"A Shameful Business" by James Gross


…more is required for a life to be truly human than enough food and drink, clothing and shelter to survive… A fully human life also requires rights to meaningful work and to safe and healthful conditions of work; to pay sufficient to ensure a life of human dignity for a worker and his or her family; protection against unemployment; the right to form and join labor unions; and the ownership of property alone or in association with others. In sum, people need to exercise both political and civil rights and economic rights in order to live fully human lives.
— from “A Shameful Business”


“What do you do for a living?” That commonly-asked question — one of the first things we like to know about someone — shows how the economic role we play is bound up with our personal identity. “Making a living” is an essential part of being alive, and the dependence on work to provide for food, shelter and other necessaries often causes eople to accept dangerous or disagreeable working conditions. In some cases, the perils clearly come with the territory — mining, farming, fire fighting and many other careers are inherently risky. But according to Dr. James A. Gross, professor of labor law in Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR), there are workplace perils beyond the physical in many occupations and many parts of the world, including the United States. The demands of the industrial age — satirized in Charlie Chaplin’s 1935 movie “Modern Times” — still account for personal stress, injury and even death.

In his new book “A Shameful Business: The Case for Human Rights in the American Workplace”, Dr. Gross observes conditions throughout the American businessstructure, from physical hazards that fall under the authority of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to the evasive visions of participatory management. The obligation of a business to make a profit and the authoritarian attitudes of some managers may turn workers into just another cog in the wheel. Gross is a supporter of labor unions but is critical of unions that tend to accept such common business policies as employment-at-will (the notion that the company “owns” and controls a job). He also finds the prevailing philosophy of the human resources field to be unsupportive of true human rights in the workplace.

James Gross hopes to turn both labor and management toward a respect for human rights and he bases his standards on the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, promulgated in 1948 with the strong support of the United States. Several of its articles deal specifically with working conditions and preservation of the dignity of labor:

Article 23
(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Professor Gross has studied and supported human rights in the workplace for forty years. His books include a trilogy on the National Labor Relations Board and he was editor of the 2003 anthology “Workers’ Rights as Human Rights”. He is also a labor arbitrator with a specialization in sports arbitration and has dealt with disputes in Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League.

James Gross joins Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to speak about the high standards of human rights and the everyday world of work.

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