Work, Justice, and Social Responsibility

Alfred Adler’s Individual Psychology views human life in terms of social connectedness, and mental health in terms of how well we are meeting the tasks of life. Adler saw these tasks as falling into three main categories: Love and intimate relationships, friendships and social connections, and work. Adlerians view the task of work in terms of making a contribution to the community. This is much more than simply earning money, because it takes into account using your talent, energy, and effort to contribute to the common good.

Adlerians have always been sensitive to issues of social justice, because social interest – the innate feeling of wanting to belong and courage to meet the tasks of life – can be thwarted by conditions that prevent a child or adult from developing a sense of feeling equal and competent. Rudolf Dreikurs (the founder of Adler School of Professional Psychology) wrote a book titled Social Equality: The Challenge of Today back in the 1960’s. That challenge is still with us in the 21st century.

Another well-known figure in the field of psychology, Abraham Maslow, pointed out that people respond to their environment according to a “hierarchy of needs.” You may remember the pyramid figure from your general psychology course; at the bottom are survival and safety needs, in the middle are social needs, and at the top is self-actualization. In other words, we can’t focus on living our lives to the fullest if we have to worry about our basic safety and security.

All of this provides the background for Adlerians’ concern with issues of the world of work. My work in the employee assistance field has brought me into contact with many workers in many types of organizations. These have included health care workers, police and firefighters, manufacturing workers, teachers, laborers, people in the construction trades, administrators, lawyers, bank workers, and many others. As a result, I have developed a sense of appreciation and admiration for all the things that people do, and all they ways they make our community function. We used to make a point of teaching our children this message – remember “the people in your neighborhood” on Sesame Street?

I don’t know about you, but I felt that the current economic downturn was preceded by an economic boom that made me uneasy. More and more of our economic well-being was built not by adding human value to our society and world, but by creating paper wealth, This seemed to be accomplished more and more by making the true costs invisible – through exporting low wage jobs and drawing on resources in other parts of the world that came at an environmental or human cost we would not tolerate here in the United States.

All of this has led me to be sensitive to issues of work. The current fight in Wisconsin over collective bargaining for public sector employees seems to be crystallizing a larger crisis over work and justice. Many people whose financial situations have suffered stagnation and setbacks in the recent downturn are easily angered by the apparent relative generosity of some of the public unions’ contracts in the areas of retirement and health benefits. Others see this fight as part of a carefully planned campaign to deal a death blow to workers’ rights. In the midst of this, my eye was caught by a story in a local newspaper about warehouse workers who were being paid less than minimum wage by means of “piece work” pay structures. An organization called Warehouse Workers for Justice (founded with union backing) has been assisting these workers. Their effort is similar to the efforts of Interfaith Worker Justice – one of the Community Service practicum sites where Adler School students provide volunteer assistance.

It’s interesting that a number of these efforts around the world are supported by people of faith. These efforts are consistent with many faith traditions, and Interfaith Worker Justice includes people from Jewish and Muslim traditions as well as Christian denominations. One Catholic bishop in Australia gave a very interesting explanation of this in terms of Jesus’ parable of the vineyard workers. The vineyard owner was accused of being unfair to the workers who put in a whole day’s work, but (unlike our warehouse bosses who pay workers cheaply so that we can enjoy cheap flat screen TV’s at Wal-Mart), he understood that the workers who only put in an hour’s work were ready, willing, and able to work a whole day and should not have been denied a living wage simply because they had to spend much of the day waiting to be assigned rather than working.

Like many Christian parables, the message of this story is subtle yet important. Workers are participants in the economy, not simply resources that can be used or shelved as needs dictate. Another value emphasized here (one shared by people from many faith traditions) is that people have a basic right to live and to feel safe and secure, without the underlying worry and stress of being subjected to danger or disease, or not being able to make ends meet. Providing this basic level of security does not devalue the incentive for people to excel and prosper by means of a dynamic market. It just means that we have a responsibility to treat each other in a humane and respectful manner – and put aside our sometimes immature concerns about someone getting something that we don’t think is “fair.” The phrase that described that self-centered attitude 70 years ago was “I’ve got mine, Jack…” Hopefully, we have matured beyond that and gained some perspective since the last Great Depression.

 
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