Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Indignity of Work

Mitchell here.

May 1 is the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, where by Joseph's example we celebrate the dignity of human labor.

Unfortunately, for many in Corporate America, dignity is the last thing one finds, in an environment that sees work not as a reflection of God's greatness, nor as something to be offered to God, but merely as a tool to generate profit. Likewise, the employee is seen not as having been made in the image of God, but as a statistic, to be manipulated in whichever way possible in order to improve the bottom line.

From the
Our Word blog, here's a 2004 piece on an all-too-common situation: the indignity of work.


One of the challenges of being a conservative is being expected to defend the occasionally indefensible idiocy of Corporate America. A case in point is this entertaining Human Resources document given to me. For obvious reasons, both the employee and the company will remain nameless. Anyway, what we have here is a manual on career orientations, specifically a section regarding being a “balanced-oriented” employee (meaning, I suppose, that you have a life outside the workplace). The following paragraph is called “Entitlement Mentality:”

Work/life balance is not their birthright. Sorry, but the company’s shareholders probably aren’t concerned about their hobbies or outside interests. To carve out a job role that doesn’t interfere with their other life needs, they should find a way to achieve their balance that has positive (or at least neutral) impact on business results. Encourage them to be a top contributor, to stay at the cutting edge of their profession. This will give them some bargaining chips for the flexibility they crave.
Well. I’m not quite sure what bothers me most about this paragraph – the condescending nature of it, or its sheer stupidity. After trying to figure out just how to address this mess, I finally decided the best way was simply to go step-by-step.

Work/life balance is not their birthright. Sorry, but the company’s shareholders probably aren’t concerned about their hobbies or outside interests.

There is such an arrogance about this statement. Oh, I suppose technically they’re right. In my pocket copy of the Constitution I don’t see the right to a balanced life anywhere (unless it’s next to the right to privacy that guarantees you the right to an abortion).

But look at what the words are saying. You don’t have the “right” to a balance between your home life (hereinafter referred to as “real” life) and your work life. We all suspected that most employers felt this way, but you seldom get to see it printed in black-and-white like this. The Catholic Church has always affirmed the dignity of work, as far back as “Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of Labor)” by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. And yet it’s hard to see how, when you’re confronted by an attitude like this, you can find much dignity in what you do.

For an opposing viewpoint, let’s take a look at what Pope John Paul II said regarding the dignity of work in his 1981 encyclical “Laborem exercens (On Human Work)”

But above all we must remember the priority of labor over capital: labor is the cause of production; capital, or the means of production, is its mere instrument or tool. (#12)

Yet the workers' rights cannot be doomed to be the mere result of economic systems aimed at maximum profits. The thing that must shape the whole economy is respect for the workers' rights within each country and all through the world's economy. (#17)

As Pat Buchanan once said, America needs to worship at a higher altar than the bottom line. When an employee is viewed merely as a statistic, an economic commodity, rather than a human being, then the system loses moral credibility. I’ve often thought that one of the turning points in capitalism came when we started moving away from “Personnel Department” towards “Human Resources,” turning the employee away from his personhood and instead into a resource, like a roll of Scotch tape.

To carve out a job role that doesn’t interfere with their other life needs, they should find a way to achieve their balance that has positive (or at least neutral) impact on business results.
First of all, it’s clear that in the mind of whoever wrote this atrocious paragraph, “other life needs” are optional – something that only a few of us have. Furthermore, it’s a pretty distasteful thing to have other needs, isn’t it? How dare you! Don’t you know that you should only live to work? Again, the Holy Father writes:

We must pay more attention to the one who works than to what the worker does. The self-realization of the human person is the measure of what is right and wrong. Work is in the first place "for the worker" and not the worker "for work." Work itself can have greater or lesser objective value, but all work should be judged by the measure of dignity given to the person who carries it out. (Laborem exercens, #6)

Not to this company, apparently. Let’s look at that last sentence again:

“To carve out a job role that doesn’t interfere with their other life needs, they should find a way to achieve their balance that has positive (or at least neutral) impact on business results”

Hmm, that’s what I thought it said – your work life takes primacy over your personal life, and your personal life must be adapted to cause the least possible interference with your work life.

See how easy this is? Let’s continue:

Encourage them to be a top contributor, to stay at the cutting edge of their profession. This will give them some bargaining chips for the flexibility they crave.

Boy, you have to hand it to the author – writing something like that really takes guts. The best way to achieve a balance in life is to become a workaholic! That may not be what it actually says, but let’s read between the lines. How many companies are enlightened enough to realize that “top contributor” is not synonymous with “long hours”? In response, let’s look at an excerpt from the Labor Day 2001 Pastoral Message of Bishop Michael Saltarelli, Diocese of Wilmington:

Workaholism is a specifically American form of spiritual lukewarmness rooted in the consumerism of our culture. Seeing our careers and work life as a way to holiness prevents us from turning our work into an idol that alienates us from our faith, our spouses, our families and ourselves. Workaholism results in a damaging fallout. Marriages fail or are strained. Children do not receive the attention and nurturing they need. Families experience little or no time together. Family meal times rarely occur. Family celebrations are few and far between.

Ironically, I heard of a company that recently had an internal promotion asking everyone to make a commitment to spend one day eating dinner with their family. This while the same company specializes in producing food products designed to make it as easy as possible to eat on the run without being bothered by such annoying things as “family time.” This chicken-and-egg question – whether companies are responding to or creating such needs – is something we can pick up another time.

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course, and there’s encouraging evidence that some companies are breaking out of this mold. Best Buy is in the process of rolling out a new way of looking at productivity and the workplace, as was pointed out in a November 8 Minneapolis Star Tribune article about ROWE, which stands for Results-Oriented Work Environment.

"Most employers should be able to say, 'All right, this is your job. This is the value created by your job. It is a full-time job, but if you can get it done in 25 hours well, mazel tov, congratulations,' " said Paul Rupert, a workplace flexibility consultant in Washington, D.C. "But the number of companies in which that scenario happily plays out could be counted on one hand.”

According to the author of the article, ROWE came out of Best Buy’s attempt to answer the question: How can we be the employer of choice?

Workers responded with a chorus of "We want to be trusted to do our work the way we feel is best for us, that can get the best results," said Cali Ressler, who leads work-life programs at the consumer electronics retailer. "They also said, 'We want to be able to balance our personal lives with that work.' "

This coincides nicely with the following comment from the Holy Father:

Workers not only want fair pay, they also want to share in the responsibility and creativity of the very work process. They want to feel that they are working for themselves -- an awareness that is smothered in a bureaucratic system where they only feel themselves to be "cogs" in a huge machine moved from above. (Laborem exercens, #13)

Don’t get me wrong – the employee has definite obligations to the employer, many of them found in the Ten Commandments. When you’re at work, your time belongs to the person who’s signing your check. If you’re getting paid for work you’re not doing, that’s stealing. As the Pope says, “Work remains a good thing, not only because it is useful and enjoyable, but also because it expresses and increases the worker's dignity.” And therein lies the rub. The employer has responsibilities to the employee as well, the responsibility to treat him with the dignity befitting a person, not simply a resource. Part of that dignity is to create a workplace in which the employee can deal with what it means to be a person – problems at home, problems with loved ones. Even, heaven forbid, problems in maintaining the proper balance between work and home. Bishop Saltarelli:

By contrast, workers find the connection between faith and work more difficult to make when they feel that management lacks integrity or does not respect the opinions and ideas of the workers. In those cases, people are more apt to see work as a means of economic survival and not as God's gift.

Well, why shouldn’t they? I had a boss tell me once that the only thing the company owed you was a paycheck, and that if you weren’t willing to play by those rules you were free to leave, because that’s all you owed the company as well.

In conclusion, there’s an important message here, one that, however unintentionally, this particular Human Resources document brings up: Just because the company owns your time, it doesn’t mean it owns your life or your soul. That’s a message all too often lost on Corporate America.

For the complete text of the Holy Father's encyclical, click here.


Unknown said...

Gee, there was a great article on the Internet a day or two ago on how the labor movement in the U.S. is worse off than in any other industrialized nation. Being a DFL’r in my roots, I wanted to post it, but then I thought that I would lose all my great friends that I have found by standing up for “life.” (I used to keep that wishy washy aspect of me a secret). So I just deleted it.

Now I can’t find it.

So thank you for posting this, Mitchell. Wonderful post! You are turning Stella into a really interesting blog with the depth and interest of your thought.

I’ll fisk it in a bit, but let me make a comment about the hypocrisy of the anti-union “employment at will” philosophy that slimeball managers invented to keep labor in its place. And they are not even embarrassed to place it in print.

Essentially, it says “in a non-union employment situation, an employee may quit without notice at any time the employee wants.” Talk about a wonderful right! How generous of them.

And, the HR person will continue reading, “to be fair, management may fire you anytime we want.”

Excuse me? Non-slave laborers have been able to quit whenever they want since the first employee slept in too many times. That is no right. That is the way it was, is and will be. Of course accrued benefits might be forfeited and it is not smart to quit if that will happen.

You wrote:

“I’ve often thought that one of the turning points in capitalism came when we started moving away from “Personnel Department” towards “Human Resources,” turning the employee away from his personhood and instead into a resource, like a roll of Scotch tape.”

Boy, does that make sense.

Personnel would never have come up with “employment at will.”

Bishop Saltarelli wrote:

"Seeing our careers and work life as a way to holiness prevents us from turning our work into an idol that alienates us from our faith, our spouses, our families and ourselves."

That should be part of every pro-life manifesto. Life from conception til natural death includes a working life, and part of that belongs also to “our faith, our spouses, our families and ourselves.”

Thank you again, Mitchell for being here and for your contributions to me and to all who visit here, at Our Word and your other St Blog’s haunts.

Our Word said...


Thanks so much for the kind words. I like to be able to contribute when I can, because my contributions can be so sporatic, depending on what happens to be going on at the time.

Your own points on the worplace are all too true. I think too often too many of us, having become, in Chesterton's words, "wage slaves," are either resigned to their fate or afraid to comment on the situation. We should not be afraid - we have the truth, and the facts, on our side.

I think Terry wrote something on this topic this week as well, making other fine points. I'll try to comment on that - if I get time!


Cathy_of_Alex said...

I think that as a society in the U.S. we have seen the methodical stamping out of the rights of individuals as workers. It did not happen overnight. It's been over 100 years in the making. The corporate owners started it but we the workers bought it and kept it alive. (Minneapolis, in the early 20th century, was one of the worst cities in the nation as far as a cohesive effort being made by corporate leaders to stamp out workers attempts to organize)

You can't have anything religious in the workplace without controversy. So any illusions of work being for the greater glory of God is completely removed on the institutional level-unless you work for a faith-based institution and even then it can be dubious.

You can't talk about unionization. Any talk of unionizing will either result in firing, blacklisting in your industry, or the threat of the company moving to a "right to work" state or offshore.

You can't bring up the issue of workplace safety without fear of firing etc.

If you don't work at least 12 hours/day, 7 days/week you probably won't ever be promoted or receive more then COL increase.

How did this all happen? WE, the workers, allowed it to happen. We bought into the notion of collective organization (unions) being commie socialism in disguise and a great evil. In some cases, unions were corrupt but not all. I hear every day in my white collar job how bad unions are. Yet, I spent 3/4 of my life working in a union shop. Without the union, the worksite would have been horrifically unsafe, not to mention lower paying and longer hours then the 10 I already had to work 6 day/week.

We have allowed it to happen by placing the almightly dollar, and the desire for personal glory and advancement over the needs of our family and our reason for being here (to love and to serve God)

We bought into the commercial notion that we need more stuff in order to be successful. To have more stuff you need more money so you should work more and harder.

We work on the Sabbath and shop on the Sabbath otherwise we fear that someone else will get ahead of us.

We don't speak up when we see all these modern "robber barons" earning 7-8 figures/year or more while they hold their employees wages artificially low. In fact, we reward them by buying their stock and praising their prowess on the financial pages.

We have lost the sense of the dignity and respect of work entirely. Now, we look down on the person who earns their living cleaning the bathrooms of the office tower. Let the lower-class guy or gal (usually an immigrant) do that kind of work. The rest of us MUST go to college-which costs more money and creates more individual debt and despair.

I was just corresponding with a friend in Florida last night how it seems everyone has to go to college these days in order to even earn a living wage. Neither of my parents did more then 2 years of higher ed and they were both vo-tech schools. My grandparents did not even finish high school but they made it and they have nothing to be ashamed of. Today, they'd be ridiculed for the fact that they worked only to survive and raise all their kids. They did not work to buy more junk. They never worked on the Sabbath unless it was really an urgent necessity.

Today, thanks to our completely misplaced notion of where work belongs in our lives and what it should mean, we see Faith suffering, individuals suffering, the family suffering.

I could go off on an extended rant on how I think the replacement of the agrarian society with an urban one has contributed to the loss of the sense of work only for survival with daily gratitude to God for your land but I've said enough as it is.

Sanctus Belle said...

I am not anti-union. I'm only going to throw this comment in cuz I think I should.

As a nurse I've been a member of a union most of my career. At every union job I've had (there have been several over the years) the management - staff relationships are strained and often hostile in character. There is a union vs. management battle going on constantly. This is unfortunate. I thought for many years it was worth it so I could have job security and better pay with benefits.

In 1998 I moved to a non-union area of the country (South Texas) for 3 years and was paid better, enjoyed more positive labor/mgt. relations and the hospital bent over backwards giving us new benefits almost monthly in order to retain us. I was shocked at how little it seemed my union had done for me - looking back. Plus - NO DUES!

2001, I moved back to Minnesota to find my union obnoxiously liberal, pro-choice and I suspect communist in idealogy (Minnesota Nurses Association MNA). Upon return I had NO CHOICE but to be a member, NO CHOICE but to pay DUES - for which I found I was paid less and had fewer benefits. I'm not talking about union ideology here, I'm only talking about my own first hand experiences with unions.

I am now a Nurse Practitioner and thank God regularly that I'm no longer a member of a union.

Unions are good in theory, not always so good in practice. Amen+

Adoro said...

I used to work at a place that was unionized, although I was categorized as a non-union employee, which was just fine.

Part of my job was to deal with the policy book that had the pages colored to denote what applied to union and non-union members.

The wording for each section was completely identical.

So it appeared the union did nothing for anyone other than collect dues and make them attend monthly meetings when everyone would have preferred to go home. It was insane.

Our Word said...

Cathy - good points all around. Very much a Distributist viewpoint. I think Corporate America's desire to turn everyone into a consumer is very much a part of the problem, even as they turn the employees into wage slaves.

Sanctus and Adoro - I share your thoughts exactly. Sanctus is absolutely right that unions are "good in theory." We need a reform movement in unions every bit as much as we do in Corporate America.


Cathy_of_Alex said...

I have a problem when people complain about the union dues and the way the union is run but happily accept the benefits of the contract (the hours, the pay, the benefits, the mediation) without complaint.

I agree that unions are not perfect. But, neither is the workplace. My workplace is "right to work". I work way more then 40/hours week to keep my job but I'm salaried so I don't get any overtime. At the end of the year the company comes way out ahead based upon all the free hours I've worked. My options? Leave. Which I'm trying to do with no success because this market is full of unemployed librarians-some of whom are willing to work for a lot less then I am so they are hired.

Sanctus Belle: You work in a profession that is desperate for native born nurses. A lot of nurses are being brought in from overseas. That is why they bent over backwards for you in Texas- especially South Texas. A friend, that I've lost track of, is a cardiac care nurse in San Antonio and she says straight out that they would rather have her as a Native Texan in the job then a Mexican or other foreigner. They treat her like gold.

The bottom line is we would not need unions as a mediator between workers and management if both sides were capable of behaving like reasonable adults and had each others best interests, rather then their just their own, at heart.

I think the problem actually goes a lot deeper then union versus right-to-work but I'll quit for now because I've probably already angered everyone.

Our Word said...

Everyone's right. There's definitely a need for unions, but also a need for them to actually function. And the need for credible, ethical unions is increased because of the willingness of the corporation to reduce the individual to a statistic. To borrow a political phrase, we need a balance of power, but not one drawing on mutual assured destruction. (At least, I don't think so - the phrase sounded pretty cool when I wrote it down, but maybe MAD's just what we need, for both sides to realize the stakes?)