical juncture.
For the sake of workers and organizations alike, we must rethink this dominant framework. Thanks to the publication of economist Thomas Piketty’s groundbreaking Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) — an exhaustive study of income inequality in some 20 nations (including the U.S.) — we have a new understanding of how unbridled capitalism has led to huge concentrations of wealth benefiting the super rich. Furthermore, concerns about job security and working conditions, bullying at work, and steadily lower union membership levels continue to raise important questions about the well-being of everyday workers and their role in shaping the modern workplace.
In addition, the courts and legal process offer marginal solace for mistreated employees. Despite the seeming abundance of potential legal protections for many American workers, effectuating one’s employment-related rights can be a lengthy, expensive, and stressful undertaking. Employment lawsuits are costly and time consuming for both employees and employers.
Transforming all this is no easy task, but let’s start with the fundamental conviction that human dignity should supplant “markets and management” as the central framework for analyzing and shaping American employment law. Simply put, we need to reframe the intellectual and rhetorical debate over employment law and policy to focus on the dignity and well-being of workers.
Within such a “dignitarian” framework, there is plenty of room for market-based competition, entrepreneurship, individual responsibility, and sound management prerogative. Furthermore, the call for dignity in the workplace is not a rallying cry for state ownership, runaway taxation, or regulatory micromanagement of the workplace. Rather, it is about promoting the complementary goals of healthy, productive, and socially responsible workplaces within a mix of robust private, public, and non-profit sectors.
Note: This post is a slightly revised and edited version of the introduction to my 2009 law review article, “Human Dignity and American Employment Law,” University of Richmond Law Review. I find myself returning to this piece periodically to draw out basic themes that I want to share with readers of this blog. The idea of supplanting the dominant “markets and management” framework with a commitment to human dignity is chief among the core precepts. I further developed these ideas in a 2010 law review essay, “Employment Law as If People Mattered: Bringing Therapeutic Jurisprudence into the Workplace,” Florida Coastal Law Review.