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Social Justice and the Work Environment

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright August 2012


One of the dream changes that has come with the Great Recession of the late 2000s has been increased concern in the US about social justice. This is a wonderful and noble concern, but it carries a lot of the Curse of Unintended Consequences with it. The series of observations below is about places where concerns for social justice are creating blind spots in our community thinking.

One of the biggest blind spots is in employer-employee relations, and that is the main topic of this essay.

Intervening in Sweatshop Labor Situations

Upton Sinclair made harsh working conditions in the meatpacking industry famous with The Jungle in 1906, but he was far from the first to dramatize and criticize those conditions. And the public’s outrage at discovering people routinely worked in such conditions wasn't new either. Fast forward to the 2010s and this pattern continues. One discovery/outrage incarnation involves the workers making iPads and iPhones at Foxconn factories in China. And as with Sinclair, who described a worker falling in a vat and being left there for rendering into lard, some of the claims have turned out be inventions and exaggerations.

The usual response, enacting new labor laws to protect workers from such conditions, is a chronic Blunder made in post-Agricultural Age communities. It’s a Blunder because it disenfranchises the employer-worker relationship by adding the government regulator, the union overseer, the media reporter, the labor activist, and more -- a classic version of The Curse of Being Important.

The first problem with this protective point of view is that the workers who are engaging in these terrible-sounding jobs are making a choice. These jobs are not slave labor, not prison labor. These workers are knowingly trading their time, risk, and discomfort for monetary rewards and other perks, such as better housing and living conditions than they were experiencing previously, perhaps starving on a farm. (Agricultural environments rarely attract the attention that factory environments do, even when they’re a lot more difficult, dangerous, and dirty.) The second problem is that workers are getting crowded out of the decision making process on their own jobs. This is disenfranchising. Ironically, that really does make them pawns to the system.

In sum, such well intentioned legislation adds expense without benefit in various ways:

o The smallest is the expense of additional auditing.

o Larger is the patronizing of the worker -- each worker is less responsible for their own condition, therefore they can’t fix their own condition when they see a problem they personally care a lot about.

o Yet larger is increasing the feeling of disenfranchisement on both the worker and the management sides: “Meh... this isn't my problem, I'm not going to try and fix it. I'll wait for someone else, some outside do-gooder, to come and fix it,” or worse, “OK. I see an opportunity to take a cheap shot, so I will. I'll take the cheap shot until someone from the outside discovers what I'm doing and makes me stop.”

o And finally, there’s the loss of flexibility. Labor laws increase the time and cost required to adapt as working conditions change and to experiment with potential innovations that would improve working conditions.

But the worst argument against costs is the fact that few labor laws actually bring about what they aim at, a better workplace with happier employees.

The moral: We as a community should recognize that ongoing employer-worker relationships can handle themselves quite nicely. They can be built on mutual trust because there’s an important direct exchange going on: Money for work done.

Pissing and moaning about one’s work seems to be a natural condition of life. But, like the weather, it should be something that everyone talks about, and no one interferes with ... except the people directly involved: The worker and the employer. That relationship doesn't need a lot of patronizing help from well-intentioned outsiders. If all involved are held responsible for their own choices, working conditions will adapt quickly to what everyone can agree on, and not only employers and workers but also concerned outsiders will be happier with the choices.

If we recognize this, life will get a lot simpler and more satisfying for everyone.

This simplicity of the employer-employee relation can be disturbed, and historically one of the major disturbers is assets -- when it takes a lot of financial investment to create a job, then the employer-employee relation becomes more complex. This happens most clearly in heavy industries. For example, there are limited numbers of steel mills and railroads, which means there are limited numbers of steel working and railroading jobs, and those jobs can’t move from one place to another easily.

In the heavy industry environment employers, and investors, get locked in to their choices. In such an environment having third parties getting involved in social justice makes more sense.

Growth in heavy industry dominated the industrializing of much of the 19th and 20th centuries. But times have changed and since the 1970’s electronics and computers have become the center of growth. We are now in the Information Age and Information Age centers of growth are medium-to-low asset industries.

This change in asset involvement is something we should recognize as significant, in the low asset environments we can get back to the simpler relations and our labor governing systems should let this happen.

A Case Study

The currently iconic example of the labor relationship failing due to evil management is 29 of 31 miners dying in a 2010 explosion of coal dust and methane gas at the Upper Big Branch mine, a 1,000-foot deep West Virginia coal mine then run by Massey Energy. (A year after the disaster it was bought out.) In addition to being lethal, the explosion blew up seven miles of mine, so it was physically big and expensive in equipment. On a more familiar scale for city dwellers, that would be like an explosion running through a subway tunnel from New York’s World Trade Center to the far edge of Central Park, or along 49 of Salt Lake City’s long blocks.

At the time it happened, Massey management maintained that the cause was an unexpected surge in methane gas -- in other words, an act of God. The subsequent investigation found otherwise. It ruled that this accident was the product of a whole lot of mistakes. There had been 515 “flagrant” violations reported in the Upper Big Branch in 2009, among thousands of violations reported in Massey Energy mines in the region in the years prior to this accident. 

This incident certainly has a lot of tick marks on the check list of Ways to Be an Evil Corporate Manager.

o Lives and property lost in a preventable accident

o Multiple warnings given before the incident of an accident waiting to happen

o Management getting involved in local politics to support sympathetic candidates

o Management lobbying the regulatory agency

o Management threatening workers with job loss if they didn't continue

o Management placing productivity over worker safety

It’s an impressive list.

But using the good/evil prism has the classic problem of all such assessments: The evil is quite clear after the fact. So clear, that I argue that evil was not controlling how people acted in this case, something else had more power. In this case that something else was disenfranchisement, and this power of disenfranchisement to affect people’s actions more than good or evil is quite common. Another example of an emotion with more power than good/evil is fear, which is at the root of witch hunting. In the words of a fellow discusser of such issues, Martin Prier, “Evil is good at explaining something that has gone wrong and is poorly understood.”

Let’s look at how this disaster looks through the enfranchisement/disenfranchisement prism. 

Deep Disenfranchisement

While the subsequent investigation predictably faulted Massey, it was equally harsh on the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) for not taking adequate action on the previously reported “flagrant” violations, showing that this mining community had, for decades, had a lot of enfranchisement issues. Here are some other examples of how strong “Us versus Them” thinking still is in the West Virginia region.

West Virginia has long been noted for its strong Us versus Them thinking. In 1863, during the Civil War, the state split off from Virginia because its hill people couldn't get along with the plantation-oriented valley people. It was also the home of the famous Hatfield-McCoy family feud in the late 1880s, and of the 1920 Battle of Matewan in which coal company–hired detectives battled with local miners, leaving 7 detectives and 4 townsfolk dead.

The social justice component was already well established in this operation in the form of government involvement. Numerous MSHA inspectors were inspecting. But that their violation citations (the social justice solution to dealing with working condition abuses) had been pouring out so thick and furiously for years means they were ineffectual red tape. They did not solve the problem of developing and maintaining adequate safety measures in the mine because no one on the scene -- not workers, management, inspectors, nor anyone else -- was paying them any attention. This is a symptom of disenfranchisement. Everyone was saying, “Safety citations? Meh. Someone else’s problem.”

These miners were nonunion. The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) was strong in this region during the first half of the 20th century, but had been in decline since the 1970s. Either these miners were among the many who no longer saw benefit in having the organization around, or after the 1984 strike Massey had them too intimidated to reunionize. Through the enfranchisement prism, union leader actions during this strike turned them into useless outsiders as far the workers were concerned.

Deep disenfranchisement made taking cheap shots endemic in this environment. Lying is a quick and easy way of taking cheap shots, and the investigation uncovered lots of that on all sides. The media picked up on management lies, but thousands of serial safety violations over many years indicates other parties were lying as well. Here is an example of a hypothetical cheap shot scenario that wouldn't make headlines:

Manager A hears about or personally sees that something has become unsafe in the mine. He tells worker B, “Fix that problem.”

For some reason B doesn't do it, but when Manager A asks him if it’s fixed, B says, “Yup, I took care of it.”  It’s a bald-faced lie, but B knows that A won’t check up on his work any time soon. This could happen because B has better things to do (in his mind), or he doesn't like A and wants to see him get in trouble.

A day/week later Inspector C sees the violation, writes it up, and hands the citation to Shaft Manager D. D now rags on A for the violation.

A now has egg on his face, and he thinks badly of B. D has lost some respect for A. If A starts boasting about this episode and the story gets around to C, then C is going to wonder why he’s bothering to try to make things better for A.

This is an environment in which disenfranchisement is growing and thriving. Us versus Them thinking is overriding safety thinking. In this deeply disenfranchised culture, both lying and skeptical disbelief will become endemic in all the players.

So if in this case the MSHA (social justice) was part of the problem, what would be a better way to change this dysfunctional system?

If the goal is to have fewer accidents, less damage, and less worker abuse, then the solution is to build enfranchisement. As with finding terrorists and reducing crime, the people closest to the problems can be most effective at discovering and fixing them. This would mean empowering workers to be the first line of defense against hazard and abuse. If both workers and managers recognize that workers have a strong say in safety and working conditions, lots of problems will be solved quickly and routinely.

Building Enfranchisement

So how could enfranchisement be built? Here are some possibilities.

The people of Appalachia have a different morality concerning what are acceptable risks, rewards, and fears than outsiders do. An example of this comes from the 2102 Democratic primary in West Virginia. From a 7 Jul 12 Economist article, “A. J. Wade, a lifelong Democrat and one of three elected commissioners who run Hardy County in West Virginia, fiddles with his bolo tie as he tries to explain the results of his party’s presidential primary, back in May. “People here”, he says, “would have voted for Mickey Mouse if he’d been on the ballot.” The fictional rodent was not running, however, so they ended up supporting a much less appealing candidate: Keith Judd, a convict serving a 17-year sentence for extortion in a Texan jail. Mr Judd won 58% of the vote in Hardy County to Barack Obama’s 42%.”

This distinctive thinking means that even more than usual, imposing outsiders’ versions of social justice will be disenfranchising. For their projects to be effective, outsiders must first understand the culture and then be above-average clever in their people skills to persuade the locals into adopting any new system.

Part of this is recognizing that exile is a routine part of this culture. The locals who don’t like the system vote with their feet, which is easy to do because this is in the USA. There are a whole lot of ex-Appalachians scattered around America, people who didn't like the mountain culture. (“Hillbilly culture”, for those who want a more disparaging term.) Conversely, most adults living in Appalachia generally like the conditions they’re living in. Specifically, they've accepted strong Us versus Them thinking as a given, even a virtue, not a problem.

In order to reduce the disenfranchisement in the mining culture that lets an Upper Big Branch–style disaster happen the community must change its thinking. This means focusing on education. Children must be taught differently. Education must emphasize that there’s a big world out there to be dealt with and lots of different points of view to be lived with. Lifestyles outside the community must be experienced. Historically in the US, this has involved time in the military, at boarding schools or colleges, on field trips, and in vacations to exotic places. This familiarity with other cultures is one of the important values of the immigrant experience so many Americans are familiar with.

A comparison to education in Utah, another mountainous inland region of the US, is illuminating. Many Utahns are Mormons. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints  encourages its members, especially boys, to spend a couple of years immediately after high school living in a foreign country, speaking a foreign language, as missionaries. The surprise benefit is that, compared to West Virginians, Utahns are quite worldly, so their Us versus Them thinking is diminished in intensity and broadened in scope.

Changing business practices in the region can also help. Currently, most West Virginia businesses are either very small mom-and-pop affairs, favoring the Us side of the instinct, or big businesses that coordinate closely with local governments. Massey’s role in this region is much like that of the paternal overseer in Agricultural Age cultures. This business structure is stable in the region because of the acceptance of taking cheap shots at outsiders. The workers perceive the managers as outsiders so they are fair game. And there is a lot of tit-for-tat, so a company calling an industrial accident an act of God is often a successful defense in local courts -- those running the courts look upon the locals as part of some different group.

The more people of the region are willing to give up on taking cheap shots at outsiders, the more trust can be built into the operation of large scale organizations such as Massey, and the larger small business can grow before they are criticized by locals as somehow selling out.

Answering Objections

Above is my basic argument. Against it, let’s look at some specific objections that seem reasonable on the surface, made by George Trosper, an insightful reader of an earlier draft of this section.

You’re assuming that left to themselves, employers will act like angels of light. Absent legislation, conditions in the real world will quickly adapt to what’s most advantageous to the employer and hang what the employees want!

Employers do not have to be forced to be like angels of light by external groups if their employees feel empowered to call bullshit on their choices. And, likewise, if employees care, they will actively offer managers better choices in how to get things done. This is the magic of enfranchisement. Both sides feel like they are being paid attention to and both sides feel that their actions make a difference.

An example of this that surprised early time and motion researchers (Taylorism) was called the Hawthorne effect. Researchers were doing time and motion studies and found that control groups were getting better -- they weren't acting like a control group was supposed to. In the end they decided that one of the things that was making the employees do more work was simply increased attention -- which was then named the Hawthorn effect. I interpret this as an example of increased attention equaling increased enfranchisement.

One key to making enfranchisement magic happen in a job situation is the ability to walk away from a bad situation, and walk into a good one. This applies as strongly to workers as it does to customers. If entry and exit from a job are both easy, low-barrier actions, then if an employer starts taking cheap shots on the employee, the worker quickly leaves for a better position. Over the long run there is not just balance between worker and management goals, there is steady and dramatic improvement.

A real world example of this kind of enfranchisement is employment conditions in information age industries where demand for workers with specific skills is high. The workers are enfranchised and their working conditions show a lot of variety that suits what they want. They are catered to, which is a symptom of enfranchisement.

But, Roger, in virtually every other real world industry, there is no such enfranchisement, here or overseas. And it would require literal magic to ever create it. When the only available choices are a bad job, begging, or prostitution (and no, not everybody can leave an area just because they don’t like the local job market), employment choice is not truly voluntary.

This is where assets get mixed into the soup. As mentioned above when an industry is heavy then the employer-employee relation is not as simple and it is harder to walk away from one job into a similar one at a different company. In such cases external imposing of social justice can make sense. But keep in mind that the working world has changed, medium and light industries, such as call centers, are now a much bigger piece of the employment pie. When the capital requirement is medium to light the employer-employee relation becomes much more like the company-customer relation.

OK, how about when a manager says, “Spending too much on safety is illegal because it’s taking profit away from the investors.” or “Corporations are required by law to put maximizing investor return above all other goals.”

In times of stress, and accidents are stressful times, people think differently. This difference is the heart of witch hunting, groupthink and other times when communities get silly in disheartening ways. A personal experience with such silliness happened when I was in Basic Training in the Army. A statement that floated around us recruits, many draftees, during the discouraging Week Four (of eight) was, “You can’t injure yourself. If you do you'll get court-martialed for damaging government property.” In the end we emerged from our training with only a handful of injuries, no court-martials, and this good story among others.

In the same vein the stories above are quite likely to have circulated in the stressful times in the wake of the accident. These would be adding to the accident’s mythology, much as stories of stockbrokers leaping from Wall Street skyscrapers became part of the Stock Crash of 1929 mythology and declarations that White Star Lines -- owners of the Titanic -- had declared it unsinkable became part of Titanic mythology.

If Massey Energy’s attitude that any delay or expense in the pursuit of safety is theft from the employer were legal, that attitude would be even more usual than it in fact is. Certainly few middle managers have ever thought, “The boss'll kill me if this costs us a fine!” Because, for all but the smallest operators, fines for evil-doing are just a cost of doing business, like retaining lobbyists (to make sure that maximum fines stay small enough to be affordable) and lawyers (to keep them difficult to impose in the first place). Anyway, even when a corporate employer would prefer honor and virtue, by law it has a fiduciary duty to put maximizing investor return above all other goals.

The question of fiduciary duty, of what rights investors have in an enterprise, dates back to the beginning of investing. It has never been easy to answer. Citing law explains only a small part of the relation.

Saying that law supports profits over safety is not true. But the much bigger issue not being addressed here is the uncertainty of doing business. The business environment is not a deterministic world. It is not a place where every manager knows the full consequences of every choice made. Managers and investors certainly wish that it were (and so do workers and regulators for that matter, it would eliminate accidents) but the real world is far from being that way. In the real world of uncertainty, managers are empowered to take risks, which means sometimes there are failures, and no profits made from a particular choice. Example: Is it illegal for Disney to make a movie that is a flop? (Note: trying and failing is not the same as gaming the system, which is illegal, ala what is depicted in the stage/movie The Producers or selling shares in the Brooklyn Bridge.) 

Beyond that, no manager likes accidents. They are deeply damaging surprises. I'm sure that the Massey managers who routinely risked their employees’ health and safety did so in the expectation that things would always go on as before, with no more serious repercussions than yet more meaningless citations. They were as unpleasantly surprised as everyone else when things went dramatically sour.

Despite employers insisting that fair labor legislation will kill their business, when it’s adopted and enforced across their industry, in the end many welcome it, because it allows them to do what would put them at a competitive disadvantage if others were not required to follow suit. Examples: Employers’ comp; minimum wage; health and safety regs, including breaks, vacations, sick leave, and sometimes protective equipment; regulation of child labor; and antidiscrimination in hiring and pay, most recently the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Do you deny that mechanism? And would you forgo all such fairness regulation?

This sounds attractive, but it is disenfranchising to the ambitious and those who want to experiment with new ways of doing things. When there are places where such fairness requirements do not apply, the brightest and best will migrate there to start the next big thing. Insistence on fairness is the heart of the Midwest Disease that I've mentioned has made places such as Detroit and Cleveland tumble from being among the best cities in the nation into struggling obscurity.

That said, there is one area where fairness is vital and it is government’s responsibility. This is when dealing with “commons” issues such as fishing grounds and pollution. Managing commons areas responsibly is a valid part of a community’s government’s responsibility. The ADA falls within the commons concept, the rest do not. Competition among employers can sort out which of the others have good cost/benefit and can keep up with changes as they happen. Discrimination can be sorted out by competition, the American immigrant experience demonstrates that happening.

So you think employee exploitation, like the dark-to-dark, six and a half day week of the 19th century, would be a good thing today?

It would not be a good thing for everyone, or all the time. But there are times even today when it’s good. 21st-century entertainers, software developers, college students, and farmers, among others, engage in these long hours on occasion, and should not be prevented from doing so. The point of an enfranchised employer-employee relation is that flex time can go both ways -- long or short -- and the choice is not made by third-party rules, but mutually by those who care the most, the worker and the manager. When they are both enfranchised, they’all be on the same side.

And consider that, curiously, even in the case of forced labor -- surely the most extreme case of bad employer-employee relations! -- enfranchisement can be important. In The Bridge on the River Kwai(1957) and the French novel that inspired it, British captives in a WWII Japanese POW camp fight to keep their enfranchisement and when they succeed, life gets better for both them and their captors.

What about employers who break their promises, make intolerable requests of employees once they're hired, or outright scam them -- like setting up employment costs such that they “owe their soul to the company store” and can never buy free?

What I'm proposing are enfranchised conditions, remember? With low barriers to job exit and entry! In the enfranchised environment, the same thing happens as when a customer feels the store is not serving them well. The employee leaves, and they probably tell their friends and neighbors about their problem.


Social justice advocates the world over have paid a lot of attention to employer-employee relations and the workplace environment. As a result this relation suffers deeply from both The Curse of Being Important and the Curse of Unintended Consequences. Workplaces are far from as satisfying as they could be, and far from as productive as they could be.

Employer-employee relations should be dominated by their Prisoners Dilemma potential -- they should be dominated by the direct relation between the employer and the employee and the fact that this is an on-going relation. Instead it is a patronized relation with lots and lots of third parties getting involved and having a big say in the relation. The result of this is both employers and employees are disenfranchised.

The way to reduce this patronizing is to build the enfranchisement of both the employer and the employee. If these people feel like the work environment pays attention to them, and that the work environment is affected by their actions, then the work environment will get a lot simpler, a lot more flexible, and be much a much more satisfying environment for both employers and employees. Life will get a lot better for all.

--The End--

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