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  • Unions could solve many of the workplace struggles of people like Lance, but the problem is deeper than labor policy. Tweet This
  • We need to see ordinary employees, not just executives and investors, as company stakeholders. Tweet This

In my last post I wrote about Lance, a young married man with three kids, and his history of difficulties in the workplace, including several instances of unjust firings. What happened to Lance in the week after I wrote that piece is as troubling as it is astonishing, and puts an exclamation point on Lance’s complaint that ordinary workers like him are “screwed.”

It started when Lance’s manager at the fast-food chain restaurant abruptly quit. It was customary for him to work 13- to 16-hour days, and for the salary he was receiving, he figured it just wasn’t worth it anymore. (Lance guesses that he was making about $40,000 a year.) It was a shock to Lance; he was one of the hardest-working managers he had ever worked with. At the same time, another employee quit, and a third was fired. That left Lance and the team he supervises understaffed and stressed out.

A few days later, Lance and his wife and two of their young children piled into their only car, to take Lance to work. (Their second car had broken down as Lance was on his way to sell it so they would have the money they needed to pay their month’s rent.) As they curved around a sharp bend in the road, a car lurched across the median, pounding squarely into Lance’s car. The car was totaled, Lance and his wife were bruised, and the police officer said that Lance and the kids should go to the emergency room.

Sitting in the back of the police officer’s car, filling out an insurance claim, Lance received a phone call. It was Lance’s district manager, returning Lance’s call. Lance had called to say that he couldn’t be at work today because of the accident. But the district manager wasn’t impressed: she said that either Lance would show up to work that day, or he would be fired. Lance protested, repeating that the police officer had urged him to get everyone checked out at the emergency room. But the district manager refused to back down—and Lance was suddenly fired.

That evening, Lance called “corporate” to report the unjust firing. The person who answered assured him that somebody higher up than the district manager would get back to him. Lance also called the district manager back, threatening to hire a lawyer if she didn’t let him come back to work. She apologized for her behavior, saying that he had caught her on a rough day, and asked Lance to come back the next week to talk things out. They did meet, and she did offer him his job back—but with a condition: he would be demoted. Why? He had been late to work once about three weeks before, and he was setting a bad example to other employees, she said. But Lance had showed up to work late because the car that he was about to sell had broken down. Again, though, the district manager didn’t budge. Offended by the offer, Lance said he didn’t want the job back.

Corporate never did get back to Lance, though Lance called one more time. And, though he threatened to hire a lawyer, the truth is that at $9.75 an hour it’s hard enough to pay rent, much less hire a lawyer. So, once again, Lance is searching for work.

Lance’s most recent unjust firing reinforces that the financial difficulty confronting him and his family—they were short on rent, despite both him and his wife working full-time—is fundamentally a problem of the workplace. Public policies like increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit, or even raising awareness that it exists (Lance hadn’t heard of it when I asked him), are commendable and should be pursued. But they do not solve the underlying problem: there are not adequate protections for the dignity of the ordinary worker. As Brian Dijkema pointed out on Twitter, in response to my first post about Lance, many of the problems mentioned in Lance’s story (including a higher wage) could be resolved by a good union.

America has confronted these difficulties before, and we solved many of the problems that arose through labor unions. Today’s working class has its own share of injustices and challenges to overcome—but “union” is a dirty word for many people today, especially conservatives. This is true even for some working-class young people I’ve interviewed who stand to benefit the most from unions. For instance, one young man I interviewed, who works at a unionized factory, said this when his colleagues asked him to be a union representative: “I’m a Republican, I don’t want no part of that!” In his words, “The only thing a union is good for is saving people that are no good.” However, at another point in our interview he told a story of how he would have been unjustly fired by an angry supervisor one time if it hadn’t been for the intervention of the union representative. (For his part, though, Lance—a self-identified Republican sympathetic to Donald Trump’s candidacy—thinks that unions are mostly a good thing.)

But I think there is something even deeper going on here than a lack of good unions. Both the lack of a good union and the lack of a just wage—problems that have plagued Lance in his work history—are arguably symptoms of “shareholder capitalism.” As Steven Pearlstein noted in an excellent essay “When Shareholder Capitalism Comes to Town,” shareholder capitalism assumes that corporations should be managed to maximize “shareholder value.” This was not the development of economic or legal necessity, he points out. A prior model of “managerial capitalism” sought to “balance the interest of shareholders with those of employees, customers, and society at large.” But a new ideology developed during the 1960s, most famously exemplified by Milton Friedman’s dictum that “there is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits.”

The result has been demoralizing for ordinary workers like Lance. In the “shareholder-first strategy,” any gains that employees might make tend to be captured by shareholders and top executives. Share prices might soar, but ordinary workers say the kind of things that Lance told me: “I get paid nothing to do everything.” And, “People that deserve…nice, happy lives—that’s what they’re working so hard to get—don’t accomplish it. They’re merely chasing that.” When the worker is effectively treated as a means to an end, there will be alienation (as John Paul II predicted in Centesimus Annus).

The irony is that the CEO of the company for which Lance worked seems like a wonderful person to work for, at least judging from her writings and interviews. She talks a lot about how their success as a company comes from developing leaders who inspire employees. She emphasizes the importance of humility and working with a mindset of serving people—because when you have satisfied employees, you achieve good results. The day before Lance met with the district manager to talk about his firing, the CEO tweeted this quote by Laura Hillenbrand: “Without dignity, identity is erased.”

But no amount of leadership and dignity talk can overcome the realities that led to Lance’s firing. As Lance had told his district manager several weeks before, $9.75 an hour “isn’t cutting it.” Ambition won’t necessarily cut it, either: for every few dozen employees making close to Lance’s wage, there is one salaried manager (and even he quit because the salary wasn’t cutting it). Having a higher purpose to work for, like a wife and kids, isn’t the problem: Lance has been happily married for more than five years. He was fired because a stressed-out district manager—who was only at the store because the manager had quit, tired of working 13-plus-hour days for what amounted to little money—was angry that he couldn’t come into work after a car accident. And Lance couldn’t do anything about the injustice, even after he repeatedly spoke out.

Lance was a stakeholder in the company, too. Lance was responsible for their success, too. But corporate isn’t calling him back.