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A new kind of civil disobedience?
March 2, 2010 6:24 AM   Subscribe

Boston College sociology professor Lisa Dodson does research on poverty, public policy, and low-income work and family life. Recently her research took a different turn, as she discovered through interviews with U.S. managers in charge of low-income workers that some of them feel "(a) sense of unfairness (...) as a supervisor, making enough to live comfortably while overseeing workers who couldn’t feed their families on the money they earned. That inequality, he told her, tainted his job, making him feel complicit in an unfair system that paid hard workers too little to cover basic needs." Professor Dobson talks about this phenomenon, and how it plays out in that some managers undermine the system, in interviews in the Boston Globe and on public radio.

She has a book out called The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy.
posted by Harald74 (35 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
Maybe the systematic destruction of anything resembling social programs or workers rights in favor of large business interests for the last oh, 40ish years or so has something to do with that.
posted by The Whelk at 6:33 AM on March 2, 2010 [7 favorites]


It's certainly a difficult question. I imagine that the managers would be afraid of losing their own jobs by doing things like giving workers extra money or food from the company they work for. I know that I would not feel comfortable as a manager going that route. I want to fight for my employees by advocating for them with those who set those rules. Obviously, if I have the authority to make changes like more money, etc., then that is a different situation.

Also, I would point out that this is why we still need unions, despite the contentious history of organized labor in the US.
posted by dellsolace at 6:36 AM on March 2, 2010 [7 favorites]


Referring to the show’s host, a listener from Leesburg, Va., wrote, “I was surprised that throughout the entire interview, neither Tess Vigeland nor Ms. Dodson touched on what would seem to me a rather crucial point - that these ‘Ordinary Americans’ are stealing from the companies who employ them.

“The examples Ms. Dodson gave . . . are acts of theft from the companies, yet they are described as if somehow moral and virtuous. It’s one thing for me to see someone in need and open my wallet; its quite another to address that need by giving something I’ve stolen from my neighbor.’’


What? This person is morally outraged by something that, yes, legally can be seen as petty theft, but is occurring as a response to the unfortunately legal and morally outrageous mistreatment of fellow human beings? What bubble is listener from Leesburg, Va living in? How petty can people be?

These little allowances that guilty managers provide for exploited workers does not right the wrong that is being committed, but man, at least it shows that they are on some level human.
posted by molecicco at 6:51 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


I have to wonder at those who might be surprised by this.

I think in most cases, certainly in most of those I've been exposed to in retail and service environments, companies seem to get that a lot of "shrinkage" comes from the employees, and the employers seem to build that into their calculations for worker comp. And yes, that is sad. It may be easier for them to write off losses than pay a better minimum wage.

I find that this situation creates a mess of unwelcome social and moral overhead for each person in the system. A manager might look the other way when food gets eaten, or a book loses its cover, etc. The worker might doing these things can't do them out in the open. The manager and the worker have to recalibrate their morals in these situations.

Most of this hangs on some conventional wisdom that the employer would rather have you act in this manner than pay more. This devolves into a sense that if it is build into overhead, why wouldn't a person take part in this, isn't this then not immoral or dishonest?

And "voila!" scads of working poor living the Leo Strauss dream of discovering coded moral truths buried in plain sight, that other morality is for uninitiated suckers.

Dear System, just pay workers more, and enforce the rules, as a social imperative.
posted by drowsy at 6:52 AM on March 2, 2010 [8 favorites]


I sounds like an excellent study of the way that fundamentally unfair systems exact tolls on the well-being of people at all levels in the system. In the US, we have a model of being an economic winner or loser, but I think a lot of the "winners," unless they are willing and able to block their feelings of empathy, suffer from the situation. Not as much as the lower-wage losers, maybe, but it is still an unhealthy system for almost everyone who isn't already sick in one way or another.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:55 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


dellsolace It is my impression that the biggest problems with organised labour in the US stem from the "closed shop" or even "union shop" systems. On one hand they can breed a nasty culture within the unions, with the union members being put to the service of the leaders, instead of the other way around. On the other hand, they can be used to justify obstacles to unionisation, as in some states' "right to work" laws.

The right to join a union should:

a) be individual and universal; and
b) also include the right not to join a union.

This is how it works here in Europe. As a result, unions here are more fragmented and politically less powerful than the AFL-CIO, but workers have been better protected.

Of course, it isn't going to happen. The Democrats will be against because it would weaken their biggest campaign contributor, the AFL-CIO, and the Republicans will also be against, because it would weaken their biggest campaign contributors, non-union corporations such as Wal-Mart...
posted by Skeptic at 6:56 AM on March 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


Also, I would point out that this is why we still need unions, despite the contentious history of organized labor in the US.

s/despite/because/

The fact that some people argue and work so hard against unions is evidence of how badly they are needed.
posted by DU at 6:57 AM on March 2, 2010 [5 favorites]


As a result, unions here are more fragmented and politically less powerful than the AFL-CIO...

Wow, is that ever something the US does not need.
posted by DU at 6:58 AM on March 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


The further away you are from the workers, the easier it is to dehumanize them-- to view them only as drones without any regard to their medical needs or their family lives. I'm not surprised that their immediate supervisors-- those who interact with them on a daily basis and know first hand of their hard work and their economic situation-- should be more sympathetic than the business owners and company CEOs.
Referring to the show’s host, a listener from Leesburg, Va., wrote, “I was surprised that throughout the entire interview, neither Tess Vigeland nor Ms. Dodson touched on what would seem to me a rather crucial point - that these ‘Ordinary Americans’ are stealing from the companies who employ them.

“The examples Ms. Dodson gave . . . are acts of theft from the companies, yet they are described as if somehow moral and virtuous.
I would not describe the actions of the sympathetic managers as "moral" or "virtuous." I see it as more pragmatic. On the other hand I do feel that it is immoral to expect someone to work full time and work hard, but pay them less than a living wage. I know that the Capitalist system we live with allows it, but I still think it stinks. I have no doubt at all that if Congress were to abolish the minimum wage in this country, companies would find people who would work hard for $4.00 an hour and no benefits. People are desperate.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:05 AM on March 2, 2010


DU: The impression for this outsider is that US unions have been quite successful in defending themselves and their leaders, far less so in defending the interests of their members, never mind those of workers who can't join them or don't want to.
posted by Skeptic at 7:06 AM on March 2, 2010


I can absolutely see how this would happen.

It would be really interesting to do a study on how managerial discretion is applied at different pay strata with regard to things like reporting absence, breaks, etc., when there's no check on the quality of reporting other than the manager's vigilance. Especially in companies where employees are forced into a performance curve, where a bottom percentile is expected to be let go every year, there will always be a few employees with bullseyes on their foreheads and not necessarily for objective reasons. Sympathetic immediate managers may not be empowered to help them improve their lot, but may be expected to drop the hammer when the time comes.

The argument about the morality of stealing from the company and passing along the booty has some subtleties to it. Of course, stealing is wrong. But if employees have nowhere else to go, then the price elasticity of labor is low, the door to exploitation is wide open; when those who set wages are focused on spreadsheets and completely separated from those being managed, there can be little "moral incentive" to pay fairly.

Who is morally "more wrong" or "more right?" I suspect that on average this means that returns can only be driven so high by minimizing labor costs, and that they'll eventually begin to dip... so that choosing an optimal wage is not simply a matter of finding the intersection between supply and demand of labor, but also constraining it on the low end by managers' ability and propensity to provide extra-wage discretionary compensation at the expense of the company. At first blush, looking at it this way, despite seemingly reducing the problem further down to numbers, also eliminates "morality," which is a squishy and subjective term, and therefore pretty useless in this analysis, from the equation. On the other hand, measuring managers' willingness to look the other way, and its monetary value, is pretty hard as well. Once measured, however, it could be a useful, pragmatic, and objective tool.
posted by changoperezoso at 7:17 AM on March 2, 2010


“The examples Ms. Dodson gave . . . are acts of theft from the companies, yet they are described as if somehow moral and virtuous. It’s one thing for me to see someone in need and open my wallet; its quite another to address that need by giving something I’ve stolen from my neighbor.’’

Your neighbor is sitting on a pile of money. You take $5 to give to someone who could use it. Your neighbor is still sitting on a pile of money, and they don't notice the difference. Oh, and that pile keeps on growing.

Yes, many retail and grocery chains aren't making a lot of money, but letting someone leave early or giving them food from a grocery store? Not all food gets sold, and some must be thrown away. People idle around at work when there's nothing to do. Yet this is not stealing from The Company. But if you let someone go early, or give them food that might otherwise be wasted? THEFT!
posted by filthy light thief at 7:19 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


The examples Ms. Dodson gave . . . are acts of theft from the companies, yet they are described as if somehow moral and virtuous.

I have a great idea that will help the poor. They should incorporate! As plain old humans, poor people have no power. But Poor People, Inc could hire lobbyists to write laws that would help them and buy elections to get SCOTUS nominations for fair judges.

But the best part is that conservative Republicans would now view everything poor peoplePoor People, Inc does as completely moral and virtuous, because it's a corporation doing it! At a stroke the complain "they are lazy and shiftless and are trying to steal my money" becomes the defense "as a corporation, they exist to make money".
posted by DU at 7:34 AM on March 2, 2010 [10 favorites]


It's really just treating them with the same respect that you would treat salaried workers. Take the time to go to the doctor, just make sure you get the work done. It's basic human decency and that act of decency will likely be repaid with loyalty to the supervisor and hard work. If not then it is not likely to be repeated very often. Treating workers fairly like this makes good business sense. Those who think of it merely as stealing from the employer seem to lack business acumen.
posted by caddis at 7:50 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


...the "contentious history of unions"? Wow. Let's look at the 19th century robber barons and child labor...and then look at the bonus people at the banks that we bailed out with OUR money...that is not "contentious"?

The American worker turned his back on unions and is now suffering for it. Meanwhile, companies ship out jobs to labor overseas that works for considerably less than minimum wage here. and stock holders are delighted.

Want more? In only two nations in the industralized world can workers on strike be permanently thrown out of their jobs: South Africa and the U.S. We have stacked the laws against unions in this country.

The problem in part is that we fail to pay a living wage for so many workers, so that they do not feel connected to the companies they know are screwing them. And many mangers are considered good when they help management screw over the help.
posted by Postroad at 7:54 AM on March 2, 2010 [4 favorites]


Your neighbor is sitting on a pile of money. You take $5 to give to someone who could use it. Your neighbor is still sitting on a pile of money, and they don't notice the difference. Oh, and that pile keeps on growing.

It's even less than that: your neighbor gives you a pile of money with instructions on how to spend it and an assignment to turn that money into more money. You bend those instructions at your discretion in order to do the best job you feel you can and then return the generated profits to your neighbor. It would be better if your neighbor didn't give you bad instructions to begin with, but at the end of the day, the neighbor is happy, you are happy, and the people who used the money to create profits for the neighbor are happy.

The only downside (and it's a big downside), is that it allows the neighbor to maintain his retrograde belief system about how things "should" be run, while the actual managers who work for a living and are doing the hard work of keeping the business running are the ones making the tough decisions that the neighbor considers morally abhorrent, yet also allows him to make more money.

It's really just treating them with the same respect that you would treat salaried workers. Take the time to go to the doctor, just make sure you get the work done

Yes, precisely. The "company policy" does not allow for paid sick leave. The managers make an "executive decision" to enact "paid sick days" even if they're not technically allowed by company policy. There's no problem here: the manager's job is to keep the company running and keep the employees productive. The upper management is happy because they get to continue in their delusion that mistreating workers is a good idea but are fortunate to have the floor management not actually force them to face the consequences of their beliefs.
posted by deanc at 8:14 AM on March 2, 2010 [7 favorites]


Even though I have a degree in business, corporate buzzwords like "maximizing profit" and "rightsizing" and "company culture" make me sick. Unless, and until, we can accept "because it's the right fucking thing to do" as a valued and useful business and policy construct, we are well-and-truly-fucked in the long run.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 8:28 AM on March 2, 2010


If only Congress would raise the minimum wage to $40/hr, we could eliminate poverty overnight.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:44 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is how it works here in Europe. As a result, unions here are more fragmented and politically less powerful than the AFL-CIO, but workers have been better protected.
But you're surely not claiming that's how we got where we are in Europe. What made legal protections politically expedient was the long era of very powerful unions and against a background of industrial militancy both inside and outside them, as with for example the Hot Autumn in Italy in '69-'70. You'd have to go back to the 20s or earlier for anything comparable in the US, I believe.
There's also been trade union funding of political parties and they remain significant donors with influence on the legislative agenda. It's only since the defeats of the late 70s and 80s that the unions have become more fragmented in the major economies, and since then that we've seen things like the EU legislation on 'flexibility' pass where it may not have earlier.
posted by Abiezer at 8:47 AM on March 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


If only Congress would raise the minimum wage to $40/hr, we could eliminate poverty overnight.

If they just printed more money everyone could be rich! I'm going to write my senator.
posted by clearly at 9:01 AM on March 2, 2010


Abiezer European unions may be more fragmented and less powerful now than they used to be, but much of the story of how we came to be here is also related to healthy competition between unions.

In most European countries, unions used indeed to be also closely linked to parties. Note: many parties, not a single one. The exception was Britain, and that was one of the main reasons why Thatcher could bring the mighty TUC to its knees. In Continental Europe, on the other hand, the conservative Christian Democrats also have a significant trade union movement. In Belgium there's even (paradoxically enough) a "Liberal" (in the European sense) trade union association. Because those unions nevertheless also need to defend their members' rights in order to survive, they weren't merely "scab unions", but often just as combative as their Socialist and Communist counterparts. And because many politicians started their careers there, that also makes them more receptive to their calls. It isn't a coincidence that some of the most important workers' rights laws in Continental Europe were passed by conservative, not socialist, governments.
posted by Skeptic at 9:15 AM on March 2, 2010


If they just printed more money everyone could be rich! I'm going to write my senator.

No need, they've been doing this for a while anyway.
posted by gngstrMNKY at 9:30 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Cheers, Skeptic, that makes what you're saying clearer. Impression I got from your first comment was that European unions had wielded less power than US ones which seemed entirely backwards for the post-war years at least.
The union movement associated with the Christian Democrats or parties of the centre may be significant but it's still dwarfed by the left groupings. In Germany as I recall the DGB funds the SPD, or at least used to, in a situation not entirely unlike that of the TUC in the UK. Just had a quick look at the figures for France, as my impression was that the socialist (CFDT) and communist (CGT) union blocs were again by far the most prominent, and that looks right. So of course it's a bit more diverse than the US, but that's hardly surprising given it's so many different countries with their varied histories.
I would agree though that it isn't in the in the interests of organised labour to become mere fund raisers for this or that political party.
posted by Abiezer at 9:46 AM on March 2, 2010


I have a pet theory as to why unions have done better in Europe than here:

Europeans, in general, are much more comfortable with defining (and attempting to solve) problems in terms of class and economics. At heart, these are economic problems and class inequities.

Americans are almost genetically loathe to admit to a "class system" here. Therefore, they've been susceptible to the right's redefining everything as "morals and values". Needless to say, the upper-class here is OK with that.

(As a side note, unions are particularly good at posing issues as economic problems. I can't find the cite right now, but I remember reading once that the single most consistent variable that could be used to determine if a person would vote Democratic was if they were a union member. Think maybe that's part of the right's haterd for unions?)
posted by Benny Andajetz at 10:01 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Referring to the show’s host, a listener from Leesburg, Va. Nottingham, wrote, “I was surprised that throughout the entire interview, neither Tess Vigeland nor Ms. Dodson touched on what would seem to me a rather crucial point - that these ‘Ordinary Americans’ are stealing from the companies who employ them.
posted by one_bean at 10:53 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Your neighbor is sitting on a pile of money. You take $5 to give to someone who could use it. Your neighbor is still sitting on a pile of money, and they don't notice the difference.

I agree with the point you're making, but it's a mistake to think they "don't notice the difference," at least within grocery chains that I'm familiar with. "Shrink" - tracking it down and finding who's to blame - is a huge thing. Every stale thrown away written down somewhere and someone found to yell at for it, every mark-down coupon accounted for...and when the quarterly (monthly, for some depts.) inventory rolls around, the discrepancy between how much they should have and how much they do have can be very very slight indeed to have an effect on whether a manager stays at their current store, is kicked down to a less desirable one, or let go of entirely. The "higher ups" -- that is, all those who worked removed from the hourly workers on a regular basis -- definitely notice the five dollars. Might not hurt them that much, but oh, they notice.
posted by frobozz at 11:28 AM on March 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


After Dodson talked about her book on a radio program, American Public Media’s “Marketplace,’’ some listeners posted comments on the show’s website arguing that supervisors like Andrew are cheating their employers.

No duh. That's the whole point!
posted by mrgrimm at 11:50 AM on March 2, 2010


I believe even if managers are stealing from the company to help their employees get by, it is a moral and just act. A person who puts in a hard days work deserves enough to get by, provided society can do so. Our society most certainly can, so the system and the laws that enforce it are unjust. Cooperating with an unjust system and obeying its laws is itself an unjust act, if a pragmatic necessity at times. Therefore the right course of action is to ignore the laws and the system and do one's best to provide a way to get by for the people working for you, absent a higher responsibility, such as providing for your own family.

In short, yeah stealing from a company to help your struggling workers is the right thing to do; just don't get caught.
posted by Zalzidrax at 12:54 PM on March 2, 2010


In short, yeah stealing from a company to help your struggling workers is the right thing to do; just don't get caught.

I take it you don't run a company?
posted by gagglezoomer at 1:31 PM on March 2, 2010



I take it you don't run a company?

Well, presumably not one that thinks it's acceptable to pay its workers starvation wages, at any rate.
posted by frobozz at 1:43 PM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


What? This person is morally outraged by something that, yes, legally can be seen as petty theft, but is occurring as a response to the unfortunately legal and morally outrageous mistreatment of fellow human beings? What bubble is listener from Leesburg, Va living in? How petty can people be?

So long as there shall exist, by virtue of law and custom, decrees of damnation pronounced by society, artificially creating hells amid the civilization of earth, and adding the element of human fate to divine destiny; so long as the three great problems of the century—the degradation of man through pauperism, the corruption of woman through hunger, the crippling of children through lack of light—are unsolved; so long as social asphyxia is possible in any part of the world;—in other words, and with a still wider significance, so long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Misérables cannot fail to be of use. — Victor Hugo's preface to Les Misérables

Not that this passage will ever be irrelevant, but at times we aren't even keeping the appearances.
posted by ersatz at 2:34 PM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


There are a million ways for a supervisor to make your workday a living hell, or to treat you respectfully. I've worked for both kinds. Those that delight in squashing underlings and treating them like criminals had the highest rates of turnover, but also sabotage, slacking (when possible), property destruction and theft. Not by me, of course. But the craziest/most objectionable/likely to result in lawsuits or bodily injury stuff I saw always happened in workplaces with stupidest, most soul-crushing rules and most mistreatment of employees.

Once your superior(s) have, in effect, declared their intention to treat you like sh*t, they have disrupted whatever "good faith" exists in the worker/employee relationship. You either leave, become profoundly depressed and/or start acting out in whatever ways you can without getting caught.

I would guess that for supervisors caught in the untenable position of working employees they supervise like slaves for sh*t wages while still not causing this kind of disruption, the only option becomes letting them "get away" with things to try to keep them mollified enough not to leave or do something worse. Yes, it's compassion, but also the desire to keep your three useful employees who do all the work from leaving and being stuck with the rest of the kind of employees you get when you can only pay sh*t wages.
posted by emjaybee at 2:38 PM on March 2, 2010


"It ain't stealing if you need it."
posted by digitalprimate at 2:50 PM on March 2, 2010


But the best part is that conservative Republicans would now view everything poor peoplePoor People, Inc does as completely moral and virtuous, because it's a corporation doing it!

By Poor People Inc, did you mean perhaps ACORN? Analogy FAIL.

I'm not really taking you to task, DU, but quite seriously this relates right back to the lucky duckies thing^. The right already views poor people as teat-suckers, and now more and more of them pay no taxes, so they don't understand the cost to society wealthy people of their social benefits. As for organizations such as ACORN, they're simply doing in the public space what unions do in the labor space -- siphon off tax money or company profits or worker wages to self-perpetuate and hand out crony jobs.

Anyway, I'm not sure how new this Dodson-discovered phenomenon is. Right in my own extended family there's someone who seems to have a regular stream of stuff that, you know, "fell off the truck". I suspect, that is. Or you have the senior employees who are eligible for more overtime even when there are junior employees available to do straight time. And so on.

And if you go up a level or two you find white-collar workers who have long had the opportunity to pad expense accounts.

So I hesitate to use the "civil disobedience" label. There have always been sympathetic bosses, and there have always been Scrooges. The supervisors in the Wal-Marts of today are binder-bound cogs who have very little discretion to actually be generous in the way that a store owner once would have been. They're just taking back a little. And yes, like the workers, they're "lucky duckies" in the sense that it's no skin off their back.

So what you're seeing at this middle level is an increasing effect of the disconnect that employees have with the fruits of their labor. The owners -- certainly not at the stockholder level, but easily at the board of directors level -- have none to little experience of scraping by on minimum wage. They don't know the pain of the workforce when they hold back that raise or trim health benefits.

We had a sort of a situation here in my state where an agency with an independent board and a budget separate from the general fund (that is, the money came solely from the entities the agency serves) had a problem with a salary cap written into law, so they began giving their staff more and more vacation time to make up for that limitation. Eventually there was an audit and now some shit is hitting the fan. But ultimately they had the same disconnect -- it wasn't their money. The legislature never paid attention because it wasn't their (taxpayer) money either.
posted by dhartung at 10:10 PM on March 2, 2010


drowsy: “And "voila!" scads of working poor living the Leo Strauss dream of discovering coded moral truths buried in plain sight, that other morality is for uninitiated suckers.”

You have clearly never actually read Leo Strauss. You probably should give it a real go before inserting his name into any more rants.
posted by koeselitz at 10:54 AM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


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