Giving thanks

(Photo courtesy of Shreder 9100 at en.wikipedia)

For this Thanksgiving, I’ll be jumping on an Amtrak train for a quick trip to New York, where I’ll be joining family and friends for a longstanding tradition of celebrating the holiday together with wonderful company and a scrumptious meal. I am grateful for this gathering and the people who are a part of it, and I’ll be able to walk the streets of my old stomping grounds of Manhattan to boot.

And yet as I write this, I know that many are struggling. Indeed, many readers of this blog have experienced terrible work situations that have undermined their lives and livelihoods. Their plights are ongoing reminders of how we need to fix a good number of workplaces, with human dignity as our overriding framework.

Especially to those readers whose lives are in turmoil, I offer a Thanksgiving wish of better days to come. And may those better days come sooner than later.

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Suggested posts

Holiday reads: Fueling heart, mind, and soul (2014) — Highlighting three great books that help to re-ground us.

Transitions and inner callings (2014) — Looking at a valuable book for understanding life and work transitions.

Holiday reflections: The end of limitless possibilities (and that’s good) (2013) — Featuring one of the best photos I’ve ever taken!

A Labor Day with too few union members

According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. labor union membership rate is rough half of what it was in 1983, when the government began keeping comparable data:

The union membership rate—the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of unions— was 10.7 percent in 2016, down 0.4 percentage point from 2015, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions, at 14.6 million in 2016, declined by 240,000 from 2015. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, and there were 17.7 million union workers.

If we go back to the 1950s, we see that roughly one third of the American workforce was unionized.

During this stretch of time, giant wage and wealth gaps have opened up and the middle class has been giving way to economic extremes of the top 10-15 percent doing very well and so many others barely hanging on, if that. The accompanying dynamics include virulent, corporate-fueled on-the-floor and political opposition to organized labor. And let’s also acknowledge that too many unions don’t serve their members well and retain leaders who act like the worst CEOs.

The labor movement has been the most effective force in American history for raising wages and benefits to livable, sustainable levels and keeping them there. So long as the union membership rate continues its decline, I don’t have much hope for the fortunes of the average American worker. Hopefully people will wake up and realize that they’ve been sold a bad bill of goods over the past few decades and come to embrace what good unions do for our society.

Holiday roundup: Reflections

Rockefeller Center during NYC's post-Christmas blizzard, 2010 (Photo: DY)

Rockefeller Center during NYC’s post-Christmas blizzard, 2010 (Photo: DY)

Dear readers, I’ve collected seven previous blog posts from past holiday seasons that invite us to do some reflective thinking about our lives, our places in the world, and how we might engage in positive change. Several posts suggest books that may be good gifts for relatives, friends, or colleagues — or perhaps a present to yourself! Enjoy.

Holiday reads: Fueling heart, mind, and soul (2014) — “If you’re looking to get beyond the hurly-burly of holiday consumerism, here are three books that will put you in a more thoughtful and reflective frame of mind. I’ve recommended them before, and I’m happy to do so again.”

Chris Guillebeau’s advice: Do your own annual review (2014) — “Chris Guillebeau is a prolific writer, entrepreneur, and global sojourner who is playing a lead role in encouraging people — Gen Xers and Millennials especially — to think creatively and independently about what to do with their lives. One of his recommended life-planning activities is to do your own annual review as the year comes to a close. Using his blog, he shares his annual reviews with readers and asks for their feedback.”

Holiday reflections: The end of limitless possibilities (and that’s good) (2013) — “For me, among the genuine blessings of the passing of time have been authenticity and self-definition. I have been afforded the extraordinary privilege of being able to make choices — hundreds of millions of people in this world are not so fortunate. I have squandered some of that privilege, but thankfully a kernel of inner wisdom has helped me to narrow down the limitless possibilities, rather than struggling to keep them open.”

Ch-ch-ch-changes: Some books to guide us toward good transitions (2012) — “As we turn the calendar to a New Year, I wanted to gather together some recommended titles for those who are engaged in or contemplating a major work or personal transition. In several instances I’ve borrowed from previous blog posts mentioning the books. If you’re in the midst of big changes, these books may prove a worthy investment in terms of your livelihood and well-being. I hope you find them helpful.”

On happiness: If you’re going to spend, buy experiences, not stuff (2010) — “If you’re going to treat yourself to a little present, your happiness quotient is more likely to go up if you drop your money on a nice trip instead of a shiny new computer. Research on the ‘buy experiences’ vs. ‘buy stuff’ debate clearly sides with the former. “

A 12-step program for compassion (2010) — “Karen Armstrong is a noted author on religious affairs. Her latest book is Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (2010), a mix of faith, philosophy, and self-help. In it, she offers a 12-step program to help make the world a more compassionate place….”

Does life begin at 46? (2010) — “Conventional wisdom about life’s journey, suggests The Economist magazine, is that our path is ‘a long slow decline from sunlit uplands towards the valley of death.’…Conventional wisdom, according to research, is wrong. True, we start off our adulthoods pretty happy and become increasingly disenchanted as middle age approaches. However, our outlook then gets better as we age.”

 

Good reading for the New Year

If your post-holiday mood is more reflective and less celebratory, then you then might want to check out these sites for some interesting reading about the meaning of life and the pursuit of happiness. 

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The Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley has put together a list of readers’ and editors’ favorite articles published on their site during 2015, covering topics such as empathy, happiness, and emotional intelligence.

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Brain Pickings regularly serves up thoughtful articles and review essays. Site host and author Maria Popova collected The Best of Brain Pickings 2015 for our perusal.

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The School of Life is a London-based adult education center that offers classes, books, and plenty of online content. While it’s a shame that they don’t have centers in every major city (fortunately they’re expanding!), you can still get a lot from their site, including the ongoing, work-in-progress Book of Life.

Work in progress: A quick look ahead to 2015

I'm not a big holiday decorator -- here's is this year's "tree"

OK, so I’m not a big holiday decorator

Thank you…

…for your continued readership! I look forward to a seventh year of writing blog posts and publishing your comments. For better and for worse, the world of work gives us plenty to talk about. And so it will be in 2015.

When I started this blog in December 2008, I didn’t fully appreciate how it could become such an engaging way to share information, ideas, and opinions. But now, with 1,000+ subscribers, some 580,000+ page views, and several thousand posted comments, I’m grateful that Minding the Workplace can contribute to our conversation on work, workers, and workplaces.

We’ve still got a lot of work to do in order to create and grow workplaces that embrace worker dignity. Here’s to a New Year of progress on those fronts.

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Forward on the Healthy Workplace Bill

With the 2015-16 state legislative sessions approaching, our advocates are preparing to resubmit and support the Healthy Workplace Bill in states across the nation. With two states, California and Tennessee, enacting workplace bullying legislation this year (albeit in very watered-down form), and other cities and municipalities approving workplace anti-bullying ordinances for public workers that draw language from our legislation, we’re steadily moving toward the day when more workers will have legal protections against this form of mistreatment. It is proving to be a hard slog at times, with opposition arising as our efforts gain support, but we continue to make progress.

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New side gig

During 2015, I’ll be launching a part-time “side gig” initiative that offers coaching, consulting, and programming on workplace bullying, career transitions, and fostering dignity at work, as well as assorted publications covering the same. I’ll also be developing more free content and referral information for those in search of guidance and resources. I’m excited about putting some structure around activities that I’ve provided informally for many years. I’ll be rolling this out gradually, as time and energy permit. These services and materials will be offered on a separate website, with details to come!

At the same time, I’ll be keeping my day (and often evening) job as a law professor, and as a scholar and advocate I’ll remain steadfastly committed to advancing worker dignity. And as I indicated above, I’ll be adding lots of posts to this blog during the year to come and beyond!

Holiday reads: Fueling heart, mind, and soul

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If you’re looking to get beyond the hurly-burly of holiday consumerism, here are three books that will put you in a more thoughtful and reflective frame of mind. I’ve recommended them before, and I’m happy to do so again.

Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (1956; many different editions)

One of the most personally influential books I’ve read is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (1956). Frankl was a psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor who lost almost all of his immediate family in the Holocaust. The first part of the book details his concentration camp experiences. The second part explains his theory of logotherapy. Frankl believed that life’s essence is about a search for meaning: “We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing a something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.” Logotherapy is based upon these premises.

In 1991, the New York Times reported that, according to a survey conducted by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Library of Congress, Man’s Search For Meaning belongs to a list of “the ten most influential books in [the United States].”

Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (2010)

Karen Armstrong is a noted author on religious affairs. Her 2010 book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, mixes faith, philosophy, and self-help. In it, she offers a 12-step program to help make the world a more compassionate place:

  • “Learn About Compassion”
  • “Look at Your Own World”
  • “Compassion for Yourself”
  • “Empathy”
  • “Mindfulness”
  • “Action”
  • “How Little We Know”
  • “How Should We Speak to One Another?”
  • “Concern for Everybody”
  • “Knowledge”
  • “Recognition”
  • “Love Your Enemies”

This is not easy stuff. Armstrong’s program requires introspection, honest self-evaluation, and conscious effort.

Charles D. Hayes, The Rapture of Maturity: A Legacy of Lifelong Learning (2004)

Charles Hayes is a retired, largely self-educated writer and practical philosopher whose books and essays on finding meaning in life are hidden classics. Here’s the opening to his Preface from The Rapture of Maturity: A Legacy of Lifelong Learning, my favorite among his wonderful books:

When thoughts of our own mortality begin to crop up with increasing frequency, it’s time to pause and contemplate our legacy. We’re reminded to ask ourselves what of value we intend to leave for posterity. After the tangibles of the estate are settled, what will our successors remember about us? Is there something we can do now that will generate a lasting, positive effect in the lives of our descendants?

Some of the most instructive and inspirational books are written by folks a generation (or two) ahead of us who graciously share their life lessons with their successors. Hayes writes especially for those in the “September” of their lives, but anyone can benefit from his wisdom.

No Ho Ho: Will Amazon’s warehouse workers benefit from the holiday shopping rush?

Now that the holiday shopping season is moving into full swing, a lot of folks will be clicking and shipping through their gift lists by way of Amazon. As someone who does not enjoy in-store shopping, I understand the appeal. However, I doubt that Amazon’s warehouse workers will be the main beneficiaries of the company’s holiday sales intake, and that should give us pause as we make our shopping choices.

Back in February I explained why I cancelled my Amazon Prime account, citing concerns over how the company treats its warehouse workers:

I cancelled my Amazon Prime account earlier this week, and until working conditions for their employees improve, I won’t be shopping there nearly as often as I have previously.

Amazon Prime is a premium membership service that guarantees two-day shipping on almost every item ordered. For frequent customers such as myself, Prime offers easy, dependable, click-and-ship ordering, with hardly any waiting time for delivery.

However, revelations about Amazon’s labor practices have become increasingly disturbing, more specifically the working conditions in its vast merchandise warehouses. For me, the final straw was a recent Salon investigative piece by Simon Head, “Worse than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s sick brutality and secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers,” detailing how the situation is much worse than I imagined….

I’ve cut down on my Amazon orders during 2014, and I’ve resisted the temptation to rejoin Prime. I’ve searched around in vain for evidence that Amazon is making any major effort to treat its warehouse workers better.

To be sure, Amazon’s delivery systems are what Wired called a “Massive Wish-Fulfilling Machine.” Marcus Wohlsen concludes his detailed look at Amazon’s warehouse and delivery operations this way:

Amazon’s warehouses are designed to be wish-fulfillment machines, calibrated to feed our consumer wants with aggressive speed and precision at a scale that has yet to find its limit. We keep supplying more wishes to Amazon, and Amazon keeps turning them into more stuff.

However, Amazon’s systems continue to exact a human toll on warehouse workers. For example, Dave Jamieson, writing for the Huffington Post in May, detailed a lawsuit filed by South Carolina employees:

A new batch of Amazon warehouse workers sued the online retailer in federal court last week, claiming the company’s workplace policies don’t leave them with reasonable time to eat their lunches.

In the lawsuit filed in South Carolina, seven warehouse workers say they were required to continue working and complete their tasks even after their unpaid half-hour breaks began. Once they were done, they would have to wait in line to go through a security screening, then take a six-minute walk across the massive warehouse to get some fresh air and eat.

All told, the holdups typically left them with “less than 18 minutes” to enjoy their lunches….

In addition, here’s how Jason Del Rey, writing for re/code in June, previewed a CNBC documentary on Amazon’s working conditions:

While CNBC found warehouse employees who were thankful for the pay and benefits that come with a job at an Amazon fulfillment center, several spoke out about against the unrelenting pace of work and unreasonable expectations that take a physical and mental toll on employees.

“I felt like Amazon was a prison,” one former female worker said in the documentary. She and others interviewed reported tough working conditions that include being timed on just about any action imaginable, from bathroom breaks to packing boxes to picking products off of shelves.

Amazon is among the companies that seek out older workers who roam the country in search of short-time and part-time employment, especially on a seasonal basis. Journalist Jessica Bruder was interviewed by public radio’s Here and Now program on the phenomenon of “workampers”:

A story in Harper’s Magazine opens a window into some of these people. They’re called “workampers” (a contraction of working and camping) and they travel across the country in their RVs, often performing seasonal work, selling fireworks, pumpkins, Christmas trees. They even work part-time in huge Amazon warehouses.

Jessica Bruder is author of the story, “The End Of Retirement: When You Can’t Afford To Stop Working,” in the August issue of Harper’s. She told Here & Now’s Robin Young that this movable work force is a great thing for companies like Amazon.

As you might guess, many workampers are doing what they do because more secure, higher paying jobs have eluded their grasp, especially during this ongoing economic crisis. They probably won’t be enjoying a lot of holiday cheer as they nurse their tired bodies after long, demanding shifts. 

 

Ringing in the New Year

At year’s end, I always look forward to the holiday issue of The Economist, the venerable British newsweekly. It features an eclectic variety of articles on history, popular culture, and scientific and economic trends, some serious, others lighthearted.

In the spirit of that annual treat, I’d like to offer a more modest collection of a dozen posts from this blog that hopefully provoke, inform, and entertain:

1. Does life begin at 46? (2010) — As long as we’re talking about The Economist, here’s a piece inspired by an article in the magazine, speculating on the possible advantages of hitting midlife.

2. A 12-step program for compassion (2010) — A post about theologian Karen Armstrong’s book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.

3. What if we applied the Golden Rule at work? (2010) — Yeah, what if we did?!

4. Why targets of workplace bullying need our help: A rallying cry from the heart (2013) — If you’re wondering why I write so often about bullying at work and have authored legislation addressing it, this post provides some answers.

5. NWI’s “Eightfold Path” to a Psychologically Healthy Workplace (2009) — Try it sometime!

6. The lessons of nostalgia (2011) — Featuring insights from homebrewed philosopher Charles Hayes, one of my favorite authors.

7. Our avocations and hobbies: The third pillar of work-life balance? (2012) — A hobby or avocation may be a portal to a richer, more satisfying life.

8. Maybe our modern day heroes are simply “weird” (2013) — Contemplating the heroes in our lives.

9. A movement emerges: Will unpaid internships disappear? (2012) — A piece anticipating the emerging intern rights movement.

10. Ch-ch-ch-changes: Some books to guide us toward good transitions (2012) — Timely for New Year’s resolutions!

11. What workplace bullying teaches us about the integrity of American employers (2011) — How an employer responds to workplace bullying tells us a lot about it.

12. You want good leaders? (2010) — Highlighting a superb essay on leadership by writer William Deresiewicz.

Holiday reflections: The end of limitless possibilities (and that’s good)

Rockefeller Center during NYC's post-Christmas blizzard, 2010 (Photo: DY)

Rockefeller Center, NYC post-Christmas blizzard, Dec. 2010 (Photo: DY)

Like birthdays, end-of-year holidays can be a time for taking stock. However externally prompted, these recurring milestones give us opportunities to look back, assess the present, and peer into the future.

In October 2009, writer Judith Warner blogged for the New York Times (link here) about listening to her daughter sing the title song of the musical Fame:

…I heard Julia’s voice, stronger and more confident than mine: “I’m gonna live forever. I’m gonna learn how to fly. (High.)

And one of those all-too-frequent choke-in-the-throat feelings came over me.

This was her song now. Not mine.

The sense of limitless possibility: hers. Vaulting ambition: hers. Anticipation, excitement, discovery, intensity: all hers.

Later in the piece, she laments, “This is the cruelty of middle age, I find: just when things have gotten good — really, really, consistently good — I have become aware that they will end.”

I hope that, for Warner’s sake, she was writing her blog post at a time when she was briefly caught in a down mood. But even her attempt to locate the silver lining sounded a bit sad:

There are trade-offs: intensity versus contentment, exaltation versus peace. And perhaps the best exchange of all: you trade in an idea of yourself for a reality that, if nothing else, can make you laugh.

Ack. Even the top benefit of her “really, consistently good” life today is the ability to chuckle at her current self. I hope that the reality of her middle years has been better than that.

I’m not quite sure why I’m using Warner’s piece as the prompt for a holiday reflection, but obviously it has stuck with me over the years. Although I won’t claim immunity from all of Warner’s lamentations about getting older, I now feel ready to write a response.

True, I now understand Warner’s acknowledgement of our mortality, which for me is also maddeningly accompanied by a recognition that I am finally becoming the best version of myself. With apologies for invoking a sports metaphor, I get that I am fully into the second half of my game, and this “season” lasts for but one match. (Yeah, maybe I’ll come back in another life, but I won’t bank on that.)

That said, among the genuine blessings of the passing of time have been the gaining of authenticity and self-definition. I have been afforded the extraordinary privilege of being able to make choices — hundreds of millions of people in this world are not so fortunate. I have squandered some of that privilege — stupidly at times — but thankfully a kernel of inner wisdom has helped me to narrow down the limitless possibilities, rather than struggling to keep them open.

As I see it, in making the right choices we find the “(a)nticipation, excitement, discovery, [and] intensity” that Warner has now reserved for her young daughter. When that happens, the would’ve beens and could’ve beens — i.e., the roads not taken — don’t matter as much.

I do know of those youthful feelings that Warner writes about. That sense of the world being your oyster, wrapped in a seemingly boundless optimism of things to come. I remember those days well, and sometimes I get nostalgic for them.

But was it ever actually that good? If I’m being honest with myself, I also must acknowledge the piles of anxiety, insecurity, immaturity, and posturing (a kinder way of saying inauthenticity) that were very much a part of my twentysomething self and, umm, beyond. By no means do I assume that all others within those age ranges are similarly afflicted, but such qualities were very much a part of my life during that long stretch of time.

So today I’ve got less hair, more paunch, and my knees creak, but I have a strong sense of what I’m supposed to be doing and that feels good. I now understand Joseph Campbell’s sage advice, follow your bliss. Campbell (1904-87), whose writings and lectures on mythology, faith traditions, and the world’s societies made him a cherished authority on the human experience, suggested that following our bliss will lead us to the life paths that have been awaiting us. When we reach this point, opportunities and connections seem to materialize.

In a popular PBS series of interviews with Bill Moyers, Campbell replied to a Moyers question about whether “hidden hands” guide and facilitate our work once we’ve found our path:

All the time. It is miraculous. I even have a superstition that has grown on me as the result of invisible hands coming all the time — namely, that if you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open doors to you. . . .

As I suggested above, many people are not afforded this opportunity. If life is largely a struggle to obtain food, clothing, and shelter, then it’s awfully hard to pursue one’s higher level aspirations. (Sidebar holiday message: If you’re fortunate to be able to define yourself and your life, rather than be controlled by difficult circumstances, then please find ways to give back as well.)

But I’m guessing that most folks with the ability to read this have some degree of choice about their lives. Of course, some may be struggling to find their deeper purpose, or to recover from setbacks. For these people, especially, here is what I wish for them at this holiday season: Opportunities to discover and follow their bliss, and the wisdom to do so. When that happens, life can get better, much better.

***

This post was revised in December 2019.

The original version of this post was cross-posted with my personal blog, Musings of a Gen Joneser.

Thanksgiving, giving thanks, and giving back

 

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Today I’m hopping on a train to New York City (hence the Amtrak Acela poster from my office!), the travel piece of what has become an annual Thanksgiving get together with my cousins and friends. What began over a decade ago as an impromptu turkey day gathering is now a full-fledged tradition, and I look forward to it every year.

In classic New York style, we don’t start until the late afternoon. We’re all pretty hungry by the time the feast is served — and when I say feast, I mean it! The evening finishes up with many choices of desserts amidst singing and playing music.

Over the years, not much has changed about this gathering, the most noticeable difference being the kids now joining the grown ups at the main table. We repeat ourselves a lot from year to year, including well-deserved compliments to the chef and updates on how we’re all doing. That suits me fine. It is a source of continuity and connection, and a blessed reminder of how friends become family, and vice versa.

But for various reasons, I find myself a little down this year. I tend not to be the biggest holiday enthusiast to begin with, but I am particularly mindful right now of how many people are in need and how many are struggling with life’s challenges.

I started this blog five years ago, just as the Great Recession was going into full gear. Today, here in one of the world’s richest nations, we have millions who can’t find decent jobs, even more who are dealing with hunger on a daily basis, and a wealth gap that grows ever wider.

Beyond our shores and borders, the situation worsens, often by leaps and bounds. Recently I met a man around my age who is from Guinea in West Africa. He has been working in the U.S. for over 20 years. He lives on very little so he can send most of his earnings back to his family and village neighbors, who are in dire need of the most basic staples and provisions.

For those of us who are in a position to be thankful for life’s bounty, the best way to show our gratitude is to give back. Whether by way of money, service, advocacy, or some combination, we have opportunities to make a difference. As the saying goes, and inspired by multiple faith traditions, from those to whom much is given, much is expected, yes?

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