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.

Next Avenue on posttraumatic growth: PTG following PTSD

Barbra Williams Cosentino, writing for Next Avenue (link here), writes about recovery and renewal in a valuable piece on posttraumatic growth:

The concept of Posttraumatic Growth, or PTG, was developed in the 1990s by psychologist Richard G. Tedeschi, now distinguished chair of the Boulder Crest Institute for Posttraumatic Growth in Bluemont, Va., and his colleague Lawrence Calhoun.

It’s different from PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a constellation of psychological and often physical symptoms experienced after profoundly upsetting events such as a natural disaster, an assault or a terrible illness. Posttraumatic growth can be the reward for pain and suffering, a positive ending which can lead to rich and unanticipated rewards in terms of emotional, social and even spiritual health.

Cosentino reports that Tedeschi and Calhoun have developed a Posttraumatic Growth Inventory instrument, which measures how those who have suffered from trauma can grow in several dimensions. In more tangible terms, this can lead to a variety of positive changes:

Internal changes in perception, self-awareness and one’s sense of competence often lead to positive actions. Trauma survivors of any age may switch careers, find intensely rewarding hobbies, go back to school or take early retirement and travel.

Fortunately, individuals can facilitate their own posttraumatic growth in many ways, according to Tedeschi:

  • Learning the ways trauma can lead to a disruption of core belief systems
  • Developing emotional regulation skills which allow you to manage negative emotions such as anxiety, guilt and anger
  • Talking about the trauma and how you have been personally affected by it
  • Producing an authentic narrative about the trauma and our lives afterward so you can accept the reality and envision moving on
  • Providing service to others who experienced similar or different traumatic events

Targets of workplace bullying and mobbing: Getting “unstuck”

I especially recommend Cosentino’s article for targets of workplace bullying and mobbing who are experiencing the challenges of getting “unstuck.” As I wrote in 2014 (link here):

One of the biggest challenges facing many people who have experienced severe workplace bullying is getting unstuck. Some may feel trapped, helpless, or victimized. Others may be caught in a cycle of anger, defiance, or battle-like conflict. Oftentimes, these thought patterns and behaviors are associated with psychological conditions including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress.

Our emerging understanding of posttraumatic growth offers genuine, tangible hope for those who are recovering from severe work abuse. Practitioners and researchers working in this mode are onto somethingas I like to say, and the results have the potential to be life-changing for countless numbers of people.

MTW Revisions (August 2020)

Dear readers, I’ve gathered some posts that I’ve revised over the years and have not shared in previous “MTW Revisions” features. This particular collection emphasizes workplace bullying and toxic or difficult work environments. I hope you find the selections interesting and useful.

Weighing the exit option for a toxic job (orig. 2016; rev. 2019) (link here) — “But until more employers start to take abuse at work seriously and the law steps in to create stronger legal protections, leaving a bad job — voluntarily or otherwise — will remain the most common “resolution” of severe workplace bullying. Whenever possible, those who are experiencing toxic jobs should try to get ahead of the situation. It is not an easy thing to do — at first glance, it may feel downright impossible — but it’s much better than waiting for others to impose the choices.”

What separates the “best” workplace abusers from the rest? (orig. 2015; rev. 2019) (link here) — “One of my central observations is that many of the “best” workplace abusers — the ones who get their prey and continually evade being held responsible — are calculating, committed, and smart planners. With task-oriented surgical precision and detachment, they plot and scheme. Like the serial killer who manages to escape capture, they’re usually a step or three ahead of everyone else, with a scary sense of anticipation.”

When employees leave your organization, how do they feel about it? (orig. 2013; rev. 2019) (link here) —  “If you’re looking for a quick “status check” on the culture of your workplace, ask this simple question: When employees leave the organization, how do they feel about it?

Is closure possible for targets of workplace bullying and injustice? (orig. 2011; rev.2016) (link here) — “Targets of workplace bullying or mobbing often hear some variation on the phrase you really need to get over this. I suppose there’s some truth in this. No decent human being wants to see another stuck in a place of stress, fear, anger, and trauma. But prodding someone with those words, however well meaning, is rarely helpful — especially absent more concretely useful assistance.”

Dealing with “gatekeepers” at work: Beware of Dr. No (orig. 2011; rev. 2020) (link here) — “In darker situations, gatekeeping can be a form of intentional exclusion, perhaps a passive-aggressive, bullying-type tactic. It’s a way of keeping someone in their place, blocking them from advancement, or preventing them from making a unique contribution.”

Is emotional detachment an antidote for a nasty workplace? (orig. 2010; rev. 2016) (link here) — “Emotional detachment does not come without its costs, as anyone who understands workplace bullying can comprehend. After all, indifferent slackers aren’t the ones typically targeted by abusive bosses or co-workers.  Oftentimes it’s the high achiever, or at least someone who is engaged in her work, who is marked for mistreatment. Telling this person to turn off the passion for her work is indeed an instruction to numb her soul, even if for the purpose of avoiding deeper injury.”

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.

US Attorney’s Office alleges that eBay cyberstalked and terrorized its critics

As many targets of workplace bullying can attest, some companies will engage in extraordinary, sustained measures to intimidate and retaliate against their critics. However, for many reasons, those stories usually do not become the stuff of major federal lawsuits and prominent news coverage. All too often, targets are left to their own devices to explain and verify harassing, even terrorizing behaviors that, at least on the surface, may seem implausible.

So perhaps it is useful to draw upon retaliatory campaigns in other contexts to understand just how extensive and sick those efforts can be. In fact, a story coming out of Massachusetts about how eBay employees allegedly cyberstalked and terrorized a local middle-aged couple who had blogged about eBay’s business practices illustrates the lengths to which a corporation will go to silence its critics. It is all now part of federal criminal charges brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. As Travis Anderson reports for the Boston Globe (link here):

It was a modest newsletter published by a suburban couple, hardly something that seemed likely to draw the ire of a Fortune 500 company. But eBay executives were growing weary of the bloggers’ pointed criticism, federal prosecutors said Monday, and they vowed reprisal.

“We’re going to crush this lady,” one eBay executive texted another in April 2019, according to a criminal complaint filed in federal court in Boston that alleged a bizarre intimidation campaign against a Natick couple by the online juggernaut.

Six former eBay employees are accused of harassing and cyberstalking the husband-and-wife team, sending a host of disturbing items that included fly larvae, live spiders, and a bloody pig mask to their home and traveling to Massachusetts to surveil the couple to make them stop publishing a newsletter critical of the online retailer, federal prosecutors said.

…That campaign included “anonymous and disturbing deliveries to the victims’ home, including . . . a bloody pig Halloween mask, a funeral wreath, a book on surviving the loss of a spouse,” and pornography sent to neighbors but addressed to the husband.

Some executives allegedly “sent private Twitter messages and public tweets criticizing the newsletter’s content and threatening to visit the victims in Natick,” prosecutors said. Some defendants also tried to install a GPS tracker in the couple’s vehicle.

Workers, too

Folks, we’ve seen this before in the workplace context, or at least variations of it. Targeted employees who report wrongdoing or blow the whistle can face, in turn, savage retaliation.

Cyberstalking, vandalism, thefts, break-ins. You name it. Credible accounts of hard-to-believe bullying and harassment from reliable individuals. 

The anonymous behavior of the terrorizing activities makes initial investigation, at least, very difficult. You can see the damage or the effects, but tracing the source(s) takes time, resources, and money.

Are these typical instances of workplace bullying? Thank goodness, no. They reflect a small share of bullying and related situations. But they are the ones that, from my perspective as a law professor and legal advocate, most strongly highlight the need for workplace anti-bullying legislation in the form of the Healthy Workplace Bill, which I have authored.

Plaintiffs’ employment lawyers see these cases and often wonder about (1) the potential client’s psychological stability; and/or (2) what, if any, existing employment protections might apply. One hopefully would understand that someone on the receiving end of an orchestrated campaign of bullying and harassment might not be the most emotionally stable individual for the time being. As for the law, well, these scenarios illustrate the need for workplace laws, which open the door to inquiring about, and obtaining through legal discovery processes, relevant evidence.

Some try to access police help. But local law enforcement agencies often dismiss it as a workplace “dispute.” Federal law enforcement often doesn’t think it’s a serious enough priority when compared, say, to global terrorism — forgetting, of course, that this is a form of domestic terrorism.

Major corporations and other larger employers have enormous resources to hassle, harass, intimidate, and terrorize their critics, including both consumers and employees. Right now, our legal system isn’t fully up to the task of playing a sufficient protective role.

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.

Sorry, white supremacists, but I’ll keep wearing my Hawaiian shirts

The summer after earning tenure at Suffolk University Law School, I flew to Maui for a reunion of cousins. In addition to coming home with lifelong memories of a wonderful gathering, I returned with a suitcase full of new Hawaiian shirts.

I now call that cache my original “tenure wear” collection, because I began wearing those shirts to teach class. After seeing lawyers on Maui conducting their everyday business in bright Hawaiian hues, I decided that it was time to add some color to our classrooms.

Twenty years later, the Hawaiian shirt remains my standard classroom attire.

So imagine my dismay, then, over how certain white supremacists are appropriating the Hawaiian shirt as a symbol of their cause. (For more details, see Samantha Sutton’s In Style piece, here). In news coverage of their various protests, a lot of these guys are now appearing in the latest aloha fashions, along with their guns and ammo. 

The twist is that Hawaiian shirts stand for something much more inclusive and open. They originate from an island state known for its diversity and beauty. When you think “Hawaiian shirts,” you imagine beaches and palm trees, delicious food and drink, trade winds and sunshine, and warm, friendly people.

Okay, I agree if you’re saying that, given the challenges of fighting a global pandemic and systemic abuse, we shouldn’t get too caught up in the fashion choices of someone who is waving around an AR-15 because he can’t dine-in at Wendy’s. However, social context matters, and the Hawaiian shirt is only the latest symbol or tradition to be snatched by extremists, along with stuff like the flag and the concept of patriotism.

I take exception to these cultural hijackings in part because of my own story. During the Second World War, my paternal grandfather was removed from his home in Hawaii and kept for years in American internment camps, solely because of his Japanese ancestry. Members of my family served in the U.S. Army during the war, while at the same time their loved ones remained imprisoned in those camps.

Two generations later, I became only the second person of color to earn tenure at a law school that has sent countless graduates into important positions of public service. I’d say that’s progress, if haltingly so, and I am grateful for it.

As we witness daily, America still faces hard challenges with diversity and inclusion. During these trying times, the appearance of white supremacists sporting attire that actually mocks their worldview saddens me. So I’ll keep wearing my Hawaiian shirts, thank you, minus (of course) the cartridge belts and tactical vests.

A sorrowful and profoundly disturbing week in America

(screenshot from CNN.com)

Here in the U.S., the past week has been one of the most sorrowful in our modern history. As we continue to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, many of us are reeling from the killing of George Floyd, an African American man suspected of the minor offense of passing a counterfeit bill, by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This latest instance of deadly brutality directed at Black people by white police officers has become international news, so I need not go into detail about it. (Go here if you need a summary).

The police killing of Mr. Floyd quickly went viral because it was recorded on cellphone cameras. The images of (now fired) police officer Derek Chauvin with his knee (and full body weight) on Floyd’s neck for some 9 minutes as he gasped for air have become etched in our consciousness. Around the nation and now the world, protests are ensuing. Most are peaceful, but some have become violent, accompanied by looting.

Sadly, we are bereft of the national leadership we need to help us cope with this tragedy and address the underlying systemic problems. Mainly via angry, ranting tweets and a stunning public appearance yesterday that smacked of authoritarianism and carried echoes of imposing martial law, the responses by president Donald Trump have largely fanned the flames of division and done little, if anything, to heal the anguish and unrest.

***

Of course, these abusive behaviors and wrongheaded responses are variations on a basic theme that many know all too well.

Police brutality is an abuse of state-sanctioned power, pure and simple. In the U.S., it is directed disproportionately toward Black people. As explained neatly by the Encyclopedia Britannica:

Notwithstanding the variety among groups that have been subjected to police brutality in the United States, the great majority of victims have been African American. In the estimation of most experts, a key factor explaining the predominance of African Americans among victims of police brutality is antiblack racism among members of mostly white police departments. Similar prejudices are thought to have played a role in police brutality committed against other historically oppressed or marginalized groups.

As for the killing of George Floyd, the only participant in custody at this writing — Derek Chauvin (currently charged with 3rd degree murder and manslaughter) — had 18 prior complaints filed against him, with only two of them resulting in mild reprimands. This record suggests a dynamic that we see in workplace bullying and sexual harassment situations all too often, namely, one of continually sweeping reports under the rug. Thus, it is fair to question the roles of the police department, police union, prosecuting attorneys, and fellow officers in allowing this man to stay on the force until he finally crossed a line and committed an alleged homicide.

As for Donald Trump, in addition to building a long record of antipathy toward African Americans specifically and people of color generally, he consistently demonstrates a malignant, casual cruelty suggestive of a significant personality disorder. As badly as we need a national leader to help us respond to all this, it’s probably folly to hope for what he is fully incapable of providing. Indeed, I have shared my observations about him before (e.g., here, here, and here), and they continue to deepen with frightening clarity.

***

I confess that all of this weighs heavily on me in part because of the work I do. As long-time readers know, bullying and abuse of power have been focal points of my scholarly, public education, and advocacy work for over two decades. And although my emphasis has been on workplace behaviors, this work has yielded greater understanding of like forms of mistreatment and abuse in other settings. As such, events of the past week are pushing buttons.

I further admit that the logical and emotional sides of my brain are in full-on competition with each other right now, in ways that make it harder to stay on task and become a more effective part of needed solutions. I do know that we must step back, assess, and ask how we recover from this. Surely we’ve got our work cut out for us. If we cannot emerge from 2020 with the promise of a very different America, then I fear that we may never recover.

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.

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.

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