The Employee’s Leverage
Statements such as the following are so foreign to my way of seeing things that there must be some fundamental question at the bottom of the difference:
To understand how we got here, first consider the Ben Franklin-Horatio Alger-Henry Ford ur-myth: To balk at working hard — really, really hard — brands you as profoundly un-American. All well and good. But today, the driver is no longer American industriousness. It’s something more predatory. As Rutgers political scientist Carl Van Horn told the Associated Press recently: “The employee has no leverage. If your boss says, ‘I want you to come in the next two Saturdays,’ what are you going to say — no?”
Employees should have plenty of leverage. The company has already invested in their training. They’ve got institutional knowledge and contacts that take time to develop and that could help competitors even more than just as a matter of training, not the least because employees could take clients and other valuable employees with them. Smart employers also need to protect organizational moral and sense of community purpose.
Never mind that bosses are actually human beings with emotions and moral senses, too.
Leverage comes in making one’s self of value. This applies in greatest to degree to star employees, but even those who are merely competent are more valuable than they probably realize — the workforce is full of laziness, dishonesty, cantankerousness, and other qualities that could harm a business’s operations. If people want jobs that allow them never to have the courage to stand up to managers on an individual basis, then that comfort is going to come at a price.
Admittedly, multiple factors have made such courage more difficult. For one, prices have adjusted to the assumption of two-income households. For another, we’ve waded into a swamp of new necessities — from cell phones to expensive higher education — without which we think our lives would be incomplete. (It’s one thing to see such things as tools to increase personal value; it’s another to think them necessities for which funding must be found.) For a third, government regulations have decreased the ability of employees to take their institutional and occupational knowledge and start off on their own to compete.
That’s where this difference in perspective becomes so critical: In the solutions that we believe will alleviate the situation. If employees are helpless cogs, then one will call for more government regulation of employers, more forceful confiscation, and more empowerment of third-party labor organizations. If employees are the company’s and the nation’s most valuable asset — merely boxed in by cultural and regulatory factors — then one will call for changes in those areas.
The authors of the above-linked essay, Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery don’t dive into the former pool, but the only solution that they describe (actually, the beginning of a solution) is to complain to friends and coworkers. Such communication could be a first step in either direction, but it too often precedes the next step of voting for officials who promise to tilt the playing field rather than the next step of standing up too the boss.