Working Notes: Engaging in intellectual activism

I’m delighted to share a draft of a forthcoming law review article on intellectual activism and news of a wonderful new board affiliation with a favorite group.

“Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law”

I’ve posted to my Social Science Research Network page a draft of a law review article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law,” which will appear in the Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice, published at the University of Southern California law school. You may access a freely downloadable pdf version here.

Here is the article abstract:

How can law professors, lawyers, and law students use legal scholarship to inform and inspire law reform initiatives that advance the public interest? How can we bridge the gaps between academic analyses that sharpen our understanding of important legal and policy issues and practical proposals that bring these insights into the light of day and test their application? How can we bring an integrated blend of scholarship, social action, and evaluation into our professional practices?

I would like to explore these and related questions by invoking a simple framework that I call intellectual activism, which serves as both a philosophy and a practice for engaging in scholarship relevant to real-world problems and challenges, putting its prescriptions into action, and learning from the process and results of implementation. In the legal context, intellectual activism involves conducting and publishing original research and analysis and then applying that work to the tasks of reforming and improving the law, legal systems, and the legal profession.

This article explores the concept and practice of intellectual activism for the hopeful benefit of interested law professors, lawyers, and law students. It is a very personal piece, grounded in extensive scholarly, public education, and advocacy work that I have done in two areas: (1) researching and authoring proposed workplace anti-bullying legislation and building public awareness of the phenomenon of bullying at work; and (2) playing a visible role in an emerging legal and social movement to challenge the widespread, exploitative practice of unpaid internships. It also discusses my involvement in three unique, multidisciplinary networks and institutions that have nurtured my work in an intellectual activist mode, examines the relevant use of social media, and provides examples of how law students can function as intellectual activists.

The article also includes an annotated bibliography of books broadly related to intellectual activism. Those seeking guidance and inspiration on how to blend scholarship and social action will find some valuable stuff in this book list.

Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies

I have gratefully accepted an invitation to join the board of directors of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS), a global, transdisciplinary network of scholars, practitioners, activists, and students who are committed to advancing human dignity and reducing the experience of humiliation.

I have written frequently about HumanDHS and my participation its annual workshops, including a piece last week highlighting writings by some of its core members that dig deep into the meaning of dignity and humiliation in our society. 

Frankly, some requests to join non-profit boards feel like a burden. Others, however, naturally mesh with one’s ongoing work and activities. My joining the HumanDHS board fits squarely in the latter category.

Six points on the NY Times investigative piece on Amazon’s work practices

 

Last Sunday’s New York Times investigative piece on Amazon’s white-collar work practices has been stirring up a lot of discussion, and if you’re at all interested in the experience of work in today’s digital age, then you owe it to yourself to spend some time with it.

Times reporters Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld tell a story of a highly pressurized, survival-of-the-fittest work environment, based on over 100 interviews with current and former Amazon employees:

At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: “I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.”)

It is a culture driven by data, customer preference, and a single-minded devotion to company success. The article suggests that even serious personal circumstances are no excuse:

A former human resources executive said she was required to put a woman who had recently returned after undergoing serious surgery, and another who had just had a stillborn child, on performance improvement plans, accounts that were corroborated by a co-worker still at Amazon. “What kind of company do we want to be?” the executive recalled asking her bosses.

It’s a piece that digs deep into the culture of Amazon and the management philosophy of its founder and leader Jeff Bezos.

The Times article has triggered an avalanche of commentary on the Internet, especially among news and commentary sites that one might deem moderate to liberal in their orientation or that frequently cover the high tech industry. The New YorkerLos Angeles TimesSlateSalonThe Guardian, and Vox are among the countless sites that have weighed in — sometimes thoughtfully, other times more predictably.

It also prompted a response from Jeff Bezos (which I’ll discuss below) and a heavily read defense of Amazon by a current employee posted to LinkedIn.

While recognizing that this is a discussion-in-progress, I’d like to share six points that I’ve mustered about the Times Amazon story and its aftermath.

Observation No. 1: It’s too early to tell if this is a “tipping point” journalistic event

Is this the Big Story that gets us to look more critically about the experience of white-collar work in America? Judging from the mega-clouds of Internet commentary, one is tempted to say absolutely yes. But let’s return to this question in a year or two for an accurate answer.

In the meantime, I think it’s safe to say that this is a trending water cooler topic in many large organizations. Surely the Times article and related pieces will offer fodder for many, many class discussions in business schools, especially management, leadership, human resources, and business ethics courses.

Observation No. 2: Jeff Bezos’s response speaks volumes

Not surprisingly, Bezos has strongly denied the characterizations of Amazon’s work environment and practices reported in the Times article. In a follow-up piece, Streitfeld and Kantor reported that Bezos:

deplored what he called its portrait of “a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard” and said, “I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market.”

He told workers: “I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either.”

So here are the main possibilities:

  1. The Times got the original story very, very wrong;
  2. Bezos is being disingenuous;
  3. Bezos is simply on another planet when it comes to management philosophy, and/or,
  4. Bezos doesn’t know about employee practices and policies in his own company.

Could the Times have blown it? It’s highly doubtful. This investigation covered a ton of ground. The reporters also requested an interview with Bezos, which was refused by Amazon.

Personally, I think it’s a combination of items 2, 3, and 4.

Very revealing to me is what Bezos shared with his workers. Streitfeld and Kantor further reported on a memo that Bezos circulated to Amazon’s employees:

In a letter to employees, Mr. Bezos said Amazon would not tolerate the “shockingly callous management practices” described in the article. He urged any employees who knew of “stories like those reported” to contact him directly.

“Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero,” Mr. Bezos said.

Translation: We have zero tolerance for lack of empathy. Please drop a dime on anyone who falls short on this measure so we can purge them.

Yikes.

Observation No. 3: Meanwhile, back at the warehouse…

The enormous response to the Times story suggests that our economic class biases are showing. Allegations of terrible working conditions and low wages for Amazon’s warehouse workers have been surfacing for years, yielding nothing like the current outcry.

Last year, in a piece explaining why I cancelled my Amazon Prime account, I highlighted a Salon investigative piece by Simon Head, “Worse than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s sick brutality and secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers,” which detailed the warehouse working environments:

As at Walmart, Amazon achieves [fast delivery systems] with a regime of workplace pressure, in which targets for the unpacking, movement, and repackaging of goods are relentlessly increased to levels where employees have to struggle to meet their targets and where older and less dextrous employees will begin to fail. . . .

Amazon’s system of employee monitoring is the most oppressive I have ever come across and combines state-of-the-art surveillance technology with the system of “functional foreman,” introduced by [Frederick] Taylor in the workshops of the Pennsylvania machine-tool industry in the 1890s. . . . London Financial Times economics correspondent Sarah O’Connor describes how, at Amazon’s center at Rugeley, England, Amazon tags its employees with personal sat-nav (satellite navigation) computers that tell them the route they must travel to shelve consignments of goods, but also set target times for their warehouse journeys and then measure whether targets are met.

All this information is available to management in real time, and if an employee is behind schedule she will receive a text message pointing this out and telling her to reach her targets or suffer the consequences.

Observation No. 4: We (or at least many of us) are complicit as customers

As some of these commentaries are recognizing, consumer demand for nearly instant gratification is fueling Amazon’s workplace practices. Amazon’s regard for its own employees may be questionable, but it gives customer service the highest priority. (A search for surveys on “best customer service” will verify this.)

However, that very consumer demand is feeding Amazon’s all-consuming workplace culture. Here is how I explained my decision to cancel my Prime account last year:

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.

. . . Many years ago, I cut my working teeth in retail stores. When the store floor was busy with customers, or when a shipment of goods had to be unloaded from delivery trucks, we stepped up and got the work done right. When things weren’t as busy, we dialed it down a bit. Overall, people did their jobs steadily and dependably, and we didn’t need to have our every move timed and monitored by managers. We didn’t make a lot of money, but we were treated decently. Amazon, however, regards its warehouse workers as human robots.

I’m not suggesting that we completely boycott Amazon. But customer options such as Prime fuel their very worst labor practices. Surely these workers deserve better working conditions, even if it means that we wait, say, three days rather than two for a delivery.

Observation No. 5: Amazon’s workplace practices highlight the fault line between extremely hard driving management and bullying

The theme of workplace bullying does not manifest itself in either the Times article or much of the resulting commentary. Instead, the focus is on a management style and organizational culture that demands complete commitment and hyper-competition.

That said, assuming accounts of the company’s responses to severe employee health conditions are accurate, then Amazon has a remarkable empathy deficit. The intentions may be all about notions of “excellence,” but the practices reveal, well, an out-of-control sense of control over workers’ lives and well being.

Observation No. 6: Newspapers and their reporters still matter

This is why (among other reasons) we still need newspapers and investigative reporters who are capable of carrying out lengthy investigations and then reporting their findings in detail.

Most Internet news/commentary sites cannot do this. They may break a story now and then, but not one requiring this level of background work. The abundance of current online commentary on Amazon’s work practices was enabled by the spadework done by Times reporters Kantor and Streitfeld and their colleagues.

***

This column makes me the latest among the stampede of commentators on this story. I hope it has provided some useful food for thought.

Three great authors on writing to make a difference

For fresh, inspiring outlooks on the uses of writing and scholarship to make a difference, I often listen to voices outside of mainstream academe. Here I happily “gather” three individuals, Ronald Gross, Mary Pipher, and John Ohliger, whose names I have invoked previously on this blog.

Ronald Gross

Ronald Gross is a leading adult educator who helped to popularize the term “lifelong learning” during the 1970s. Ron’s The Independent Scholar’s Handbook (1982 and 1993 eds., either will do), is the most inspirational and instructive work about scholarship that I have ever read. Ron wears the hats of encouraging coach, intellectual cheerleader, and brainstormer, and I use these terms with respect and affection. If the Independent Scholar’s Handbook does not inspire or restore a sense of joie de vivre towards scholarship, then nothing will:

This is a book about taking risks of an unusual kind: risks in the realm of the mind. It invites you to indulge your impulse (without which you would not have picked up this book) to make the joys of the intellect a significant part of your life.

Gross wrote the book for those who are pursuing scholarly work outside of traditional academic settings, but it is equally invigorating for those within academe as well. It is infused with stories of individuals who have engaged in independent scholarship and found ways to share that work with the world, often becoming change agents in the process. Feminist writer and activist Betty Friedan, historian Barbara Tuchman, and futurist Alvin Toffler are among the independent scholars profiled in it. Though obviously dated in terms of research methodologies, its immense value is in its ability to visualize how our scholarly work can engage the real world.

Mary Pipher

In the introduction to her instructive and heartfelt book, Writing to Change the World (2006), author and therapist Mary Pipher reflects upon the uses of writing:

When you take pen to paper with the goal of making a difference, you join a community of people for whom words and issues matter. . . . As a writer, your life goal may involve a worthy cause I cannot even imagine. Whatever it is, you are fortunate.

Pipher describes writing for change in therapeutic terms. In a chapter on “The Psychology of Change,” she sets out her “Rules of Engagement for Change Agents.” These include respect, accurate empathy, connection, clarity, perspective, tone, and timing. In “Dealing with Darkness,” writers must understand their readers’ resistance and need for hope, while looking out for “orchestrating situations that allow for aha experiences.”

In other words, she urges us to comprehend the ties between therapy for individual change and writing for social change. Good writing for this purpose, she suggests, must connect with the reader intellectually and emotionally. It understands and respects the prospective audience. These are vital reminders for intellectual activists, who oftentimes will be dealing with different stakeholders, ranging from legislators, judges, and business people, to individuals who have suffered loss, injury, and trauma.

John Ohliger

Finally, I bow to the work of a late dear friend, John Ohliger (1926-2004), an iconoclastic adult educator, writer, and activist who enjoyed a rich life as a non-conformist public intellectual. After voluntarily resigning a tenured position as a professor of adult education at Ohio State University, he engaged in many activities related to adult learning. This included co-founding, in 1976, Basic Choices, a small, self-styled, non-profit center based in Madison, Wisconsin devoted to “Clarifying Political and Social Options.” He also co-founded a community radio station and hosted his own program, “The Madison Review of Books,” inviting neighbors to join him as guest reviewers on the air. During the pre-Internet era that covered most of his years, he maintained a voluminous correspondence with people from all walks of life.

John never wrote a magnum opus book. Rather, through Basic Choices, he produced a large collection of unique bibliographic essays, diverse in subject matter and often linked to adult learning themes. He did not hesitate to take on hard social and political issues, such as critiquing the adult education industry for supporting visions of a more affluent, technocratic society. However, he also had a fanciful side, as exemplified by bibliographic essays on singer Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and on adult education themes in mystery and crime fiction. Several years ago, in a chapter contribution to a multi-author book examining John’s work and influence (David Yamada, “The Adult Educator as Public Intellectual,” in Andre P. Grace & Tonette S. Rocco, et al., Challenging the Professionalization of Adult Education: John Ohliger and Contradictions in Modern Practice (2009)), I characterized his body of work this way:

For much of his life, he was an independent scholar and intellectual activist, working through various media to encourage public dialogue and raise important questions about society, learning, and current events. His approach was personal, interactive, and engaging, not hierarchical, directive, and detached. By his example, he taught us that adult education should be voluntary, life affirming, and even fun.

Yeah, fun!

It may seem odd that I am touting a reference to having fun. However, I often find myself searching beyond academe for qualities of authenticity, empathy, and humor that, all too often, are absent within it. Gross’s unabashed enthusiasm for independent scholarship, Mary Pipher’s therapeutic perspectives on writing, and John Ohliger’s creative explorations of adult learning provide these good energies.

The power of perseverance

A pair of major U.S. Supreme Court decisions this week has reminded us of the power of perseverance in striving to achieve positive social change. Yesterday, the Court upheld provisions of the Affordable Care Act (a/k/a Obamacare) that provide tax subsidies for those with low and middle incomes to purchase health insurance. And today the Court held that same-sex couples have a Constitutional right to marry.

Both comprehensive health care coverage and marriage equality are worthy of a humane, inclusive society, so I am very pleased by the Supreme Court’s rulings. Moreover, the Court decisions remind us that significant social change and legal reform are often the product of sustained, dedicated perseverance. Calls for health care reform trace their origins deep into the last century. Organized support for marriage equality goes back well over a decade.

Those who have found this blog because of their interest in preventing and stopping workplace bullying understand well the challenges of creating transformative change. On the legal front, I circulated the first version of the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill some 12 years ago. As I wrote last month, we are now starting to see measurable progress:

Not too long ago, any reference to workplace bullying laws in the U.S. was purely aspirational. During the past three years, however, several states and municipalities have enacted workplace bullying laws that, while falling short of providing comprehensive protection to targets of these behaviors, signal America’s growing commitment to using the legal system to prevent and respond to abusive work environments.

Since 2003, some 30 American states and territories have considered some form of workplace bullying legislation, a variation of the Healthy Workplace Bill . . . .

As the full versions of the Healthy Workplace Bill continue to gain support in state legislatures, several jurisdictions have enacted some form of workplace bullying legislation.

Achieving positive change in the face of headwinds and hedgerows requires, above all, a determination to push forward without fanfare. Dilettantes and others who expect quick results soon learn, to their dismay, that the role of change agent is one more similar to that of a workhorse than a show horse. It’s about committing one’s self to the long haul.

Mainstreaming psychological well-being in the law: TJ’s challenge

Screenshot from https://mainstreamtj.wordpress.com (Photo: DY)

Screenshot from https://mainstreamtj.wordpress.com (Photo: DY)

What if our laws and legal systems focused on creating psychologically healthy outcomes for parties involved in legal matters and for society as a whole? What if considerations of economics (leaning right) and rights (leaning left) in creating law and policy were screened through the lens of psychological well-being of people affected by those laws and policies?

Long-time readers may recognize that I have aligned myself with therapeutic jurisprudence (“TJ”),  a school of legal thought that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of the law, legal practice, and legal education. In essence, TJ asks if our laws and legal systems lead to psychologically healthy results, and it implicitly favors initiatives designed to make them so.

I discovered the TJ community as a result of my work on workplace bullying and employment law & policy, and I have found it to be a welcoming and natural home for my legal scholarship and public education work.

Now I have taken this affiliation a step further by joining the Advisory Group of the International Therapeutic Jurisprudence in the Mainstream Project, which “seeks to promote the use of Therapeutic Jurisprudence…approaches in mainstream legal settings through a variety of activities,” including a blog (photo above) and:

  • Linking the latest research and resources with the people who are doing this work “on the ground” in courts and tribunals – judges, lawyers, prosecutors, managers, staff and court support workers.
  • Encouraging and sharing TJ scholarship among academic and students in law and other disciplines.
  • Linking people with expertise in this area with others who want to explore how TJ can make their courts and tribunals more effective.

The Project is the brainchild of TJ co-founder and law professor David Wexler (Puerto Rico), Australian magistrate judge Pauline Spencer (Victoria), and law professor and retired judge Michael Jones (Arizona).

The Project’s Advisory Group (list and bios here) is drawn from 18 countries and “includes judges, lawyers and prosecutors, academics and students in the field of law and other fields such as psychology.”

TJ’s challenge

How do we make the promotion of psychologically healthy outcomes a prime objective for our laws and legal systems?

In a field so dominated by considerations of logic, reasoning, economics, rights, and procedure, psychology and human emotion are often regarded with some discomfort for their lack of precision and, well, messiness.

And yet, it makes perfect sense to me that the psychological well-being of individuals and society as a whole should be a primary lens through which we view and develop the law and its institutions. This is far from being the dominant viewpoint among lawyers, judges, and policy makers, but that reality only makes it more important for us to gather together (often virtually) to promote the mainstreaming of TJ.

This is among the many reasons why I am delighted to be more closely affiliated with this global assemblage of lawyers, professors, judges, and students. They inspire me with their dedication to the hard work of making the world a better place.

*** 

Of possible interest

I’ve written two law review articles expressly built around ideas of therapeutic jurisprudence. They can be freely accessed here:

Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Practice of Legal Scholarship (University of Memphis Law Review, 2010).

Employment Law as if People Mattered: Bringing Therapeutic Jurisprudence into the Workplace (Florida Coastal Law Review, 2010).

“When did people become disposable?”

A couple of weeks ago I enjoyed a long conversation over lunch with John-Robert Curtin, an educator, conflict resolution specialist, and media executive who is dedicated to fostering better workplaces. During the course of our conversation, J-R (as he likes to be called) repeated a question that has stuck with me, because it transcends so many societal settings, ranging from the workplace to international relations: When did people become disposable?

In the employment realm, disposability continues to manifest itself in so many ways, especially during this era of the economic meltdown, the effects of which continue to haunt average folks despite the performance of the stock market. Whether we’re talking large-scale layoffs while CEOs collect year-end bonuses, workers bullied or mobbed out of their jobs by co-workers, or horrific working conditions for those toiling in developing countries, this dynamic is very much a part of our modern systems of employment relations.

How can we reverse the moral, ethical, and psychological forces that allow us to treat people like this, denying their dignity and depriving them of good, safe jobs? Among many other things, we need to expand this conversation and our realm of influence to help make it so. This is why I am pleased to be a Fellow with the International Center for Compassionate Organizations, having accepted an invitation from Center co-founders Ari Cowan (Executive Director), Tony Belak (Associate Director), and J-R (Governing Committee member) to serve in this advisory capacity. The Center describes its mission this way:

The International Center for Compassionate Organizations is a nonprofit organization registered in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, USA. The International Center focusses on fostering cultures of compassion in government, business, healthcare systems, service agencies, colleges and universities, schools, faith groups, and other organizations worldwide. The Center responds to the emerging trend among a broad range of organizations seeking to incorporate compassion as a value and practice in their relationships with their staff, colleagues, board members, customers, and communities. The Center develops practical research, resources, education, consulting, coaching, and conferences. It takes a nonpolitical, evidence-based, and public health approach, and assists organizations to effectively improve employee engagement, productivity, staff retention, profitability, and customer satisfaction.

Later this year, J-R and I will be presenting on a panel on coaching as an intervention strategy for workplace bullying (with Ivonne Moreno-Velazquez and Jessi Eden Brown) at the biennial “Work, Stress and Health” conference, co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology. This year’s conference will be held on May 6-9 in Atlanta.

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.

******

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.

 ******

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!

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