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A Worker’s Worth

A review of Eve Tracy Coker's A Worker's Worth.

Published onJul 07, 2020
A Worker’s Worth

N.B.: This review is currently being edited and revised as part of the Critical Theory Workshop’s Critique: Past, Present, Future Working Group (Groupes de travail). It will be published in the forthcoming (Vol. III, Summer 2020) print issue of San Antonio Review.

Dr. Eve Tracy Coker is the first person I befriended on the Internet — about a quarter of a century ago. It’s my pleasure to read and comment upon her first book, A Worker’s Worth.1 In it, she reviews findings from her research into meaning in work for Millennials and encourages managers to effectively communicate to employees that they value them.

Subtitling her work, The Connection Between Human Value and Employee Performance, Tracy aims to explain how employers and managers can develop more productive and loyal workers by communicating value. Employers must make employees feel valued if they are to motivate employees to give their all.

Even modern-day socialists are often explicit in explaining that the exploitation at work in capitalism isn’t the result of mere selfish, unhinged greed of a few capitalists. They try to make clear — often overdoing it in the process — that business owners and other titans of capital only operate the way they do because of the cutthroat nature of the system.

Tracy touches on various ways managers can communicate value to employees. Fortunately,

[P]eople still like recognition, especially if they’ve given their loyalty, time, extra effort, creativity, and made sacrifices for the company. . . . Even though intrinsic motivations (like satisfaction of a job well done) may be seen as some of the most powerful forms of motivation, extrinsic rewards (like pay increases or gifts) can help. Pay increases, bonuses, or other forms of financial reward can help employees pursue their intrinsic goals.

They can do more than help. After so many years of stagnant wages and increasing costs, they’re necessary.

In September 2019, the Census Bureau reported income inequality to be at the highest level since the agency started tracking it over 50 years ago.2 A month earlier, the Economic Policy Institute found that the average annual pay of chief executive officers at the United States’ 350 largest companies grew over 1,000 percent from 1978 to 2018 while the average workers’ pay grew by less than 12 percent.3 In between, the Business Roundtable (re)revised their statement of purpose to include investing in employees (though some wealthy scoundrels and Trump administration officials like Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin disagree with the move.)

If the goal for managers is to better communicate to workers the degree to which they sincerely value them and their contributions, a fundamental prerequisite is that those managers “maintain standards of ethical action and respect of the dignity of human life.”4 You cannot even begin to value another person if you won’t acknowledge their inherent right to exist. This is easy to understand, and Tracy doesn’t attempt to make it sound complex or beat one over the head with the message.

As I would expect from her, Tracy brings Star Trek in to help, with Kirk’s aphorism in The Search for Spock that “the needs of the one outweighs [sic] the needs of the many.” It is the recognition of a responsibility to respect individuals simply because they are unique human beings always developing –— personally and morally. It is important we recognize that you can — and should — “make moral decisions based on how much you emotionally value your relationship with a person and the responsibilities you hold toward that person.”5 Responsibilities shouldn’t need to be written into a contract.

The book is a reminder of the need for relationships of value in all spheres of life. It also points to the larger social changes that need to occur to facilitate that value in a recognizable, sustainable way.

Through a discussion of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Tracy stresses that employers are key to workers’ realizing their full potential. Given their employees are toiling over 40 hours a week to keep them in business, this should be clear. She also recognizes the symbiotic relationship between work and life: a healthy professional life encourages healthy personal, public, civic and other lives, and vice versa.

When Tracy brings Maslow into the discussion, I find myself pondering my undergraduate introduction to philosophy professor, Dr. William Zanardi, and his discussion of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, in which one moves from the bottom of the inverted triangle from merely seeking to prevent pain to oneself to, at the top, caring about doing what’s right in and of itself.

I’ve often considered the idea that Maslow and Kohlberg’s theories map onto one another quite well. As one progresses along the path of personal development, hopefully, he or she is also developing morally along the way. From the moral development perspective, with this book Tracy is trying to move employers from viewing employees on what is termed the preconventional and conventional levels — wherein we value social norms and law-and-order while continuing to avoid pain in our self-seeking — to the far edge of the post-conventional level based on an acknowledgment of one’s moral responsibility to universal ethical principles and fundamental responsibility to others.

Pay does not come from profit. Pay is a cost of doing business. It is factored in from the beginning. The company does not depend on making a profit. There are plenty of large, well-known businesses currently operating at a loss for many years.6 Don’t be fooled into thinking you’re paid out of the profits, so it’s in your best interest to maximize them. While, logically, it seems only to make sense that your pay would increase if profits increase, in reality, the owners and shareholders pocket that extra income and you get left working as a Walmart greeter to get by in your 70s. The utilitarian “it only makes sense economically” thinking is more harmful than helpful. Economics is not a set of values on which to base your life’s actions.

Tracy notes that, “When workers felt valued, they were able to find positive meaning in their jobs, even if they claimed to only be there to collect a paycheck.”7 Do we find that surprising? Even those laboring in fields you or I would find harsh, boring, exhausting, mind-numbing, can find meaning and pleasure and value in creating for themselves, their families and their coworkers a daily existence that isn’t those things at all. A family farm can be as enriching as a Manhattan day school, if given the right resources, attitudes and people.8

An important complement to Tracy’s book — and one that aims to solve what I think may be this book’s biggest weakness by not engaging with fundamental structures that define, limit, enable and force our current understanding of firms beyond explaining the importance of empathy to bosses — is Isabelle Ferreras’ Firms as Political Entities.9 Whether or not one agrees with Ferreras’ overall argument regarding economic bicameralism, she clearly reminds us,

The idea that workers ought to have the right to participate in governing the institutions in which they experience a significant part of their lives and to which they contribute even more . . .”10

In the 1960s, French President Charles de Gaulle proposed,

There is a third solution: it is participation, which changes the condition of man in modern civilization. As soon as people work together toward a common economic goal, for example, to make an industry function, by contributing either the necessary capital; or executive, managerial, or technical capability; or labor, what happens is that they form a firm together, a firm whose productivity and proper functioning are the interest of all, in the direct interest. This implies a portion of what the business makes and invest in itself through its gains should be attributed to each person by the law. It also implies that everyone ought to be adequately informed of the firm’s workings, and bale, through representatives they have all freely named together, to participate in the firm and its boards and councils, to have their interests, opinions, and proposals heard.11

Employers once built towns for their workers. Now, we’re lucky if they offer to pay our insurance premiums.

In fact, a lack of awareness of the forms of employee involvement in firm management and government throughout time and space also hinders the development of true sharing of value in the employer-employee relationship. Focusing on U.S.-based employment and labor practices forecloses on different existing practices and makes convincing firm leadership even more difficult. If we can point to existing successful co-government arrangements, our fight for a voice in our employment is made easier.12

“Some people do follow a calling, such as being a social worker or a teacher, and this ideally provides them with a sense of fulfillment despite low pay and stressful job environments.”13 Sadly, professional fulfillment means nothing if you can’t fill your own belly.

Those who do feel value from their jobs — teachers, nurses, first responders and others — are systemically undervalued as well, even if only viewed from an economic perspective. Their value-add is far more than their annual take-home pay. As David Graeber notes in Bullshit Jobs, society seems to punish those who seek productive, clearly valuable employment.14

While she goes on to acknowledge that people must “help themselves,” workers hardly need reminding that they’re responsible for themselves and their families. It would be far more useful for the wealthy and privileged to recognize their responsibility to help others, too. And that is, ultimately, what this book is trying to do.

“While we demand that people are held responsible for their behavior, we can also build a world where we attempt to understand and meet the needs of others: Personal responsibility and sensitivity can co-exist.”15 More than coexist, each are terminal without the other.

Sometimes you do good things because they’re good — not profitable or efficient but, rather, effective at solving human problems. The vagaries of life and the wearies of the mass of humans stop being variables in a London School of Economics classroom equation and become for the free-market simpleton the dark, tangled, illogical reality we live in. When all concerns but effectiveness fall away, value is given oxygen.16

Tracy touches on other popular professional self-help notions — such as “flow” — but pop professional pro tips are, thankfully, largely absent from her book. She largely leaves out notions claiming unsustainable, mindless, repetitive work can be made Zen-like, such as, “once we can completely immerse ourselves in something that we’re doing, we find meaning in the activity simply for its own sake.” Bullshit.

Of course, as precarious gig economy jobs and remote working lifestyles continue to grow (especially amid COVID-19 and shelter-in-place orders), the further disconnect between employers and managers and their workers will present new complications to the communication of value. How does an app-based delivery company most effectively convince its drivers they’re more than soon-to-be jettisoned sentient-physical-control cogs in their — venture capital-subsidized and thus far profit-less — capitalist efforts to undermine stable, unionized public and private transportation options? (The profit comes when you have no other but Uber or Lyft.) They may be able to convince those with limited critical thinking abilities that the offer to rent the car you drive for work at a cost greater than your monthly rent is a saving grace in a world converted to debt-driven asset-based by neoliberal economists, policymakers and politicians, but it isn’t true empathy.

The biggest question this book probably suggests is: why is it needed? Don’t we already know all this?

I would argue that, yes, we do. However, we’ve yet to even begin putting the insights into practice. Tracy is doing the same thing I (and likely so many others) have been doing, which is bringing attention to the known-but-ignored solutions that can be found if we treat one another as worthwhile beings (I step away from “humans” and its anthropocentrism here) instead of economic actors.

This repetition and reiteration of our basic beliefs in decency, fairness, justice, freedom, equality and democracy are what this book fulfills. We watch the right spout absolute nonsense even at their most reasonable (see “Market Urbanism”) day and night.17 It must be countered with reasoned reflection.

It’s too easy for managers and employers to overlook the daily struggles of working people. As Tracy writes,

Whereas leaders’ needs are often about the best interests of the company, which they can command from a more relaxed position of power, the employees’ goals are frequently more geared towards paying bills, getting through their daily tasks, and living a meaningful life. It’s up to the leadership to help them understand how the company can contribute to that meaningful life through meeting the employees’ needs. When the employee feels as though the betterment of the company can contribute to meeting their own needs, they are going to be more able to invest themselves into the goals of the company, extending themselves beyond the goals of self-preservation related to feeding their families and preserving their sense of self-worth.

While she doesn’t examine the larger economic context — the fundamental exploitation necessary for capitalism, the extraction of unpaid-for surplus value from workers as profit for the owner; the necessity of a reserve army of unemployed labor; lack of social safety nets to prod the resistant — that prevents value from being felt by workers, it is nonetheless an important work.

As she writes in the book, “People who live with privilege may struggle to see the current inequity that exists for those who deal with it on a regular basis, which only adds more stress to those who deal with inequality and are trying to explain how they need help in their struggle.”

Like characters in Vernon Subutext, those already well off seem to believe that,

People with ordinary jobs are lucky. Because they don’t have the same responsibilities for a start. Never done a tap of work, . . . but as far as [they’re] concerned the unemployed are feckless wasters afraid of good hard graft. And it’s sincere – they think everything is based on merit. Logically, those who have less deserve less. They’re convinced that if they ended up unemployed tomorrow, with their neatly combed hair and their positive attitude, they’d find a job straight away and since they’d work hard and be deserving, they would climb the greasy pole. The rich are still banging on about merit. It’s wild.18

Work like Tracy’s may reach one more person and help them, personally, realize “why it matters to care about other people.” When it comes down to it, that’s how we end up with a better society: one person at a time.





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