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Review: Betrayal in the workplace

"The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work"
By Joanne B. Ciulla
Times Books/Random House, 266 pages

graphic
 

In this story:

Eons of travail

Labor strife

No way out

RELATED STORIES, SITES icon



(CNN) -- University of Richmond ethics professor Joanne B. Ciulla says she wonders "if work has really improved since the beginning of the century or if it is just clothed in fancy terms and done in cleaner, better-lighted places."

The answer is apparent in the subtitle of her intelligent and entertaining book, "The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work." And reading how she reached her conclusion is time well spent.

  QUICK VOTE
graphic Joanne Ciulla, in "The Working Life," asserts that employers should be honest with workers, "telling painful truths and preparing others for them." Does your management level with you?

Yes. I get the straight story at work.
Only sometimes. Budget concerns and layoffs are rarely explained to the staff.
Never. My management plays it all close to the chest.
View Results

While Ciulla has a Ph.D. and has studied or taught at Harvard Business School, Oxford University and the Wharton School, her book is not one of those ponderous tomes that only fellow scholars can wade through.

Take, for example, Ciulla's recollection of her experience working as a waitress, bartender and cook during the first nine years of her teaching career. Demeaning drudgery for this brainy woman? Hardly. She writes:

"I enjoyed restaurant work. It was a welcome change from academia, and I always got a good meal out of it."

Or consider this anecdote about a group of women from what some claim is the world's oldest profession:

"When the cathedral of Notre Dame was being built, a group of prostitutes approached the bishop of Paris and, in imitation of the guilds, offered to donate a window depicting the Virgin Mary (rather than a scene from their trade). The embarrassed bishop turned down their offer."

Eons of travail

As her attention to the philanthropic prostitutes at Notre Dame illustrates, Ciulla takes us on a far-ranging philosophical, historical and at times colorful journey through the nature of work. The book traces the evolution of Americans' perception of work from necessary evil to noble calling, a builder of character and a measure of status.

"The ancients saw work as a necessity and a curse," Ciulla writes. "The medieval Catholic church bestowed on work a simple dignity; the Renaissance humanist gave it glamour. But the Protestants endowed work with the quest for meaning, identity and signs of salvation. The notion of work as something beyond mere labor, as work-plus, indeed as a calling, highlighted its personal and existential qualities. Work became a kind of prayer. More than a means of living, it became a purpose for living."

Joanne B. Ciulla writes that American workers were betrayed first, by massive, corporate downsizing that saw tens of thousands of people laid off, even the prototypical "organization man" who had given his all to the company year after year. "When they lost their jobs, they lost everything," Ciulla writes, "income, benefits, friends, reputation, and sometimes even family."

Along the way, she quotes thinkers including Aristotle, Bertrand Russell, Oscar Wilde and Karl Marx.

And she cites literary references from Aesop's "The Grasshopper and the Ant" to Proverbs 6:6-8 -- all to show how questions and attitudes of work have been contemplated at various times.

Ciulla also devotes a fair amount of space to exploring just what the word "work" and its concepts entail.

"Our attitude toward a task or activity often determines whether we call it work," she writes. "Work is serious and play is nonserious. Playing Monopoly with someone who takes notes, and counts every move you make, and never cracks a smile might feel like work. Working with people who play practical jokes on one another and come to work wearing propeller beanies and toting squirt guns might feel like play.

"While 'labor' implies physical exertion, 'toil' denotes continuous and exhausting labor, and 'drudgery' refers to work that we dislike because of its minuteness or dull uniformity. Compared to words like 'labor' and 'toil,' the word 'job' sounds almost cheerful."

Labor strife

In the middle section of "The Working Life," Ciulla examines two forces at frequent odds: employers' efforts at controlling employees, and employees' struggle for autonomy and control over their work and their lives.

She starts this rumination with a look at slavery, "the oldest and most certain way to get people to work."

While many of us may associate slavery only with African men and women being shipped to the Americas, Ciulla notes that more than half the early white settlers outside New England came to the New World as indentured servants or redemptioners.

The second betrayal, Joanne Ciulla writes, occurred when company CEOs began pocketing salaries and bonuses bordering on the obscene. About one in 10 CEOs had pay packages worth $20 million in 1998, she writes. And between 1997 and 1998, executive compensation rose 12.3 percent on average, compared to 3.5 percent for the typical American worker. Ciulla notes that Paywatch, a trade union group, estimates that in 1999 the average CEO's compensation was 326 times that of the average factory worker.

Indentured servants worked as slaves under terms of contracts -- usually four to seven years in length -- after which time they became free. Redemptioners were mostly German and Swiss families who sailed to the North American continent, then were forced to work several years in servitude to pay off the balance of their passage.

African slaves were preferred by Southern planters, in part because they had no contracts but were owned outright. By 1860, there were 4.4 million African slaves in the United States, Ciulla writes.

And, she adds, slavery hasn't completely disappeared. As recently as 1997, police raided a slave auction in Milan, Italy, where half-naked women from countries in the former Soviet republics stood on auction blocks, fetching $500 to $1,000 each from brothel owners.

Ciulla traces two milestones that forever changed the employer-employee relationship: the advent of labor unions, beginning in the late 19th century, followed by the theories of Frederick Winslow Taylor. He wrote "The Principles of Scientific Management," in which he outlined how jobs could be specialized and streamlined so employers could get the most bang for their buck.

From here, Ciulla moves on to the alienation of workers -- both in corporate America and in blue-collar jobs -- and management responses that include sensitivity training, anger consultants and consciousness raising.

  MESSAGE BOARD
graphic Is the modern business phenomenon of downsizing something you're dealing with? Talk with us about it.
 

It was in the 1990s, Ciulla writes, that the American worker was betrayed -- first, by massive, corporate downsizing that saw tens of thousands of people laid off, even the prototypical "organization man" who had given his all to the company year after year.

"When they lost their jobs, they lost everything," Ciulla writes, "income, benefits, friends, reputation, and sometimes even family. Their years of work didn't deliver what they thought the organization had promised. They'd had an unwritten social compact with their employer that if they did their job well, they could keep it until retirement."

The second betrayal, Ciulla writes, occurred when company CEOs began pocketing salaries and bonuses bordering on the obscene. About one in 10 CEOs had pay packages worth $20 million in 1998, she writes. And between 1997 and 1998, executive compensation rose 12.3 percent on average, compared to 3.5 percent for the typical American worker. Ciulla notes that Paywatch, a trade union group, estimates that in 1999 the average CEO's compensation was 326 times that of the average factory worker.

Ciulla writes that workers' silence in response to downsizing, pay inequities, benefits reductions and increased workloads in recent years "is deafening."

Why? They're cynical, she writes.

"Cynics are much harder to work with than revolutionaries because they don't believe in anything, they don't band together into unions and they don't protest. Instead they stage silent strikes of passive resistance and sneer as they cash their paychecks."

No way out

Ciulla offers no simple solutions to all this, because, she writes, there are none. She does urge employers to be more honest with workers, even about subjects such as future layoffs. "Honest work means telling painful truths and preparing others for them," she writes. "Basically, it's 'treating workers like adults.'"

She also asserts that some well-meant benefits offered by employers to help their workers balance work and life -- on-site day care, personal shoppers during the holidays -- aren't such a hot idea. Ultimately they make employees more dependent on employers, she writes. "In an environment where employment is precarious, it is important for people to be connected to activities and organizations unrelated to work."

graphic
Joanne B. Ciulla  

Today, Ciulla writes, "Earning a decent living is not enough; we want something more. This 'something more' has challenged employers to find ways of motivating people who want jobs that satisfy a variety of abstract desires and needs, such as self-development and self-fulfillment.

"So managers, consultants and psychologists guess at employees' needs and develop programs and rhetoric that carry the implicit promise of fulfilling them. This results in a vicious circle: Employees desire more, management promises more, and the expectation for finding meaning in work rises. Both sides grope in the dark, searching for a workplace El Dorado.

"We have let work dominate us because it organizes our lives and it has obvious built-in rewards. But one can only marvel at the possibilities for work and life, once those who 'long for something more' figure out what that 'something' is and choose to pursue it."

graphic

 

RELATED STORIES:
Overworked, overwrought: 'Desk rage' at work
November 15, 2000
Dual earners: Double trouble
November 13, 2000
Mirror on management
October 31, 2000
Freelancers happier than wage earners
October 31, 2000
Job satisfaction: Oxymoron?
October 23, 2000

RELATED SITES:
U.S. Department of Labor
Families and Work Institute
Times Books/ Random House Trade Group


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