On Time: Upgrading the Workplace for the 21st Century

We are workaholics. As law students we are particularly sick, regularly sacrificing the prime of our youth in pursuit of just the right job. For many, life after graduation will be a constant battle to carve out a few hours for ourselves in our busy schedules. But we aren’t alone in our affliction. We are a nation addicted to work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average worker in the US spends most of their waking hours at work or in related activities. The time they spend on the job dwarfs what is spent enjoying leisure activities (2.6 hours), tending to household chores (1 hour), eating and drinking (1.1 hours), and caring for others (1.2 hours), combined.

How we spend the lion’s share of our time says a lot about who we are as individuals and as a society. We are a nation that takes pride in democratic traditions, yet the foundation of the American workplace is undemocratic – at least if we believe that democracy requires citizens to have a right to participate in the decisions that matter most in their lives. Workers in the US have little to no say about the conditions under which they work. Absent a contract to the contrary, their employment is at-will. This means they can be fired or disciplined for reasons completely unrelated to their job performance, or for no reason at all. It is a relationship defined by command and control where the employer may unilaterally set the terms and conditions of employment subject only to market constraints. This leaves an open question as to the type of democratic order we afford ourselves when citizens—including young law firm associates—are denied a voice on the job even as they give their employers the most productive years of their lives. What is the value of political democracy when accompanied by workplace authoritarianism?

There are those who suggest that democratic intrusions into the property rights of employers undermine the efficient ordering of our economy. Such a mindset animates our current regime where state intervention in the employment relationship is largely limited to wage and hour laws, a duty of non-discrimination, basic health and safety regulations, and a formal right (denied to 93% of private sector workers) to bargain collectively through a union. However, suppressing democratic rights on the job hasn’t increased economic returns – at least not for workers. Average real wages have been nearly stagnant since 1979, even as worker productivity has increased by 60 percent. Since 1973 income inequality (as measured by the share of income held by the 1%) doubled at the same time that unionization rates halved. In the modern era, workers are increasingly short changed.

The Labor & Employment Action Project (LEAP) exists to find a better way forward. We seek to marry a commitment to direct action with an academic interest in the cutting edge of worker advocacy so as to foster a community that cares about the world of work. And we’re keeping ourselves busy! In November alone, we collected commitment cards from students pledging to support the MA domestic workers bill of rights; hosted a panel on worker advocacy in the restaurant industry (Tues. Nov. 12 at 12 pm in WCC 3019); and will sponsor an information session for students interested in applying for the Peggy Browning Fund and/or working in the field of labor and employment law (Wes. Nov. 20 at 4 pm in WCC 2009).

LEAP always welcomes new faces and meets on the second and fourth Monday of every month at 7:15 pm in WCC 3018 or 3019. We hope you join us!

The Labor and Employment Action Project

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