Thursday, September 20, 2012

Implicit Public Values and the Creation of Public Value: The Importance of Work and the Contested Role of Labor Unions

Today is the opening day of a conference on "Creating Public Value in a Multi-Sector, Shared-Power World" hosted by the Center for Integrative Leadership at the University of Minnesota. Using Barry Bozeman's definition, public values are the values of a society that provide "normative consensus about (a) the rights, benefits, and prerogatives to which citizens should (and should not) be entitled; (b) the obligations of citizens to society, the state, and one another; and (c) the principles on which governments and policies should be based." One of my contributions to this conference is to make sure that the issue of work is not overlooked.

It is common to see work primarily as an economic activity that generates commodities, services, and income. From such a perspective, work is largely a private activity that occurs between consenting economic actors in a distinct sphere of life, and the favored work-related public values are those that reflect economic individualism. But this is an excessively narrow view of work. Work can be a source of personal fulfillment and psychological well-being that provides more than extrinsic, monetary rewards. Work is a way to intimately care for others, and to serve others through volunteering, civic service, military service, and other means. On an even deeper level, work can be a source of identity by helping individuals understand who they are and where they stand in the social structure. Work is also a source of freedom from the dictates of the natural world--a way to express creativity and build culture. And many believe that work is not simply a commodity traded in the marketplace, it is something done by human beings who therefore merit a set of workplace standards consistent with human dignity. As a result, work should not be seen as a purely a private affair best governed by the private marketplace. Rather, work should be the subject of public values, and non-market institutions that can create work-related public value should be considered.

My examination of work-related public values and the creation of public value suggests at least three important implications for the broader issue of public values and public value. First, values on values matter. In the work-related domain, definitions of public value and methods to achieve them are highly contested. These sharply contrasting perspectives are rooted in different assumptions about how the employment relationship works and in different values on the purpose of work. As such, there is a not a consensus on the desired public values about work, nor on the best ways for creating public value relating to work. It is important to recognize these different values on values and to make them explicit.

Second, the key values of organized labor and other worker advocates align with other perspectives that embrace definitions of public value that go beyond economic conceptions of public value. In some cases, labor unions can add economic value, but their key contributions are toward economic fairness, not efficiency, as well as toward democratic values in the workplace and in society--that is, equity and voice more than efficiency. Following John Benington's definitions, labor unions can contribute to social and cultural value ("adding value to the public realm by contributing to social capital, social cohesion, social relationships, social meaning and cultural identity, individual and community wellbeing") and political value ("adding value to the public realm by stimulating and supporting democratic dialogue and active public participation and citizen engagement"). And to tie this into broader philosophical traditions, it is the ideals of inherent human dignity rooted in secular, humanist, and spiritual belief systems, not the ideals of economic efficiency, that provide the moral foundation for preventing the complete commodification of workers in a materialist, utilitarian world.

Third, the creation of public value is a complex, multi-layered process with many intersecting actors. Labor unions can create public value by bargaining for economic fairness, creating workplace participatory structures, playing an active role in the democratic process, and pushing for democracy where it does not fully exist. In other words, multiple levels of public value creation are important. Moreover, while labor unions have a strong track record of success in promoting equity and voice, their ability to achieve equity and voice is highly contingent on other actors. Consequently, the intersections with many other actors are very important--corporations, political leaders and political parties, the law, religious groups, other civil society groups, and the like. Additionally, as with all human institutions, there is the potential for excesses and abuses so society should worry about safeguards. And all of this brings us back to the first point--society's actors can differ in their perspectives on what work-related public value is and how to create it, so these intersections and safeguards are contested, conflicted terrain. Unfortunately, it is therefore extremely difficult to make progress on these challenging issues.

Note: you can read my complete paper by downloading it from my website.

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