When it comes to work, everyone’s got a story. Or, more likely, many stories. If you want to hear a tale, all you have to do is ask, “What was the first job you ever had?” “What was the worst job you ever had?” “How do you like your job now?” Usually, the worst experiences make the best stories.

Many of the things we do for pay seem absurd if we think about it, which is why the comic strip “Dilbert” has such a following, and why cynics say things like, “Work is the curse of the drinking classes.” One summer I worked on a road construction crew in Texas, a job that involved shoveling asphalt hot-mix off a truck on 100-degree days. We had a foreman named Odell, who supervised our labors during the day and then went on to what he called “that little ol’ light job,” which was a moonlighting shift as a janitor.

Those of us who are luckiest experience these kinds of jobs only in our early introduction to the world of work. “I first learned about work in Ontario,” John Kenneth Galbraith wrote several years ago, “while following a team across the fields, removing the winter accumulation of animal nutrients from the barnyard, and helping restore the tile drains in the fields below the house. This was work – and I deeply detested it.” In contrast, teaching at Harvard and writing books are “entertainments for which one might reasonably be required to pay and some would,” wrote the professor.

I wonder sometimes why there aren’t more people in journalism like Studs Terkel, who has made a career out of asking people about their work. So much of a person’s life is revealed when they talk about what they do on the job, how they feel about it, what it was like when they got promoted, or fired, or when they stood up to their boss, or when they quit without having something else lined up. Put enough of these stories together and they begin to make a portrait of our era.

What is it that happened to us–to our work lives–as the 1980s moved into the 1990s? Here is what a steelworker named Frank Lumpkin said in Terkel’s 1988 book The Great Divide:

They locked the gates at three-thirty with no notice, no nothin’. The company had just borrowed $80 million from the government to modernize the plant . . . . We figured we’d be out of work for a couple of months. That was seven years ago.

You can feel the lingering winds of the 1980s in such a story. Lumpkin had worked for Wisconsin Steel for 30 years. But when the steel mill shut down, he and his co-workers had to fight for seven years to get even a fraction of their pension money returned. Haven’t we heard so many versions of that tale in the last decade that we understand work differently now? At first the sweeping changes that were throwing long-time employees out of their jobs – and sometimes out of the middle class – seemed like an outrage. Now, I think, there is a resignation about it. We are all free-agents. No one’s job is guaranteed, not by a global blue-chip corporation, not by 30 years of service, not by a union contract.

These facts of economic life may be more widely accepted now, but there is also a simmering resentment that shows itself every once in a while. A few weeks after the grand announcement that Fleet Bank would buy BankBoston this spring, merging two of the region’s largest banks and cutting loose 5,000 or so superflous employees, The Boston Globe ran a full page of letters to the editor. What was striking was that no one seemed to have a good word to say about this combination of financial powerhouses. These were “the little people” writing in, so perhaps it’s of small concern, but it suggested a continuing annoyance, at the minimum, with the “bigger is better” juggernaut.

And in the world of politics, it’s easy to tap into people’s resentment of the captains of commerce. One of the things that sunk venture capitalist Mitt Romney’s challenge in 1994 against Senator Ted Kennedy was when Kennedy’s camp linked Romney to an ugly lock-out in Indiana that put a bunch of blue-collar people out of work. Fair or not, the charge was enough to sow doubt in the minds of voters as to whether Romney was one of those reviled “downsizer” types. In a similar way, the Teamsters union was able to score a surprising public relations victory when it went on strike against United Parcel Service in 1997. People seemed to side with the union. It turned out that the public had no trouble believing that UPS was treating its workers unfairly.

Other ways of talking about work and the workplace started to take hold in the 1990s. There is more talk about “the new world of work” and about the need for employees and companies to cooperate, and to find better ways to balance work and family commitments.

Robert Reich sketched a vision of “the 21st-century company” last fall in Fast Company magazine. “Companies are experimenting with a new operating system for the employer-employee relationship – one to replace the old set of practices that put employers and employees on the opposite sides of the table,” Reich reported. He wrote of businesses that are seeking to “create a way of working that is profoundly human and fundamentally humane” and to see that “collaboration and mutual advantage are the essence of the organization.”

Of course, we have heard about such revolutions before. The 1920s saw much talk of a new golden age of labor-management cooperation. Peter Drucker was writing about a more humane corporate workplace in the 1940s and ’50s. In The New Society (1950) Drucker urged workers to adopt a “‘managerial attitude’ toward their own work and toward the enterprise; they must look at it as their own and upon themselves as ‘citizens’ rather than as ‘subjects.'”

In Jack Beatty’s book The World According to Peter Drucker, the author gently reproves his subject on this count: “This is industrial citizenship on management’s terms.” And he makes a more important point about how theories have a way of getting swept aside by powerful economic realities. “The asymmetry of power between the enterprise and the worker, however, is as nothing next to the power the market wields over both – the best, union-accepting employer, the most responsible worker. The market knows no citizens and respects no values. Drucker’s industrial citizen is the subject of a tornado.”

Given the swirling winds in the market economy, how does today’s employee become more of a “citizen” in the workplace than a subject?

In “the new world of work,” it seems to be a matter of whether the worker can become a one-person marketing force – with his or her own talent being the hot commodity. In this world, unions are thought to be passé. The word “solidarity” has a musty odor, or a foreign accent – as in Solidarnosc.

But, of course, a lot of people still exist in the old world of work. Former Secretary of Labor Reich knows the stories of this old world as well as anyone. Here is one that was carried in the newspapers a few months ago: In a cafeteria at Fitchburg State College about 35 out of 45 employees signed cards expressing their desire to join a union – Local 1445 of the United Food and Commercial Workers. One might think that these employee-citizens would soon be members of the UFCW and then go on to negotiating a contract with their employer, which in this case is a private company that runs the cafeteria for the college. But instead, the employer rejected the union petition. Then 10 of the 35 workers who had signed the cards, including the leader of the organizing effort, were let go.

Firing workers who try to organize unions is illegal, but it has become a common and usually successful way for employers to fend off union drives. The national AFL-CIO says 10,000 people a year are fired for union activities, but the more important figure is how many people never bother to organize in the first place out of fear of getting fired, and there is no way to know what that figure is.

With only 14 percent of the work force unionized (16 percent in Massachusetts), the vast majority of us are “employees at will.” That means we are very fire-able, easily laid-off, and have no means of collectively addressing workplace complaints, unless we happen to have a reasonable boss with a tolerance for employee gripe-sessions. That means, in Drucker’s terms, we are “subjects,” not citizens. There is a class of employees now, as always, which is made up of people so talented, so technologically savvy, so in-demand, that they don’t feel like subjects. They could line up a new job tomorrow if they choose to spit that resume out of the laser-printer.

But I don’t think most people feel they are in that class.

Are most empolyees happy in “the world of work”? It depends on which stories we pay attention to.

Still, aren’t American employees satisfied enough with the bargains they strike as free-agents? Wouldn’t there be a lot more people joining unions if there were still a need for them? And even if people aren’t entirely satisfied, haven’t unions discredited themselves as tired, old, bureaucratic institutions that can no longer deliver for workers?

The answers depend on which stories we are paying attention to. If we listen to workers like those at the cafeteria at Fitchburg State, we realize that there are a lot of aspirations for better working conditions that are being stifled. But I think there is discontent at higher levels of the work force, too. More people are worrying, and are beginning to talk about, the need for a more “family-friendly” workplace.

In March, I attended a conference at Northeastern University on “Building a Family-Centered Labor Market Policy.” The organizing paper (written by Neeta Fogg and Paul Harrington of the Center for Labor Market Studies with Thomas Kochan of MIT) noted, “Today, working men and women find that they must increasingly trade off family activities with the demands of work.” With almost 78 percent of all mothers in New England now active participants in the labor market, the strategy that families are using to improve their material standard of living is to increase their annual hours of work. This is a concern Harvard economist Juliet Schor helped bring into national discussion in her 1992 book The Overworked American. (See CONVERSATION, CW, Spring 1999)

Many people believe there is still a role for unions in addressing these concerns, especially in winning agreements that make the workplace more tolerable. It is not improbable, in my view, that there is a stronger desire for unions than is reflected by the 14 percent figure. When obstacles to unionism are removed, people are more willing to join. That’s why the public sector has a higher unionization rate. And that’s why a much higher percentage of union drives succeed when the employer agrees not to oppose the effort. But how much higher would it be? Probably nowhere near the 35 percent unions had at their peak. The culture of individualism has remained strong. We’re all going to saddle up and ride the tornado.

The other part of the story that almost everyone has come to acknowledge in the 1990s is that unions didn’t do themselves any good by becoming fat, undemocratic, rigid, and sometimes corrupt over the last few decades. Instead of being attracted by the union ideal, many ordinary employees have been repelled by the union reality.

You probably could not find a more affectingly pro-union book than Which Side Are You On? (1991) by Thomas Geoghehan, a Chicago labor lawyer. “Dumb, stupid organized labor: this is my cause,” Geoghehan writes. “But too old, too arthritic, to be a cause. It was a cause, back in the thirties. Now it is a dumb, stupid mastodon of a thing, crawling off to Bal Harbour to die.” And that’s how a friend of unions puts it!

Anyone who decides to write honestly about organized labor soon finds one’s idealism imperiled. Still, Geoghehan insists that the old union song “Which side are you on?” has not been rendered moot by “the new world of work.” Employers will still mistreat employees, sometimes their unions will, too, but in the end one is either standing with the workers or with the bosses, in the Geoghehan view. This is one of the Great Divides in American politics. Can there be such a thing as replacing “the old set of practices that put employers and employees on the opposite sides of the table,” as Reich puts it? Can organizations live by principles of “collaboration and mutual advantage?” Or is it – the politics of labor – destined to be always a contest between natural adversaries?

Put that way, it’s an unanswerable question, I guess. For some who work for a living, progress will only come after a bruising fight. Others may reason their way to mutual, collaborative agreements. We all have our own sense of how the world works.

But I want to end on an optimistic note. For moments in our history, organized labor has been the kind of progressive force whose power led to dividends for the wider society. These days, the unions that have advanced fastest have been mostly the public employees’ unions. Even if we grant that unions will always thrive on an “us against them” politics, we know that there is something different when it comes to public employees. In the “which side are you on?” equation, the management side is the government – in other words, us. Of course, “the taxpayer” can sometimes be a surly and demanding boss to work for. But if the “worker as citizen” model can work anywhere, it ought to work in the public sector.

There are some deep and fascinating questions, for example, about how well the “industrial unionism” model works in the public school system. There is a public interest in removing incompetent teachers – the question is of an entirely different nature than whether a private business removes an incompetent employee. Yet teachers unions have a built-in compulsion to protect their members’ job security, often to the detriment of public education. One could argue, as well, that there is a public interest in lengthening the school day. And in setting up charter schools to see if new and better models for schools can flourish. But teachers unions oppose such changes. They act as a powerful agent to defend the status quo.

Which side are public employees’ unions on?

The public has a right to ask, “Which side are the teachers unions on?” Some leaders of teachers unions seem to exist in a dream world where everything that is in the immediate interest of their members is deemed to be in our interests. But there are also some union leaders, here and around the country, who are trying to think in new ways about their roles. Some are trying to find a path toward a less adversarial position and are experimenting with “collaborative bargaining” methods. (See “When Unions Rule the Schools“, CW, Spring 1999.) And in Boston, the teachers union has agreed to participate in “pilot school” experiments, in which teachers are still unionized and covered by wage agreements but are freed up from a range of other union work rules.

There are arguments to be made that the flexibility shown by some unions does not go far enough; there is a proposal in the Legislature to return, in a more sweeping way, most of the management authority over schools back to principals and superintendents. The leaders of the teachers unions can be expected to fight with zealous fervor against this approach. But suppose the “management rights” bill gained support in the Legislature. Suppose it was widely discussed in public forums and began to attract widespread support. Suppose the citizenry wanted less union control over the management of the schools. Which side would the teachers be on?

No one is arguing that teachers and public employees should relinquish the basic collective bargaining rights they have won. But there is a real opportunity for public sector unions to start leading the way in the labor movement. The intriguing possibility is that taking a more “public-spirited” approach would almost certainly improve the image of labor unions. In some not-too-far-removed way, that could end up helping those cafeteria workers in Fitchburg, and a lot more people with similar stories.