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The Tools of Disempowerment - Unplugged

Part 2

How to get members involved in union reform is a question that is high on the screen for union reformers. The conventional wisdom suggests that factors such as high turnover rates in certain industries, the growth of part time and casual jobs and dispersal of members across broad geographic areas tend be the major impediments to member involvement. Those are contributing factors to be sure but we're not sure that they're the root causes. The roots of the problem are deeper. They lie in the disempowering organizational cultures that exist within the workplace and in undemocratic unions. For union reformers, raising awareness about unhealthy cultures and their disempowering "tools" may be a necessary first step on the path to union reform. Once we are aware of how the environment is hurting us, we can take steps to neutralize the effects or to shield ourselves. In this second of a multi-part series, we examine the disempowering nature of the workplace. A lot of what we take for granted is holding us back.

It All Starts at the Employee Entrance

Messages about our worth and worth-lessness

In our earlier article we spoke generally about the need to look at unhealthy organizational cultures for some of the more deeply rooted and hidden obstacles to union reform. Specifically, those that prevent exploited workers from becoming actively involved in the reform movement. Cultures that harbour belief systems that stereotype or diminish the worth of people based on characteristics like gender, race, age and so forth, impact on more than our ability to get hired or promoted. Within these environments there are subtle but constant "messages" that we are not as good as, not as smart as, not as deserving, not as worthy as certain others. These messages reinforce our sense of worth-lessness. The messages are generated through the "tools of disempowerment" (workplace practices and behaviors that directly or indirectly convey the message about our lower status). These affect our sense of self-worth, making us feel that we are worth-less than others. This sense of worth-lessens can affect our ability to engage in initiatives that require self-confidence, creativity, perseverance, courage - initiatives like standing up to our employers - and our unions. How does this happen? By instilling in us a sense of that we are worth-less, they make us feel power-less. If we feel powerless, then we are. Who wants to invest a lot of time, effort and resources into fighting battles with the power-full when we feel power-less?

Unhealthy cultures are multifaceted and have multiple sources. At the very root of the problem is the very nature of the workplace (the way that the workplace it is set up). The organization of the traditional workplace is unhealthy in that it places one group in a position of complete control and dominance over another. If the dominant group (management) harbours negative stereotype beliefs about members of the subordinate group (workers), that has a further disempowering effect. If the subordinate group is further disempowered by an unhealthy culture within its union - then the disempowering effect is magnified even more.

If we are on to something here, then union activists and union reformers alike need to consider the extent to which union members are fed double, triple and maybe mega-doses of disempowerment each day. They then need to consider what can be done to shut of the disempowerment equipment - where that's possible) and how to neutralize its effects (where it's not). Just as it may be the key to getting members involved in union reform. Indeed be the keys to getting members involved in union life, in union initiatives may also be hidden in the disempowering aspects of workplace culture.

The Tools Do Their Work

The unhealthy org cultures and their disempowering tools accomplish some things that reformers need to be aware of:

  1. They promote and reinforce beliefs about the worth-lessness of groups of people in multiple, ongoing and sometimes very subtle ways.
  2. Group members come to internalize and accept the subtle and continuous messages about their worth-lessness. Over time, they may become persuaded that this is the way it should be, that it is the normal order of things, that their lowly status is their own fault and that they don't deserve any better (if only they were smarter or more hardworking or more ambitious, they could belong to the dominant group).

The Disempowering Workplace

We need to understand that the very nature of the way that the workplace is set up is inherently disempowering for workers and reinforces notions of worth-lessness. Although we are here in the 21st century, the places where we work are set up along the same lines as the factories of the 19th century. Do you ever wonder why there are managers and workers? Why your job consists of a handful of simple tasks? Why you have to clock in and clock out? Why people are constantly measuring your "productivity"? These are industrial management concepts from over a century ago when the popular management theories of the day held that it was necessary to have a managerial class to direct, control and "do the thinking" and a worker class to obediently carry out simplified tasks. Control means disempowerment.

Most workers don't think much about why the workplace is set up the way it is - and few unions encourage this kind of thinking but a lot of what goes on in the workplace has a function - to control, to keep you from thinking, to keep you obedient, to keep you... anything but empowered.

It all starts at the "employee entrance". If you are a worker, you experience a rich array of reminders of your lower status as soon as you enter the workplace. Various standard workplace practices serve to reinforce the message that you are different than/lesser than. Practices such as punching a clock, employee entrances, dingy staff lunchrooms, uniforms, name tags, regimented schedules, having to account for all of one's time - set workers apart from management. Certainly these practices exist for various "business reasons", that's true - but their effect on workers is disempowering. The workplace is set up such that it appears to have two classes. (Management is not really a class however - it's a function - but that's a whole other article in itself). If you're in the lesser class, you're reminded of it - daily. Most of these reminders have been around since the industrial revolution but there are some recent innovations.

Here are a couple:

The use of video surveillance, electronic monitoring and "secret shoppers" (very common in the retail food and hospitality industries). The business reasons for the use of these "tools" are security, theft prevention, ensuring good customer service and so on. The subtle message, however, is that we don't trust you, you can't be trusted to do your job properly; you're lazy and need to be watched. Enforced cheerfulness policies that require workers to use their emotions in certain highly proscribed ways when interacting with customers. These are typically defended by employers as forming part of a "customer service" strategy. There's nothing wrong with common courtesy or good customer service, but that's really not what we're talking about here. Customer service policies that require workers to smile, make eye contact, engage in scripted small talk with customers are examples of "emotional labour" - a concept that requires the worker to enhance the status of others by lowering his or her own. These policies are especially common in the service industry and tend to affect women workers who occupy front line customer service jobs.

In addition to the "status lowering" effect of emotional labour, what messages do concepts like "smile school" send us? That we're so inept we can't even do something as simple as smile correctly? That we can't be trusted to get it right on our own? How humiliating it must be to be sent to "smile school".

It's real and it's all around you

Take a look around your workplace and see if you can spot practices, policies, and procedures, rules that apply to some and not to others. Forget for the moment that there may be a "business reason" for them (there probably is) or that management has the right to determine practices, rules and policies (it does). "That's the way we've always done it has been used to excuse a lot of harmful things throughout history. Why are there two (sometimes more) sets of rules? The bottom line is that the management theory in use in most workplaces today is founded on beliefs about workers being lazy, untrustworthy, needing tight control, being lesser than. Subordination is essential (that's why "insubordination" is one of the most serious workplace offenses). To be comfortably subordinate, one must feel that one is worth-less. A lot of tools are used to encourage these feelings in workers. That's how the power-full is able to stay that way.

And There's More...

Now take all this disempowering stuff and layer on even more disempowering stuff: Workplace cultures that treat you as worth-less not only by virtue of the work that you do but also on the basis of who you are. We'll get to that in our next piece.

Part 3

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