Monday, September 22, 2008

Economic Crisis and Workers' Rights: Ethical Reflections

*The current economic crisis positively begs for ethical analysis. And yet, if that analysis had been part and parcel of our approach to economic life all along, we wouldn’t be finding ourselves in the mess we’re in now.

To note this is to point to one of the glaring shortcomings of American religious and cultural life: we tend to regard economic life as somehow outside the purview of moral analysis. When people talk about morality—when churches and politicians lament moral decline—they frequently focus mono-maniacally on personal morality, above all on pelvic morality.

It’s as if one of the most significant areas of all of our lives—the workplace, the work world, the economic sector—is value-free.

Much ink has been spilt in analyzing why this is so, why we make such a bizarre assumption about economic life. At heart, much has to do, I suspect, with Adam Smith’s hidden hand: with the belief (and that’s what it is, every bit as mystical and counterintuitive as any religious belief) that, left to itself, the market sorts things out.

Those who deserve to prosper will prosper. Those who deserve to fall by the wayside will fall. The go-getter will prevail. The slacker will fail.

These are not faith-based assumptions. They are assumptions that fall short of even the threshold of morality as articulated by all the world’s religions. And yet they are deeply woven into our cultural perspectives on economic life. When it comes to economics, we—this nation with the soul of a church—are radical individualists who not only gleefully watch many of our brothers and sisters fall to the bottom of our society, but who actively justify their demise by attributing to them moral shortcomings, lack of a sound work ethic, dissolute habits, extravagant tastes, lack of intellect and will to defer pleasure in the present in order to reap future rewards.

In the workplace, the assumption that the hidden hand somehow magically works things out so that greed becomes righteousness and callousness to our fellow human beings becomes virtue translates into the lordship of the employer and the servitude of the employee. In our attitudes towards workers’ rights, we are positively feudal, and have been moving even more in that direction in the past several decades of neoconservative political domination.

As someone who spent his academic career in what might be called the middle-management sector of academic life—as a department chair and academic dean/v-p in a number of different institutions—I have been able to see both sides of this lord-servant dynamic. The person in the middle has to interact with those at the top, in whose hands make-or-break power ultimately resides: the president and trustees of universities. She also is a faculty member, an employee, who mediates between the lords at the top and those who do the actual work of teaching, and who are seldom rewarded as they deserve for their hard work. Deans are doubly servants: the English word derives from the Greek word diakonos, which means “servant.”

This is an unenviable position to be in—a middle-management servant—a crucifying one, frankly. If you try to do your job right, you will always be damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Defend faculty members’ rights, and you may well find yourself slapped hard by the lords in whose hands make-or-break power ultimately resides. And yet, merely because you work with those lords, you are often accused by faculty members of being anti-faculty, a traitor to the workers’ cause.

(An illustration of the crucifying reality of being put in the middle: at one school at which I was academic dean, I fought for a raise for a faculty member who alleged that he was discriminated against, and denied a raise, because of his race-ethnicity. I could not find sound evidence of the discrimination. On the other hand, I did find that he had not received a raise for many years when other members of his department got one. I made a value judgment based on the principle of doing no harm, and against the will of his department and division chairs, I put through a raise for him, which the president approved.

After I left this school, I happened to see this faculty member on the street. This was in a period in which Steve was suffering severe deterioration of his hip, such that he could hardly walk. With the kind assistance of a friend who owned a car dealership, and with a bit of money my aunt had just left us in her will, we bought a used car that was nicer than any we had ever owned—one whose carriage was high enough for Steve to sit in it with relative comfort, and one that did not bump around as we drove.

The faculty member saw the car when I encountered him on the street. Now that I was gone from the college and its dean’s office, he could slap at me with impunity. And slap he did. He said with a sneer, “Deans must make good money for you to buy a car like that.” I told him I was no longer a dean. I felt I had no obligation to tell him how we had acquired the car. He repeated the slur, to make sure I knew that he had no respect for me. Whether he knew how hard I had fought for his raise, and what slaps I endured from others to obtain it for him, I did not know and probably will not ever know.)

Though being in this uncomfortable middle place is sometimes crucifying, it’s a place that yields valuable insights into the dynamics and moral implications of how workers are treated. In what follows, I want to take some of my experiences trying to work as a middle-manager in one kind of workplace—an academic one—and make some ethical observations about workplaces in general. Because my experiences have been generally within academic life, I will make some observations that specifically refer to the unique needs of the academy. Nonetheless, I believe that, as ethical principles, the following principles apply to workplaces in general.

And I’d go further: I’d say that if we are ever to find our way out of the economic mess we are now in, we have to engage in ethical analysis akin to this, re: our economic life in general. We have to find ways to implement ethical principles in economic life—that is, if we want out of the mess and don’t want simply to accept that we now have a quasi-feudal economic system in which lords have make-or-break power over those of us who have been reduced to economic servitude.

And so two fundamental principles for ethical analysis of economic life, drawn from my own work experience:

1. Workers are human beings and not things.

This is an absolutely fundamental principle. And yet, it’s one almost totally overlooked in how we actually do economic life in this country. Almost everywhere, our laws are radically loaded on the side of the employer/lords, allowing them to do whatever they want to and with workers: allowing them precisely to treat workers as things and not as persons.

No major religion of the world is comfortable with the assumption that people should ever be treated as things and not as persons. Most world religions, and many churches in the U.S., have made glowing statements about the rights of workers to be treated with personal dignity. Few of these statements ever translate into practice in workplaces, including (and perhaps especially) workplaces owned by churches—e.g., colleges or universities sponsored by churches.

2. Because workers are human beings and not things, their personal dignity and human rights must always be safeguarded in hiring and firing decisions, and in evaluation procedures.

In any workplace that wants to reach even the threshold of ethical behavior, workers can never be dismissed at the will of the employer, even when local laws permit at-will termination. The most rudimentary moral principles of all faith communities require the following:

▪ Ongoing evaluation in which the supervisor apprises the worker, preferably in writing, of her or his strengths and weaknesses, giving the worker the right to respond (preferably in writing);

▪ In cases in which a worker is failing to meet the mark, a set of remedial guidelines (preferably in writing), with clear goals and a timeline for the guidelines to be accomplished;

▪ Feedback (preferably written) by the supervisor as the employee seeks to meet the goals and timeline provided for remediation, with the right of the employee to respond to the feedback (preferably in writing);

▪ In cases in which a worker fails, after the remedial period, to meet the mark, a final written evaluation noting the worker’s failure as measured by the remedial plan, with the worker’s right to respond in writing;

▪ In cases in which the worker contests the final written evaluation, the right of the worker to appeal to a grievance committee that is not dominated by or answerable to the same supervisor who issued the final evaluation pointing to termination;

▪ Termination only when the above conditions have been met.

Interestingly enough, faith-based workplaces lack the preceding guidelines far more frequently than do secular ones. There are a number of reasons for the absence of such basic moral procedures in church-related institutions.

Among these are an unexamined assumption on the part of many leaders in church-related institutions (and this is often shared by society at large) that anything a church-affiliated leader does is automatically ethical. This assumption persists in the face of massive amounts of evidence that church affiliation does not necessarily or automatically translate into ethical behavior.

In some cultural settings, leaders of faith-based institutions even enjoy quasi-theocratic status. I have worked in faith-based institutions in which the leader of the institution routinely uses religious language to bolster his/her claim that he/she is divinely appointed to lead the institution, and in which the community colludes in this theological interpretation of the leader's role (at least on the surface, since who can resist a divinely appointed tyrant with impunity?).

Faith-based communities also often actively resist any curbs on the right of the employer to fire at will when prejudicial beliefs of the churches are at stake—and the right of churches to act on these beliefs has often been upheld by courts, so that faith-based institutions are emboldened to use the court system to reinforce their right to discriminate. For instance, many religious institutions that condemn homosexuality fight for the right to refuse to hire openly gay employees, and/or to fire gay employees at will, either simply because they are gay, or while offering specious reasons that disguise the fact that the real reason for the termination is sexual orientation.

Alternatively, church-based institutions may choose to fire openly gay employees because they have decided that these employees are undesirable for some other reason, but easy targets for at-will termination in areas where their rights are not guaranteed, precisely because they are gay.

The official policies of many faith-based institutions resist even the most basic description of the human rights of workers (unless these descriptions are imposed by federal or local law), because they want to reserve the right to fight court battles to permit the faith-based institution to continue discriminating in cases in which its religious beliefs permit or encourage such discrimination. In cases in which churches’ professions of ethical principles for the workplace conflict with the churches’ wish to control workers—in cases in which money and/or the image of the institution are at stake—ethical principles often take a back seat to the legally defended right to discriminate and to fire at will.

In academic life, of course, there is an added layer of reasoning to support the evaluation procedures I have outlined above, as a prerequisite to any termination of those who hold faculty status. This is to safeguard academic freedom.

In the U.S., all accrediting bodies for institutions of higher learning require that colleges/universities safeguard the academic freedom of faculty. Accrediting bodies also require, as a fundamental safeguard for academic freedom, clear guidelines for evaluation of faculty, use of those guidelines in ongoing evaluation of faculty, and demonstration that those guidelines have been followed when anyone with faculty status is terminated.

Failure to follow such guidelines in terminating anyone with faculty status is regarded by accrediting bodies as serious business, because at-will termination of faculty places in the hands of those with make-or-break-power the power to terminate those who have stated or published opinions or research that the make-or-break-power may wish to suppress.

For those outside academic life today, it is difficult to appreciate the extent to which governing boards of colleges and universities often fail to understand this basic principle of academic freedom, which is the lifeblood of academic life. Without it, scholars are intimidated into hiding research that is not flattering to received opinion, or that exposes powerful people to critical analysis. Without it, there is no way to teach critical thinking to students. Critical thinking can develop only in a context of free inquiry in which no question is off limits, no authority figure beyond criticism, no idea beyond careful analysis and discussion.

Because the governing boards of many institutions of higher learning are increasingly from the business sector, and because they often choose presidents for whom the bottom line is money (and image management), many governing boards are weak in defending academic freedom, if not downright antithetical to academic freedom. If they had their way, many governing boards would abolish all safeguards to academic freedom and would permit at-will termination by the president, with no evaluation process at all prior to termination.

I know this, because I have sat with governing boards to defend academic freedom for faculty. I know it, because I have fought to develop clear faculty-generated guidelines for faculty evaluation that permit faculty to respond to supervisors’ evaluations of them. I know it because I have been punished for fighting for such evaluation procedures, and for involving faculty in the development of the guidelines by which they are evaluated.

I have fought for such guidelines because my conscience tells me I must. I have fought for these guidelines because I believe in academic freedom and in the fragile possibility that the academy can keep thought and critical discourse alive in our culture.

Why should those who are not in academic life care about these issues? Because we live in a society in which it is all too easy to suppress free discourse. Because we live in a society in which there are powerful forces at work to make us all think and act one and only one way. Because we live in a society in which there are powerful forces at work to make us stop thinking and stop acting, to turn us into passive drones.

The academy is one among several imperfect institutions in our culture that hold out against increasingly powerful forces to protect open discourse and respectful analysis of differing ideas and opinions. Certainly the academy often sells out. It often fails to hold up its end of the civil contract universities have made with the culture at large.

But when it works, it performs an invaluable service to society at large, in keeping thought and critical thinking alive. We all have a vested interest in seeing that the academy does what it claims it wants to do. Now, above all, when our social problems are so complex, and we’re being offered buffoons and knaves as the “solution” to those problems, what else can we do?

*A note about the narrative I had begun on this blog last Thursday: in my open letter to Mr. Obama on Friday, I said pretty much what I had intended to say in the last part of that narrative. The proviso with which I opened the posting on Thursday, re: strong or offensive language, had to do with the fact that I was going to discuss m-o-n-e-y in explicit terms, something I was brought up never to do. As I did in my open letter to Mr. Obama . . . . Re: that letter, profound thanks to all those who contacted me to offer suggestions about how to disseminate it, and/or who helped me see that it got circulated. I made some very valuable contacts through networking with the assistance of blog readers, and am deeply grateful for the assistance.