Thank you, Shannon Mulcahy for sharing your story with us. And thank you, Farah Stockman for listening carefully to Shannon and making her story known.
To the readers of this BLOG, please read the enclosed NY Times article in its entirety.
This is the national conversation that we are not having…life at work ought to be the foundation of democracy. The largest percentage of people in our society aged 18-70 go to work every day, every day of their lives. Whether they are in a workplace outside of their home or at home, peoples’ lives are consumed with work. Their innate energy and curiosity are expended for most of their waking hours through work.
I’d suggest that when all that energy is expended each day while the relationship of that work is not connected to a sense of participation and contribution, but only to survival, we have the comprehensive answer to the failure of democracy. Add to this a question: “and what happens when survival appears to be slipping away?”
That sense of not being able to survive is deep in this story of Shannon. She was born with the innate energy and curiosity that all of us are born with. The abusive environment in which she grew up is also common, and a growing reality in our society.
Yet, the myth remains: regardless of the hand one is dealt, it must be played…and the fruits of our democracy will pay off.
Recently, more and more publications and research show that what is known as industrial democracy, or liberal democracy, or pluralistic democracy is being rejected in favor of both Right and Left forms of populism. All these labels and definitions are beside the point. What matters most in my view is that people’s lives are being used up, and their ability to do anything about it is our great tragedy as a society.
Shannon Mulcahy is 43 years old which means that she was born in 1974 or precisely when the well documented and well known social reality of today began in earnest: that the American working family has not had a raise since that year. When we adjust for inflation, we know that most Americans are living on the same wage as then, though the cost of everything in life has skyrocketed ever since. This is but one indicator of the structural tragedy that has befallen a nation, which the New York Times has called “America the Vulnerable”.
Her story is both interesting and not uncommon: she was able to find some happiness and stability through her work. Though her personal relationships were neither emotionally or financially supportive, she was able to grow in her work, to learn, to feel a sense of accomplishment and contribution, and at the same time earn a living.
As a woman in a largely man’s world of manufacturing, she had the added fulfillment of breaking the stereotype and the sense of pride that came with that. But, instead of being able to share that pride and accomplishment, the culture remained hostile to her gender as anything other than subservient, second class. Yet, within her sense of self, she learned to do more than survive. She found life in work, and work in life.
Social reality is in that life, all of our lives. Shannon’s story shows the profound disconnection between life at work and life in social reality. It turned out that none of her learned skills and experience in machining a beautiful and essential human invention meant anything. When the corporation she worked for 25 years decided to close its doors in search of lower labor costs in Mexico, she was literally powerless to do anything about it. All of her life’s energy and curiosity that enabled her to feel that she was attaining a state beyond survival, was torn from her heart and soul.
When she was asked to train her replacement she volunteered to do so. This was an act that set her apart from her co-workers who would not. She did not do this because she loved the complex and volatile machinery she learned to master. Rather, she did it because she knew how it worked, and if it was going to continue to work in Mexico with the hands of another human being , she wanted to contribute to that continuity, to that purpose, to that part of her life that gave her a sense of contribution and participation in something greater than herself.
Shannon’s story as told by Farah Stockman is the most common story in the nation. It is a story of life and work having no value in the social reality in which life is lived and work is performed.
56 years ago, Robert Paul Wolff foresaw our present crisis. The populism of Left and Right, which Shannon expresses in her quiet support for Donald Trump throughout the article must be seen as a call to re-define and re-tool democracy.
“Pluralism (the accurate term for what we call industrial democracy), is humane, benevolent, accommodating, and far more responsive to the evils of social injustice than either egoistic liberalism or the traditional conservatism from which it grew. But pluralism is totally blind to the evils which afflict the entire bodily politic and as a theory of society obstructs considerations of precisely the sorts of thoroughgoing social revisions which may be needed to remedy those evils. Now, however, new problems confront America, problems not of distributive injustice, but the common good. We must give up the image of society as a battleground of competing groups, and formulate an ideal of society more exalted than mere acceptance of opposed interests and diverse customs. There is a need for a new philosophy of community, beyond pluralism…”, Robert Paul Wolff, A Critique of Pure Tolerance, 1961.
Shannon’s love and appreciation of her work ought to be the source of our democracy. Every workplace makes up the constituents of our democracy, yet the time, energy, and curiosity of time spent in the workplace has nothing to do with democracy, nothing at all.
Have we accepted as faith that the pluralistic interactions of competing interests will always create the means for well lived lives? It would seem that social scientists and social reality are telling us the same thing, that Shannon and millions like her are looking for something different.
Think of this…
That all workplaces in all sectors of the economy were expected to come to grips with social reality and shape it for the common good: with technology, education, training, wages, benefits, product development, quality, efficiency, relations with customers, inventory, research and development, trade, safety and ultimately purpose. Now that would be something to look forward to in a day’s work, for the outcomes of such joint communication, learning, and behaviors would be tied to a sense of direction for the nation…that the purpose of sectors of the economy would be designed to alleviate the crushing impossibility of the government’s efforts to alleviate the suffering of people and our environment, but government would be seen for what it is supposed to be: participation for the common good.
These are old utilitarian ideals and ideas. John Dewey led a movement to create free public education not so much based on the idea that we needed to train a workforce to work, but rather to create the highest potential in human beings:
We need Shannon Mulcahy to be able to go beyond the fine tuning and flawless operation of a complicated machine and be given the opportunity every day to determine the purpose of the work, or the development of new purpose with new products, and the effective transition from one kind of production to another.
We need housing. We need healthcare. We need social security. We need meaningful work. We need time to rest and enjoy life.
We need to create a social reality from the social experience of every worker in every workplace.
Shannon Mulcahy’s energy and curiosity got her a raw deal. She had nothing to say about it. Blame low wages in Mexico if you want, but as we learned in the article some Mexican workers learned that taking Shannon’s job was no great deal either.
Let there be a grand new experiment in democratic participation in our workplaces. Shannon Mulcahy is everywhere and in all of us.
Waste is our biggest problem, and it is a problem that by definition is completely preventable. In the 20% of our economy that is healthcare, we know that at least half of our annual expenditure is wasted: on fraud and abuse, on overcharging and high administrative cost, on missed opportunities for prevention of illness and injury, on redundant and unnecessary procedures, and on errors. That’s $2 trillion in waste that could be eliminated if we focused our attention together. Instead, our national debate is about cutting costs and now turning back the clock to actually deny access to care.
These contradictions in healthcare are pretty obvious to most providers in the industry, yet we are slow to be on a trajectory of waste elimination and the creation of a system that everyone knows they need and want; universal high quality access to affordable care.
When it comes to the broader social reality of the relationship of people’s lives, work, participation, and purpose, we have not even begun the discussion. The waste is even more extreme:
Our environment is collapsing
Our infrastructure is collapsing
Our lives are collapsing
Our democracy is collapsing.
Shannon has fought for most of her life to not have it wasted. She found her purpose and participation in the elegance of a job well done.
Waste no more.