Captain Ahab of “Moby-Dick”: Workplace trauma sufferer, bullying boss, or both?

If you’re even remotely familiar with Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby-Dick (1851), then you may regard the Pequod‘s Captain Ahab as a mad, angry, and obsessed figure. After all, the novel is driven by Ahab’s relentless and rageful chase of the eponymous whale, seeking revenge for a grievous injury inflicted during an earlier encounter at sea. This obsession leads to Ahab’s undoing.

Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to consider Moby-Dick, via a fascinating online class offered by the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, an independent school that offers non-credit courses in the humanities and social sciences. Taught by Dr. Rebecca Ariel Porte, “Moby-Dick: Reading the White Whale” was a four-week deep dive (ba dum) into this complex novel, examining it from a variety of literary and social perspectives. I had long wanted to read Moby-Dick, but previous efforts to do so on my own flamed out after a few chapters. I knew that I needed the prod of interactive class sessions to sustain my reading of the book. I am happy to report that the course was more than worth the effort, thanks to its brilliant instructor and a very smart group of fellow students.

Going into the course, I brought a hypothesis: Moby-Dick is, at least in part, a story of psychological trauma suffered by Capt. Ahab. During the course, I was stunned to read passages that, at least for me, vividly supported that hypothesis. I now submit that Herman Melville understood the guts and sinew of trauma, well before the acronym PTSD ever entered our nomenclature.

Indeed, Melville’s description of Ahab fits the profile of a trauma sufferer. Sprinkled throughout the novel, we are given these looks into Ahab’s mental state. Ahab, the narrator tells us multiple times, is a “monomaniac,” which one modern dictionary defines as “a person who is extremely interested in only one thing, often to such a degree that they are mentally ill.” In chapter 106, we learn how Ahab carries a deep sense of grievance linked back to the injury inflicted by the whale, including a subsequent mysterious “agonizing wound” that “all but pierced his groin.” In chapter 135, we are told that Ahab “never thinks; he only feels, feels, feels.”

Today, we know that Ahab’s mental state and behaviors are very consistent with psychological trauma. From Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s superb book about trauma, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014), we learn that research on brain functioning shows how trauma can shut down logical thinking capacities and hyper-activate the emotions. Those who have experienced traumatic events may relive and obsess over them.

I have seen this on many occasions with some targets of severe bullying and mobbing at work. They face enormous difficulties in getting “unstuck” from a state of rumination and anger. A few become fixated on obtaining some measure of justice, or perhaps vengeance. Like Ahab, they sometimes only feel, feel, feel.

Of course, frequent readers of this blog may also classify Ahab as a bullying boss, given the way he treats the Pequod‘s crew. That’s a fair characterization, too. One senses that the ship’s crew members are walking on eggshells around Ahab. They fear him and question his mental state.

But seen as a trauma sufferer, perhaps Ahab becomes at least a slightly more sympathetic figure. I was recently introduced to the phrase hurt people hurt people, and I think that applies here. Put simply, some abused individuals turn their pain outward and mistreat others.

Thankfully, our understanding of trauma far exceeds what we knew about it in the mid-1800s. Among other things, we now know that PTSD can be treated. Many of these treatment modalities are discussed in The Body Keeps the Score

I readily confess that my fiction reading has tended towards mysteries, tales of spies and suspense, and the occasional horror story. But reading Moby-Dick with the help of this course turned out to be a welcomed intellectual workout, one that yielded surprisingly relevant connections to my work. I also came away very impressed with how one iconic author had a remarkable 19th century understanding of trauma and its effects.

On recovering from adversity and loss to have his finest moment

Here in the U.S., Joseph Biden, the Democratic Party’s nominee for President, delivered an acceptance speech at his party’s nominating convention that has received widespread praise for its moral conviction and strength. A man not associated with powerful oratory (among other things, he had to overcome a childhood stuttering impediment) nonetheless delivered a speech full of passion and heart quality, urging America to reclaim the light that has been lost in the midst of the current presidential leadership and a global pandemic.

The speech also served as a testament to recovering from great adversity and personal loss. Biden stumbled early in his party’s presidential primaries, appearing lackluster at campaign appearances and doing poorly in televised debates. Once the state primaries began, he stumbled badly at the polls. The growing suspicion was that this 77-year-old former vice president was washed up.

However, when all appeared to be lost, Biden pulled off a dramatic win in South Carolina, and the momentum just steamrolled from there. His march to win the nomination will be remembered as one of the greatest comebacks in the history of presidential politics.

Biden’s political comeback is only a part of his story, of course. He has overcome adversities much greater than that. Weeks after he was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972, his wife and one-year-old daughter died in a horrible car crash. He would remarry and raise his family. But in 2015, his oldest son, Beau Biden, who served as Delaware’s attorney general and as an active duty Army officer in Iraq, died after a long battle with brain cancer. It was a devastating loss that strongly factored into Biden’s decision not to run for president.

So here we are, in the summer of 2020, with the Democratic nominating convention being conducted as a socially distanced event for television and the internet because of a pandemic that continues to ravage this nation. There were no cheering delegates waving signs and banners; applause was delivered via projecting Zoom images on a giant screen. It was a strange and challenging setting for such an important speech.

And yet Biden delivered. You can watch his speech here.

Biden highlighted his sharp differences with the White House incumbent, not only in policies, but also in character. He invoked the term dignity on several key occasions. I try to avoid being overtly political on this blog, despite the fact that I am a longtime political junkie. However, I believe that the 2020 election is America’s moment of truth. We either make a change at the top or say goodbye to our nation as a decent, caring democracy. The stakes are that vital.

That said, for many Americans, the best reason to vote for Biden has been that he is not his main opponent. That may have changed on Thursday night, when a guy who was written off as an aging has-been stepped up to deliver the speech of his life. It’s a speech that history may very well credit for helping to save this country from a terribly dark future and lasting moral and ethical decline.

Can we use this challenging time to plant seeds of creativity and compassion?

Will the coronavirus pandemic prompt us toward creating a better society? Exploring this possibility for the New Yorker, author Lawrence Wright interviewed Gianna Pomata, a retired professor at the Johns Hopkins University’s Institute of the History of Medicine, about how the pandemic may shape our futures (link here). Dr. Pomata is an authority on, among other things, the history of the Black Plague of the Middle Ages.

Now living in Italy, one of the original hot zones for COVID-19 outbreaks, Pomata shared her historical perspective with Wright:

When we first talked, on Skype, she immediately compared covid-19 to the bubonic plague that struck Europe in the fourteenth century—“not in the number of dead but in terms of shaking up the way people think.” She went on, “The Black Death really marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of something else.” That something else was the Renaissance.

…“What happens after the Black Death, it’s like a wind—fresh air coming in, the fresh air of common sense.”

Although Pomata expressed shock over the resistance of so many Americans to follow basic public health precautions such as wearing masks, she sees the potential for a similar revitalizing response on a global level once we get through this pandemic:

“What I expect now is something as dramatic is going to happen, not so much in medicine but in economy and culture. Because of danger, there’s this wonderful human response, which is to think in a new way.”

This article has prompted me to look at pieces I’ve posted during the past few months, examining our current state and speculating as to how we will come out of this in terms of our basic humanity. I see within my own thinking both hope and doubt.

Work and workplaces

I’d love to see waves of kindness, compassion, and creativity overcome our workplaces in light of this pandemic, but the evidence for that transformation is not exactly overwhelming. In fact, it may be pointing in the other direction. Here’s what I recently wrote about those prospects: 

I hope that our better natures will prevail. Perhaps the fears and ravages of a deadly virus affecting our health and lives, the economy, the state of employment, and the viability of our various civic, cultural, and educational institutions are humbling us and causing us to treat one another with greater understanding and care. Maybe we’ll see less bullying, mobbing, harassment, and incivility, as people welcome the return of some semblance of normalcy.

…Then again, it’s not as if bad workplace behaviors have disappeared during the heart of this pandemic. The news has been peppered with accounts of alleged worker mistreatment, especially that in retail, warehouse, and delivery employment. Many of these reports involve claims that management is strong-arming employees to show up to work without providing adequate protective gear or other safeguards. We’ve also seen an unfortunate and sharp uptick in harassment of people of Asian nationalities, linked to the origins of the virus in China.

Furthermore, as I wrote earlier this month, the news is now peppered with stories of retail and fast food workers being bullied and assaulted by not-so-wonderful customers who are angered by mask requirements and limitations on inside dining. Apparently these folks are taking out their ignorance and frustrations on modestly paid service workers who are simply trying to do their jobs safely.

Now we’re also learning of more extensive efforts to leverage this pandemic in ways that exploit workers and expose them to greater harm, all in the name of squeezing out more profits. For a detailed account of one such instance, check out Jane Mayer’s recent investigative piece (also in the New Yorker, link here), which examines how a “secretive titan behind one of America’s largest poultry companies, who is also one of the President’s top donors, is ruthlessly leveraging the coronavirus crisis—and his vast fortune—to strip workers of protections.”

Our better natures

Still, on occasion we read of extraordinary efforts to keep businesses afloat and workers on the payroll. For example, European travel guru and writer Rick Steves, who has built a very successful business organizing guided tours to Europe and publishing a popular series of travel guidebooks (I’ve purchased my fair share of them!), is digging deep into his company’s cash reserves to keep his staff of 100 employed for the next two years. This involves pay cuts but will allow retention of health insurance coverage. (You can read more about his decision and planning in this Seattle Times article, here.)

And we also read accounts of remarkable creativity and flexibility practiced by small business owners. Recently ZAGAT Stories (link here) featured restauranteur Barbara Sibley, owner of La Palapa, a Mexican restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood. (Full disclosure: My cousin Judy, mentioned in this piece, is a manager there, and I’ve made modest financial contributions toward Barbara’s efforts during this time. I’ve also eaten a lot of their food over the years!) Here’s a snippet:

I didn’t shut down, not even for a day, not even for a minute. The next day after lockdown I was here with Judy, my general manager who’s worked for me for over 15 years, and my chef. I’ve worked with his family since I was 19. Having been through all of those different experiences, there were things that I knew right away. First of all, you have to hold onto your cash. You have to take care of your people. The most important thing is to make payroll and make sure nobody’s starving, and then put what you have to good use.

So we started to feed hospitals. We made a donation to the Catholic Worker. We had all this bread. I was very conscious about which purveyors I was going to shop from. There were people that had been with me through other crises and helped me up. I was very mindful about taking care of them. If I was going to spend any money, I was going to spend it very thoughtfully.

…Then Bloomberg Philanthropies decided it was important that we feed the public hospitals, because private hospitals had donors and board members that wanted to do wonderful things for those. Bloomberg teamed up with World Central Kitchen. I ended up doing 2,000 or 3,000 meals a week for the city hospitals. It allowed me to keep everybody busy, and to have really fresh food at La Palapa because we were making all these meals.

Jury’s out

So, wearing my law professor’s hat, the jury is still out for me on whether our post-pandemic world will be a more enlightened one. After all, here in the U.S., we are still in the heart of this pandemic. While many other nations have managed to wrestle down this virus, we are witnesses to some of the most appalling ignorance and selfishness when it comes to undertaking preventive public health measures, and we have an alarming absence of competent, caring leadership at the head of state. In late May, I wrote here:

Here in the U.S.,…the past 40 years have served as a case study of what happens when power corrupts and values become distorted. The past few years have taken us much deeper down that rabbit hole. Between this terrible pandemic and the pending 2020 election, I feel as though we in America have one last chance to turn things around. I hope we will summon the wisdom and humanity to do so.

And yet we have people like Rick Steves and Barbara Sibley, working tirelessly to keep their businesses going, while looking out for the interests of their employees.

Folks, if humankind can come out of the utter carnage of the Black Plague to create the Renaissance, then we have the capacity to emerge from this pandemic with a vision for a much better world as well — including more creative work and more compassionate workplaces. That’s all the more reason to wear those masks, wash our hands, and stay socially distanced. After all, we’ve got work to do.

***

Note: This is adapted from a piece recently posted to my personal blog, Musings of a Gen Joneser (link here).

LOL: “We have ZERO TOLERANCE….”

 

(image courtesy of ya-webdesign.com)

We see it over and again: An organization is accused of egregious instances of sexual harassment, racial discrimination, bullying at work, or similar mistreatment. The allegations are reported in the media, accompanied by the standard organizational response:

We have zero tolerance for this kind of behavior.

Zero tolerance. Got it. You guys are right on it.

At times, I’ll read a “zero tolerance” response in a news item and know that the organization in question practices anything but that.

Oh, these places might have zero tolerance splashed all over their employee handbooks, but in reality they don’t take it very seriously. Until they’re caught, of course.

I’m not an empirical researcher, but I’ll hypothesize that the zero-tolerance-on-paper organizations are frequently the same ones who invoke the rhetorical (not legal) “bad apple” defense when wrongful behaviors arise, i.e., we regret that a bad apple might have behaved in such a manner. As I wrote in 2017:

But all too often, when I hear or read of an organizational leader or spokesperson invoking bad apple-speak, I feel like I’m being conned. Bad behaviors are typically enabled, endorsed, and/or empowered by bad organizations. Often it’s clear that the situation suggests a pattern and practice of abuse or wrongdoing. Even in situations where the key abusers are few, many other organizational actors looked the other way or tacitly enabled the mistreatment. And sometimes it’s simply a lie, a cover-up for a whole harvest of bad apples. 

Building and maintaining an organization that embraces human dignity is not easy. It takes good leadership and values that are practiced, rather than simply preached. By contrast, although zero tolerance may be an impressive-sounding phrase, all too often it is invoked in situations suggesting that the hard work of creating a healthy, fair-minded, and inclusive organization remains to be done.

Developing our 2020 vision

In an opinion piece for the Boston Globe last week (link here), veteran journalist and editor David Shribman speculated on how the momentous events of this year will shape, in one form or another, the rest of our lives. Here’s a good snippet:

It is only June, and so far the crises of the age — along with the diminution of the country’s international profile, the coarsening of the civic debate, the looming bitter election — comprise a page the country has not yet turned. But it’s clear that the year 2020 is a turning point — in public health, in public debate, in public affairs.

“This will be a year that lives eternally in the history books,’’ Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley said in an interview. “The country has a clear election decision, we have to decide whether we will be a global leader or revert to bedrock nationalism, and all the while a pandemic rages and the cities burn. Not since 1968 have things been so decision-fraught. We are going to have to decide what kind of people we are going to be. One way or the other, this year will be remembered as a turning point.”

History is full of turning points, moments when the patterns of human affairs are upended, when great disruptions course through the culture, when tranquility is shattered, assumptions are blown apart, whole ways of thinking and behaving are transformed.

As you can see, Shribman quotes Douglas Brinkley, a prominent American historian who is not one to overuse phrases such as “a year that lives eternally in the history books” and “(w)e are going to have to decide what kind of people we are going to be.”

With what feels like lightning speed, we now find ourselves in a truly momentous time. No wonder so many feel overwhelmed and powerless as individuals.

But let’s look at this differently. During the past few weeks, I’ve been doing a lot of reading, thinking, and talking with folks (via Zoom, FaceTime, and email) about our current state of affairs. I don’t have any great epiphanies as to grand fixes, but I now understand that this pain and tumult provide opportunities to make important changes in our society.

So I find myself asking over and again, how can we, individually and collectively, create our respective visions for making a positive difference in the world?

Speaking personally, I remain devoted to the work that has been motivating me for many years. As I suggested a month ago, workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse aren’t about to go away because of our experiences of the past few months. So many other labor and employment issues merit our attention as well. As we haltingly return to our physical workspaces, the quest for dignity at work continues.

Of course, there’s much more to address: Global climate change is real, despite the efforts of those who try to deny or obscure the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence. The coronavirus pandemic is teaching us about the vulnerability of our public health systems and economic safety nets. And especially here in America, the current protests prompted by the police killing of George Floyd remind us of the continuing presence of racial injustice and systemic abuse. To name a few.

OK, so individually we cannot do it all, but we can be allies and supporters. And we can help connect these causes together, as part of a working agenda toward a better world.

***

Which brings me to folks roughly around my age (late Boomers, early Gen Xers), especially, who are faced with the question of how we will use our remaining productive years. To this consideration I’d like to reintroduce two frames that I’ve discussed before on this blog, legacy work and body of work:

Legacy work

By “legacy work” I mean our core contributions and accomplishments, the stuff we’d like to be remembered for in the longer run and by people we care about. In the realm of vocation, it may involve creative or intellectual work, achievement in business, service to others, building something, activism and social change work, or some type of innovation or invention.

Body of work

Pamela Slim, author of Body of Work: Finding the Thread That Ties Your Story Together (2013), defines her operative term this way:

Your body of work is everything you create, contribute, affect, and impact. For individuals, it is the personal legacy you leave at the end of your life, including all the tangible and intangible things you have created.

Most of us won’t appear in the history books, and so perhaps our stories will go with us, at least beyond our immediate circles of family and friends. However, if we have some ability to define our personal legacy and our body of work, then perhaps we owe ourselves and others some consideration of how we can make the world a better place, given the challenging opportunities before us.

Dear reader, I won’t try to prescribe that path for you, but I hope these thoughts will help to prompt your way. After all, we sometimes have more power than we think we have. There’s no better time to utilize it than now.

On the rhetoric of change: I’ll take “evolution” and “transformation” over “revolution” and “creative destruction,” thank you

Seeking the light (photo: DY)

This may sound a little abstract, but I’ve been paying attention lately to the rhetoric associated with perceived needs for dramatic change. Among other things, some political activists call for “revolution,” while certain business innovators call for “creative destruction.”

Perhaps I’m getting soft, but I’ve come around to favoring dramatic change in the forms of “evolution” and “transformation.” You might consider this a matter of mere semantics — the kind of distinctions a geeky professor (i.e., me) might make — but I believe the connotations accompanying these terms play out tangibly in terms of actions.

Whether it’s political “revolution” or capitalistic “creative destruction,” the inevitable human casualties that accompany such sudden transitions are too often treated as acceptable collateral damage. After all, “blowing up stuff” (hopefully figuratively) often means that people are going to get hurt.

OK, I confess, as far as pathways to change go, I’m not a revolutionary or a creative destruction guy. I believe in a mixed economy with strong private, public, and non-profit sectors, offering opportunities for enterprise, efficient public services, humane social safety nets, and protections in the form of checks & balances. My politics are that of an old-fashioned liberal, holding that government can and should serve the common good. My views on law and public policy are critically informed by the school of therapeutic jurisprudence, which calls upon us to view our laws and legal institutions through a lens of human dignity and societal well-being.

That said, I do believe that our world needs some dramatic changes. Indeed, for over a decade, I’ve used this blog and other platforms to urge that our workplace laws and policies should advance human dignity. Our obsessions with short-term profits and excesses of managerial power have led to a lot of innocent people paying the price. More broadly, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted serious, pre-existing fault lines in our health care and economic systems. Global climate change is an existential threat to humanity.

Some folks are benefiting mightily under these conditions. Even during this pandemic, news accounts have documented how powerful billionaires have built wealth, while countless millions of others have lost their jobs.

Needed evolution and transformation can occur, but it won’t be easy. Here in the U.S., for example, the past 40 years have served as a case study of what happens when power corrupts and values become distorted. The past few years have taken us much deeper down that rabbit hole. Between this terrible pandemic and the pending 2020 election, I feel as though we in America have one last chance to turn things around. I hope we will summon the wisdom and humanity to do so.

Coronavirus: What can we expect in terms of workplace bullying, incivility, and conflict as we reopen our physical workspaces?

(image courtesy of clipart.email)

With various plans, policies, and discussions addressing the critical question of how we reopen our economic and civic society in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, faithful readers of this blog may be especially interested in how these measures will affect interpersonal behaviors as people start returning to their physical workspaces.

I hope that our better natures will prevail. Perhaps the fears and ravages of a deadly virus affecting our health and lives, the economy, the state of employment, and the viability of our various civic, cultural, and educational institutions are humbling us and causing us to treat one another with greater understanding and care. Maybe we’ll see less bullying, mobbing, harassment, and incivility, as people welcome the return of some semblance of normalcy.

Furthermore, as I wrote earlier, I hope that more employers will find ways to pay all of their employees a living wage. After all, many of us have been able to shelter-at-home in large part due to the service rendered by a lot of workers who haven’t been earning much money.

Then again, it’s not as if bad workplace behaviors have disappeared during the heart of this pandemic. The news has been peppered with accounts of alleged worker mistreatment, especially that in retail, warehouse, and delivery employment. Many of these reports involve claims that management is strong-arming employees to show up to work without providing adequate protective gear or other safeguards. We’ve also seen an unfortunate and sharp uptick in harassment of people of Asian nationalities, linked to the origins of the virus in China.

So maybe my hopes for a great enlightenment are somewhat unrealistic.

In any event, I’m willing to make some mild forecasts about the workplace climate as we start to reopen physical workspaces:

First, I expect that most folks will be on their best behavior, at least initially. They will understand that we’re still in challenging times and be grateful to have paid employment.

Second, I think that various clashes, disagreements, and conflicts will arise, as a result of a mix of employer policies and heightened anxiety levels. Best intentions notwithstanding, a lot of folks will be on edge, and understandably so.

Third, I suspect that a lot of conflicts, incivilities, and micro-aggressions will move online, as we continue to conduct a lot of our work remotely and digitally. A barrage of email and text exchanges will accompany these transitions back to our workspaces. Some will get contentious; a (hopefully) much smaller share will be abusive.

Fourth, we may see a (welcomed, in my opinion) upturn in labor union organizing on behalf of our lowest paid workers in retail and service industries, many of whom have been the core of our essential workforce outside of health care providers. 

Finally, we’ll see coronavirus-related claims over disability discrimination, workers’ compensation, family and medical leave, workplace safety and health laws, and other legal standards related to worker health. Things could get quite litigious if managed poorly.

The debt we are accruing to workers we now deem essential

Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer has proposed an ambitious new program to provide free college for workers deemed essential during the coronavirus pandemic. As reported by Wesley Whistle for Forbes (link here):

Today, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D) announced “Futures for Frontliners,” as a part of a series of initiatives to help Michigan families during and after the coronavirus pandemic. This new program would provide tuition-free higher education for those considered essential workers during the coronavirus lockdowns.

…According to the press release, this program would provide those without a college degree a path to a higher education credential or degree. Those specified as essential workers included hospital and nursing home staff, grocery store employees, child care workers, those manufacturing personal protective equipment (PPE), and more.

May this be but one small initiative designed to recognize the everyday contributions of service workers in our economy and society. Many of us are able to shelter at home and to practice social distancing because of retail and delivery services performed by workers who receive only modest pay and benefits at best.

We owe these workers a growing debt of gratitude, but here in the U.S., we are way behind when it comes to embracing employee dignity as a primary objective for our workplace practices and public policies. For millions of service workers classified as essential employees, the agenda for change includes better pay, safer and healthier working conditions, and health insurance and retirement plans.

Will we see the light?

Hopefully this public health crisis is shining a light on that need for change. And just maybe, wealthy folks are among those paying closer attention.

For example, Mark Cuban — owner of the Dallas Mavericks professional basketball team and co-star of the “Shark Tank” reality TV show for budding entrepreneurs — went on National Public Radio in April (link here) and explained how the pandemic has changed the way he regards the importance of corporate social responsibility:

Of anything as devastating and dangerous as the coronavirus has been, it’s also been a great equalizer. I mean, it can affect anybody. But within the business construct, just the idea that everybody has got to do their job or participate in a way that works for not just the business, but for individual families, but also customers. And so, I think it doesn’t matter what your role is. Each role is of equal importance.

The CEO is of no more importance than somebody cleaning the floors or that takes a bucket and mops the floors. I think that this is a time as a reset where we really have to reevaluate how we treat workers, how people are paid, how can we get them into a role where they receive an equity as part of their compensation. So that they’re not having to live paycheck to paycheck, they have something that appreciates. All these things I think are important as we go through this reset in business.

Labor unions are essential to solutions

Even if more corporate executives start to get it, we still need to ground these changes in a stronger labor movement. To illustrate, labor studies professor John Logan (San Francisco State U.) is an expert on working conditions in the retail grocery sector. Here’s a snippet of a recent piece he wrote for The Hill (link here) about grocery store workers, in connection with the coronavirus pandemic:

Researchers have long known that unionized workplaces – whether in mining, construction, manufacturing or warehouses – are significantly safer for employees than non-union workplaces. Now we are learning in real time that the same is true for grocery workers, who have been unexpectedly thrust onto the front lines of the fight against COVID-19. Previously treated as “unskilled” and “disposable,” grocery workers are now recognized as essential personnel who are helping to keep millions of Americans alive.

…Large non-union companies such as Walmart, Target and Amazon have introduced their own measures on worker safety and employment security, but their limited efforts have largely focused pay raises and bonuses to attract and retain employees.

…In the past, many food retailers have lobbied against measures such as paid sick leave that would have better protected workers and shoppers in this time of national crisis. The same companies cannot now be trusted to prioritize worker and public safety over their own greed.

The coronavirus pandemic has shaken us hard and fast, and we’ve got a ways to go before we are done with it. Nevertheless, it’s time for us to be thinking about how we can create a society that values the contributions of all workers. If we don’t learn these lessons now, then shame on us.

Can Amazon Prime members compel Amazon to treat its workers with greater dignity?

For many years, I boycotted Amazon Prime because of how Amazon treats its warehouse workers. But eventually I returned when I wanted access to Prime video and to be able to send gifts — especially books — with reliable delivery dates. I try to limit my Amazon spending to those categories and to ordering used books through associated vendors. But especially as someone who hasn’t owned a car for over 30 years, sometimes it’s awfully easy to click an order for the sake of convenience.

Nevertheless, Amazon’s labor practices remain disturbing, and yes, I feel guilty when I click that order. You see, it remains that the convenience that we experience as consumers comes at the expense of warehouse workers who have hard, exhausting, unsafe jobs in return for low pay. If you doubt me, then click here, here, here, and here for more details.

Ultimately, widespread unionization of Amazon workers is the key to improving their working conditions and compensation. But Amazon is virulently anti-union (e.g., here, here, and here), and workers who talk up unionization do so at their own risk.

So what is to be done? Well, Jobs With Justice, one of the nation’s best labor advocacy organizations for low-wage workers, is inviting we Amazon consumers to become voices for change, in the form of a new network called Prime Member Voices (link here). Here’s how they describe the network’s objectives:

Amazon Prime Members are a core part of the company’s business. Membership dues help fuel Amazon’s larger ambitions, but unfortunately many of those ambitions are in direct conflict with the issues we care passionately about. From truly horrific conditions inside Amazon Fulfillment Centers, to data collection, and selling technology to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and police departments.

As Prime Members, we should have a voice and it’s why Jobs With Justice is calling on Prime Members to join together in Prime Member Voices, where we can work together and develop ways where our voice is not only heard, but leads to real systemic change within the company.

It appears that the goals of Prime Member Voices will go beyond labor conditions, and personally I’m good with that. Amazon has been a game-changing entrant into the retail marketplace, and their business practices should be scrutinized closely from the standpoint of the public good.

In terms of concrete actions, this announcement is concededly vague. Regardless, this is a potentially brilliant organizing strategy: Leverage the many Prime members who would like to access Amazon’s convenient ordering and shipping, while knowing that the workers are being treated better and that the company’s business practices are ethical and socially responsible.

I’ve signed up. It’s worth seeing where this goes. At the very least, if I’m going to benefit from Amazon’s delivery systems, then I owe it to the rank-and-file employees to support better working conditions that affirm their dignity and well-being. It can happen only when people join together and call for change.

Ten popular MTW posts from 2019

Dear Readers, I’ve collected ten of the most popular MTW posts written during 2019. If you missed them before, I hope they will prove interesting and enlightening to you this time around. Here goes:

Man faced surgery, while bullying co-workers bet on his survival and gave him a toe tag (link here) — When Charlie Bowlby faced heart surgery, his co-workers placed bets on the likelihood that he would survive and gave him a mock toe tag before he went off to the hospital.

Speaking truth to power: Incivility & abrasiveness vs. bullying & mobbing (link here) — Bullying and mobbing are forms of abuse, not bad manners, and we should treat them accordingly.

Workplace bullying, DARVO, and aggressors claiming victim status (link here) — Dr. Jennifer Freyd’s conceptualization of DARVO — Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender — applies to many workplace bullying and mobbing situations.

Workplace bullying and incivility: Does kissing up fuel kicking down? (link here) — One study suggests a link between kissing up to one’s superiors and picking down one’s subordinates.

It’s not Yale or fail: The college admissions scandal and our unhealthy obsession with school prestige (link here) — The burgeoning college admissions scandal has prompted a fast-developing and overdue dialogue about how the wealthy and powerful are able to game the college admissions systems on behalf of their children.

Workplace bullying: Should “creative” folks get a pass? (Uh, no) (link here) — A workplace aggressor should not be given a free pass simply because they happen to be creative.

A short list of recommended books for targets of workplace bullying and mobbing (link here) — I thought I’d offer a very selective list of four affordable books that I repeatedly recommend to others.

A short speech in Rome (link here) — The text of my acceptance speech after receiving the Bruce Winick Award for contributions to the field of therapeutic jurisprudence, at the International Congress for Law and Mental Health.

Boston Globe: Two important features on workplace bullying (link here) — Discussing two feature articles, one a piece on a former corrections officer who faced savage bullying and sexual harassment, the other a piece on bullying of resident physicians.

On following evil orders at work (link here) — What if an employee is directed or enlisted to take part in the bullying, mobbing, or harassment of a co-worker?

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