Update: Creating Publicly Valuable Outcomes in the Work Sphere

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Almost a year ago I blogged about my participation in a University of Minnesota conference on "Creating Public Value in a Multi-Sector, Shared-Power World" ("Implicit Public Values and the Creation of Public Value: The Importance of Work and the Contested Role of Labor Unions"). My conference paper has been going through the review process for a special issue of Public Administration Review. The referees all pushed me to take a stronger stand. Here is my new conclusion.

In any consideration of public values, public policies to create publicly valuable outcomes, and related issues, work is too important to be overlooked. My article therefore considers the range of public values on work. Some see work as a commodified, economic transaction best left solely in invisible hands of the labor market or in the visible hands of corporate and public sector managers. But this is an excessively narrow view of work and its importance. A more appropriate view embraces work as a fully human activity necessary for a community's reproductive as well as productive activities that has deep importance for our individual and collective material and psychological health as well as for the quality of democracy and other social relations (Boyte and Kari 1996; Budd 2011). Consequently, work must be seen as a public activity, and institutions such as labor unions are important and necessary for creating work-related publicly valuable outcomes.

In some cases, labor unions can add economic value, but their key contributions are toward economic fairness, not efficiency, as well as toward democratic values in the workplace and in society--that is, equity and voice more than efficiency. In these ways, the key values of organized labor and other worker advocates align with other perspectives that embrace definitions of public values that go beyond economic conceptions (Benington 2011; Bozeman 2007). Following Benington's (2011: 45) definitions, labor unions can contribute to social and cultural value ("adding value to the public realm by contributing to social capital, social cohesion, social relationships, social meaning and cultural identity, individual and community wellbeing") and political value ("adding value to the public realm by stimulating and supporting democratic dialogue and active public participation and citizen engagement"). And to tie this into broader philosophical traditions, it is the ideals of inherent human dignity rooted in secular, humanist, and spiritual belief systems, not the ideals of economic efficiency, that provide the moral foundation for preventing the complete commodification of workers in a materialist, utilitarian world (Budd 2004; Peccoud 2004).

However, the creation of publicly valuable outcomes is a complex, multi-layered process with many intersecting actors. While labor unions have a strong track record of success in promoting equity and voice when conditions are right, their ability to achieve equity and voice is highly contingent on the choices made by union leaders and other actors within particular socio-politico-economic contexts. Unfortunately, the current environment severely limits the U.S. labor movement's ability to create publicly valuable outcomes (Rosenfeld forthcoming). In the private sector, globalization as well as corporate financialization strategies to make profits through financial transactions rather investing in their workforces have eroded labor's bargaining power while legislative campaigns organized by the American Legislative Exchange Council and other conservative groups have further weakened unions through the passage of right-to-work laws and other policies. While there are pockets of vibrancy, private sector union density has dropped to less than 10 percent. Public sector union density has been more stable at around 37 percent, but public sector unions lack bargaining rights in many jurisdictions and have also been put on the defensive in recent years, especially by Republican governors rescinding or aggressively limiting bargaining rights for state employees in Indiana, Missouri, Wisconsin, and elsewhere.

It is therefore not a surprise that labor's share of national income has been falling, not only in the United States but on a worldwide basis (International Labor Organization 2013). So how to create publicly valuable outcomes in the key sphere of work? A host of public policies could promote a better balance between efficiency, equity, and voice (Befort and Budd 2009). Organized labor could experience an upsurge (Clawson 2003). Worker centers and other new, typically community-focused, institutions of worker voice--what has been called "alt-labor" (Eidelson 2013)--can seek gains for nonunion workers through education, protest, lobbying, lawsuits, and other means, especially in situations where formal union recognition is very difficult to achieve.

But these and other methods for creating work-related publicly valuable outcomes are unlikely to be sustained on a wide-scale until there is a stronger consensus on public values that recognize the deep private and public importance of work. As we have seen, however, these public values are highly contested. Analytically, contrasting perspectives on work-related public values are rooted in different assumptions about how the employment relationship works and in different values on the purpose of work. So making these assumptions explicit in order to gain a deeper understanding of the alternative perspectives is valuable for improving the quality of the discourse around work-related public values. In practice, however, there is more at stake than improved discourse. Each of the alternative perspectives prioritizes certain interests over others so debates over public values in the work sphere are inseparable from conflicts over economic, political, and normative power and the resulting material outcomes.

Consequently, there are many voices seeking the moral legitimacy and social support to define public values on work in sharply divergent terms, and the resulting implications for shaping markets, laws, and institutions means that the clashes between different value systems are intense. But the public importance of work for individuals, their families, and our societies is too important to let these challenges deter the quest for publicly valuable outcomes consistent with our public values, whether through the reinvention of traditional labor unions or the development of new organizations and institutions.

Note: to see the details of the references and/or read more, you can download the complete paper.

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About this Blog

Whither Work? is a blog about work created by John Budd. I am a professor of Work and Organizations in the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, and the author of several books including The Thought of Work. Follow me on Twitter: @JohnWBudd.