Hopelessness in the Workplace


Founded in 1916, the Conference Board, Inc. (originally known as the National Industrial Conference Board) is a non-profit organization supported by leading business executives from all over the world.

With offices in New York, Hong Kong and Brussels, the Conference Board holds regularly scheduled meetings, convenes leadership project groups, and conducts management research, connecting more than 1300 corporations in nearly 60 nations.  Its worldwide conferences attract more than 12,000 senior executives each year.

In early May, the Board issued a sobering report.  It noted that only 45-percent of world’s workers were “satisfied” with their jobs, down from 61-percent in 1987.  These weren’t crazy people conducting the surveys.  These were international business leaders who had nothing to gain by inflating the numbers.  Indeed, the survey’s results, while demoralizing, didn’t come as any surprise.  Similar studies have shown American worker satisfaction to be at an all-time low.

The Conference Board’s study indicated that the drop-off wasn’t tied primarily to worries over job security, as critical as that concern is.  Rather, the responses were quite specific.  Among the complaints:  on-the-job pressure, longer hours, bad bosses, workplace intimidation, arbitrary decision-making and evaluations, and a sense of general hopelessness. 

Even acknowledging that the human psyche is complex and that cross-cultural differences must come into play, the recent spate of worker suicides in Chinese factories has to be seen as a symptom of something deeper and more disturbing than the Chinese government’s pathetic explanation of “copy-cat” behavior (“Hey, some guy just jumped to his death from a tall building; maybe I should do that, too”). 

By all accounts, the pressure on Chinese workers to increase their productivity by working faster and harder and putting in longer hours in order to keep the vaunted national economy churning away must be enormous.  And even though people in China are regularly depicted as being far more amenable to regimentation and group-think than their Westerners counterparts, they obviously have their limits.    

But the steep decline in worker satisfaction is traceable to more than hard work and long hours. It derives from a lack of a sense of empowerment.  It’s no coincidence that the dramatic increase in dissatisfaction corresponds directly to a drop in union membership.  Whether or not people realize it, belonging to a labor union provides a great deal more than the higher wages and generous benefits typically associated with union affiliation. 

In addition to better wages and bennies, a labor union offers a built-in and reliable means of problem-solving.  You have a bad boss?  You’re tired of being harassed or held to arbitrary standards?  You’re getting all the crappy assignments?  A union rep can help.  He can file a grievance; he can go over the boss’s head; he can go over the boss’s boss’s head; he can yell and scream with total immunity; in short, he can wage a Holy War on your behalf. 

Management takes union officers seriously.  They take them seriously because they know they have the jurisdictional right to address workplace problems, which is why so many corporations resist their employees organizing.  With a union representing the workers, the boss can’t get away with being a petty tyrant.  It’s no longer simply bad form; it’s now contractually illegal.

And even in those cases when the union rep can’t “remedy” the situation—even when, in truth, it’s the employee himself who’s contributing to the problem—having the union as a Father Confessor or shoulder to cry on is a critical safety valve, a way of blowing off steam and, hence, minimizing on-the-job stress.  With a union representing you, you’re never alone.

Conversely, when you have no union, it’s every man for himself.  Being stuck with a bad boss in a non-union setting means you’re at the boss’s mercy.  Dr. Samuel Culbert, a UCLA psychology professor cited in the Conference Board’s finding, maintains that too many Americans work in “toxic” environments.  Consider:  other than quitting or internalizing the problem until he grows a tumor, what can he do?  Without a union, he has no lobby, no support group, no safety net. 

And don’t say the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) can help because that’s wildly misleading.  People who say that have obviously never tried to contact the Board.  First of all, good luck in reaching them by telephone.  Just ask anyone who’s ever tried.  I’ve personally gotten a busy signal for 45 straight minutes, before giving up. 

Second, as noble as their intentions may be, these people (like OSHA reps) are weary bureaucrats.  They’ve heard everything you’re going to say a hundreds times.  And once you’ve gotten their attention, they are going to automatically assume the company is right and you’re wrong, and have to be dragged kicking and screaming to your side.  In our dealings with the NLRB, we often asked ourselves:  Whose side are these guys on?

Clearly, the antidote to worker dissatisfaction, frustration, and alienation is a sense of empowerment….a sense of dignity.  While some workers are fortunate enough to have compassionate, enlightened bosses, most are not.  That’s where labor unions ride to the rescue.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor” (available at Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble, etc.) He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net  




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