Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Undoing Work, or Doing it up? How Central Should Work Be to Society?

I just finished reading James Chamberlain’s new book Undoing Work, Rethinking Community: A Critique of the Social Function of Work (Cornell University Press). It’s an ambitious theoretical work that raises fundamental issues regarding not only the meaning of work but also the construction of society. But let me first back up. My own book, The Thought of Work, is intended partly as a statement of the diverse ways in which work is important—materially, psychologically, sociologically, and so forth. Behind this is an assumed default in which work’s diverse values are not fully appreciated, especially when it is reduced largely to an income-generating activity. That is, capitalism and neoliberalism devalue work by prioritizing the monetary aspects and reducing work to being seen as simply a commodity.

Undoing Work comes from a seemingly-opposite perspective—that work is too central in today’s neoliberal, capitalist societies.  So whereas I want to raise the value of work, Undoing Work wants to, well, undo it. Why? Because neoliberal social norms require an individual to be working full-time for pay in order to be fully welcomed and included as a citizen—normatively if not in fact. But this raises at least two problems. One, the highly-unequal nature of capitalism limits the opportunities for full-time, paid work to a privileged set, thus excluding from full citizenship many who have traditionally been marginalized, whether on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, class, or other bases. Two, the material and social pressures for full-time salaried or waged work limit human freedom by coercing people into spending more time at work than they would choose if they were truly free.

Chamberlain strongly argues that at a fundamental level, these norms are rooted in how society is constructed. That is, Undoing Work argues that neoliberal, capitalist societies are seen as collections of individuals who form societies (communities) because they benefit from exchanging their work. So the twin features of individualism and work lie at the core of a capitalist society. Through the Marxist lens that grounds Undoing Work, this is highly problematic because capitalism always degrades work and because individualism always leads to hierarchy and exclusion. So how can individuals—or maybe I should say, members of communities—be free to follow their self-determined rather than neoliberal needs and wants?

A popular proposal these days is for a universal basic income, the (simplified) theory being that reducing people’s dependency on work for subsistence will allow them to choose from a broader set of life activities. An interesting contribution of Undoing Work is showing how the thinking that lies behind many of the proposals for universal basic income do not break with traditional views of work and society to the extent needed to really bring about a large-scale change in the centrality of work. Which brings Chamberlain to the heart of his argument: for humans to truly be free, the basis of society needs to be seen as something other than work. So it’s not just about rethinking work, it’s about rethinking the definition of community. Maybe it’s my own lack of sophistication, but unfortunately, after reading Undoing Work I’m left with a much greater appreciation of the nature of this problem than for the author’s solutions. And by this, I don’t just mean practical solutions—which the author admits are challenging given that he believes this entails a rejection of capitalism; rather, I’m referring to the conceptual solution. Maybe I’ve been studying work for too long, but I can’t figure out what it would mean to undo work.

Undoing Work is clear (at least towards the end), that work would remain important (otherwise I think we’d really be getting into utopian territory), but what would seem to be left of value are psychological rewards and caring. This strikes me as a movement towards the more individual aspects of work—which make sense in some respects because it’s the social aspects of work in terms of exclusion and lack of solidarity that are at the root of the problem presented in Undoing Work. But on the other hand, this seems contradictory with the overall direction advocated—that is, this movement toward individualism does not seem consistent with the overall goal of trying to reconstitute society on basis of something other than a collection of individuals.

So where do we go from here? I think Professor Chamberlain would agree with me that work is too important to be left in the hands of neoliberal thinkers or propagandists. But dedicated readers of my blog will know that I’m a pluralist scholar rather than a critical, heterodox (including Marxism) scholar. So imbalances of labor market power are important, but can be alleviated. This requires continued attention to the material institutions that shape work—laws, unions, and the like—as well as the normative institutions. Going back to The Thought of Work, my goal is that if society can more fully recognize the ways in which work is important—including the dimensions that Undoing Work rightly recognize, like inclusion, citizenship, and solidarity—then we can design institutions that will better support inclusion, citizenship, and solidarity. And empowered individuals can pursue something that comes closer to their desired forms or conditions of work and do so with dignity.

But as I admit in my own writings, this is challenging because we don’t want to elevate work to such a level of importance that it is the only way of creating an individual and social identity. I think Undoing Work is premised on that ship having sailed. I maintain that somehow it’s still possible. But we can both agree that these issues are too important to not discuss as scholars and a society.  

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The IR Curmudgeon's View on Identity in Employment Relations

This past weekend I was at an ILR Review-sponsored conference “Toward New Theories in Employment Relations.” A predictable theme was the gig economy. But more interesting were repeated themes of the importance of ideas (whether from the bottom up rooted in individual cognition (a paper I presented) or from the top down in the form of contested ideologies) and the importance of identity. Identity politics, of course, are everywhere today, even in superhero movies (Black Panther).

This presents a particular challenge for employment relations because traditional scholarship has emphasized material interests rather than identity needs, and traditional institutions (especially labor unions) have been organized around materialistic class interests rather than (non-class) identities. That is, workers are portrayed simply as workers, not women, Latinxs, and the like. 

Or at least that’s how the traditional perspective is now painted. In my view, this simplification of the past is more accurate for industrial relations scholarship than practice.

That is, scholarship has seen workers as generic in theory, but in practice it's a different story: real workers and institutions have been anything but blind to identity issues. Indeed, it would have been better if they were. Go back 100+ years and many AFL craft unions were discriminatory and openly hostile toward anyone except white men. The Pullman Company trained African American workers for skilled positions to keep the skilled labor force divided by racial tension. Worker solidarity across occupations was also weakened through racial and gender segregation—on Pullman cars, for example, conductors were always white and porters were always black; men cleaned the exterior of the railroad cars, women the interior. So when appreciating the importance of identity in today’s worker centers—as just one example—we should not overlook the importance of racial identity in the struggles and victories of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters all the way back in the 1920s led by A. Philip Randolph and others (this is captured by the movie “10,000 Black Men Named George”).

This is not to deny that identity has become both more central and more complex in contemporary society—and therefore in contemporary employment relations practice. So continuing to deepen the theorizing and evidence around identity issues in employment relations is needed. But I think this will be most productive if we see this as building on past practice, and even on past scholarship, rather than as something that is seen as a break from the past. 

OK, I will admit that I have self-interested reasons for believing this. In particular, in a recent blog post I (selfishly) argued that my trilogy of efficiency, equity, and voice continues to be a powerful way to capture the key objectives of the employment relationship. Some might see these as more materialistic and as ignoring identity issues. Indeed, in my own presentation of efficiency, equity, and voice I have not explicitly recognized identity concerns. But I assert that the framework of efficiency, equity, and voice is flexible enough to include shifting conceptualizations of these interests. 

Moreover, while identity is different from interests, I think the way that identity concerns are realized and satisfied in the employment relationship is through (a) being treated in desired ways consistent with one’s identity demands, and (b) being able to express yourself in ways consistent with your desired identity. The first of these falls under the category of equity, the second under the category of voice. Put differently, in the context of the employment relations, violations of individuals' and groups' identity needs by discriminating against certain groups and by repressing expressions of that identity are violations of equity and voice in the employment relationship. 

Indeed, both equity and voice as key objectives of the employment relationship stem from the essential qualities of being human, which, in turn, means that workers as humans are entitled to dignity and self-determination. Identity is an essential part of dignity and self-determination, and hence of equity and voice. So even in this era dominated by identity politics and identity theorizing, the key goals of the employment relationship remain efficiency, equity, and voice. In the future, I will try to do a better job of explicitly noting the identity aspects of equity and voice.

So let’s continue to seek ways to deepen our understandings of identity within employment relations theorizing and practice. But personally I think it’s most productive to do so in ways that build on rather than reject where we’ve come from. And that preserves my own desired sense of identity…

Friday, April 6, 2018

Confronting the Myth that Workers Know What They are Signing Up For

Sinclair Broadcasting Group has recently been forcing news anchors at its stations across the country to broadcast statements that echo President Trump’s attacks on the news media as propagating “fake news.” These anchors have then been criticized for following along rather than quitting. But they signed employment contracts in which they can be assessed sizable monetary penalties for quitting, and they also signed non-compete agreements preventing them from working at another TV or radio station for six months. Coincidentally, last week, Professor Evan Starr visited my department to present his research on non-compete agreements in the U.S. labor force. Among many important findings are these: the use of non-competes and their effects on outcomes are unrelated to the extent to which non-compete agreements are legally enforceable in each worker’s state. Moreover, a third of non-compete agreements are forced on workers after they have already accepted the job, and less than 20 percent consulting family, friends, or a lawyer before signing it. What emerges from this, among other things, is a picture of workers who don’t really understand the legal parameters under which they are agreeing to work.

The economists in the audience had a hard time accepting this picture. Economists are trained to think that rational agents make informed choices based on good information. But there is a lot of evidence that workers don’t have great information about their own employment conditions. Two years after the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was enacted, not even 50% of nonunion hourly workers had heard of it and barely one-third thought they were eligible (Budd and Brey, “Unions and Family Leave: Early Experience under the Family and Medical Leave Act,” Labor Studies Journal, 2003). In Britain, I’ve found that it’s common for two-thirds of workers to not know that some types of employer-provided family-friendly policies are available to them (Budd and Mumford, “Family-Friendly Work Practices in Britain: Availability and Perceived Accessibility,” Human Resource Management, 2006). In a survey of U.S. companies emphasizing “shared capitalism,” 20-25% of employees’ responses to questions about whether they were covered by profit-sharing, gainsharing, or individual incentive plans didn’t match what their employer reported (Budd, “Does Employee Ignorance Undermine Shared Capitalism?” in Shared Capitalism at Work: Employee Ownership, Profit and Gain Sharing, and Broad-Based Stock Options, 2010).

You can try out your own knowledge. Consider the following scenario: 

An employee (in the United States) is accused of dishonesty. The supervisor knows that this employee is not dishonest but fires him anyway because she dislikes the employee personally. The employee’s job performance has been satisfactory.

Is this termination legal or illegal? Did you say "illegal"? If you did, you're not alone, but you're WRONG. Except for a minority of workers (those covered by a union contract with unjust dismissal protections or similar civil service protections, or those working in Montana where this is an unjust dismissal law), this termination would be legal because of employment-at-will. But Pauline Kim found that over 90% people think this is illegal (“Bargaining with Imperfect Information: A Study of Worker Perceptions of Legal Protection in an At-Will World,” Cornell Law Review, 1997). Other research also finds high rates of employee ignorance about workplace law violations and how to remedy them (e.g., Alexander and Prasad, “Bottom-Up Workplace Law Enforcement: An Empirical Analysis,” Indiana Law Journal, 2014).

Why is this lack of understanding such a problem? Because our laissez-faire labor market is premised on fully informed workers making wise choices such that the employment relationship is an equal one among consenting parties. When workers lack a true understanding of what they are signing up for, then the employment relationship looks more like an unequal one in which workers are disadvantaged, if not exploited. Steve Befort and I have therefore argued that U.S. employers should be required to provide a written statement to all employees disclosing all terms and conditions of employment, including being subject to employment-at-will (Befort and Budd, Invisible Hands, Invisible Objectives: Bringing Workplace Law and Public Policy Into Focus, 2009). By itself, this might not change the actual terms and conditions of employment, but it would at least paint a truer picture of what workers are signing up for. 

It must also be said that another pictures emerges from the Sinclair Broadcasting mandate and from research on non-compete agreements--namely, workers lacking options which would allow them to refuse to sign these contracts. Fighting the myth that workers know what they are signing up for and creating ways to facilitate a better understanding of the true nature of the employment relationship probably won’t solve this imbalance, but it’s a good place to start.