Here’s a puzzle: Many conservatives who praise marriage and its values of fidelity, protection, and commitment seem to forget those values when it comes to another institution that gives our life meaning—work.
When it comes to marriage, for instance, many conservatives support state covenant laws that make it harder for couples to divorce by limiting the grounds on which they can do so. While opponents of covenant laws argue that they can be used to endanger domestic violence victims, many conservatives dismiss such claims as being more theoretical than real, arguing that laws that make it harder to dissolve the bonds of marriage are good for society.
But if marriage commitments are beneficial to their partners and to society at large, so too are workplace commitments between employers and employees. Most people spend more hours at work than they do with their spouses, after all, and many give as much devotion. Recognition, respect, and economic security should be basic to both—or should, at least, be achievable goals. Laws should also be in place to make it harder for employers to get rid of their workers for no valid reason—getting older, for instance—or to refuse to provide well-deserved economic support after years of service.
It’s puzzling that conservatives who have little hesitation about using laws to encourage the obligations of marriage take a hands-off, laissez-faire approach when it comes to work. In fact, it’s worse than that. Many conservative legislators, activists, and judges are actively trying to weaken laws that protect workers or get rid of those laws altogether, while they aim to raise barriers against worker fairness and justice.
Conservative justices on the Supreme Court, for instance, have made it harder for older workers who were demoted or fired because of age to sue their companies on the basis of age discrimination. In a 5-4 decision, the court raised the standard so that fired workers now have to prove that their age was the “crucial factor” in being fired, not just one of several. That makes it relatively easy for companies to come up with a list of reasons that allegedly led to a firing—and makes it much more difficult for workers, who have far fewer resources, to successfully prove age discrimination.
In addition, many conservatives have been lax in safeguarding the dignity and economic security of workers. Many oppose labor unions that provide workers with decent pay, benefits, and working conditions, as well as job security and a voice in workplace practices. In Tennessee, Sen. Bob Corker (R) has been fighting the unionization of a Volkswagen plant, even though both workers and management favor it. Furthermore, conservative activist Grover Norquist, through his organization Americans for Tax Reform, has flooded state and national media with anti-union news articles and organized Tea Party members and others in a campaign to defeat union efforts and keep Tennessee a right-to-work state.
Many conservatives have resisted efforts to safeguard workers’ safety and health by trying to weaken the regulatory power of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, and to change “mandatory worker-safety programs into voluntary-based efforts by employers.” According to a recent report by the AFL-CIO, OSHA has fewer than 2,000 inspectors who are responsible for more than 8 million workplaces, which means that there is one inspector for every 66,776 workers. “At its current staffing and inspection levels,” the report says, “it would take federal OSHA 131 years to inspect each workplace under its jurisdiction just once.”
Weak laws have threatened the economic security of retired workers by allowing companies to renege on funding pension plans. Earlier this year, a bankruptcy judge in St. Louis permitted Patriot Coal to dump its legal obligations to retirees and their widows, cutting off their health care and pension benefits. A number of the retired workers have black lung disease from years of working in the mines. And two years ago, Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) aimed to weaken public pensions in his state for teachers and other public servants by falsely claiming that cash-strapped taxpayers were funding much of their retirement.
When a marriage ends in divorce, alimony provides financial support to a spouse whose unpaid or underpaid labor and time cared for the family unit and aided the partner’s career. Alimony aims to rectify an unequal financial situation and recognize the value of the spouse whose efforts boosted the earnings potential of his or her partner.
One could argue that unemployment insurance is the workplace equivalent of alimony—albeit a weak one that doesn’t begin to rectify the gap between employer and worker pay. The CEO of Walmart, for instance, made $23.15 million last year, which is 1,034 times more than half of his workers. They made less than $22,400, which is below the federal poverty level for a family of four. Unemployment insurance is lower still—the national average is less than $15,000. Even so, conservative lawmakers don’t seem interested in extending unemployment insurance beyond December for the 1.3 million Americans who have been unable to find a job in the past six months.
But just as the high earnings of many spouses are made possible by the efforts of their marriage partners, so are the astronomical earnings of CEOs made possible by the labor of their employees. The head of Walmart would be nothing without the 1.4 million workers selling Walmart merchandise and staffing Walmart stores. His salary comes from their work. Failing to recognize and decently reward that labor is not just insulting; it’s delusional.
It is perfectly fine for liberals, progressives, and conservatives to disagree about the amount of regulation that is needed in a free marketplace—and even about the pros and cons of today’s global economy. But what should unite us all is a desire to value loyalty and commitment, whether expressed in marriage or the workplace.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.