Making Work Public: a reflection on Cynthia Estlund’s “Working Together”
By Harry C. Boyte
Today’s dominant understanding of citizenship in higher education, as elsewhere largely focuses on what is called “civil society,” the arena of community and voluntary groups which are seen as separate from work. A recent story illustrates how widely higher education’s training of professionals to think of themselves as “outside citizenship” has spread.
When the Center for Democracy and Citizenship recently partnered with the City of Falcon Heights, Minnesota, to organize and moderate a “citizen town hall” on citizen-based approaches to gun violence, the audience of 25 or so in the Town Hall included the mayor, the police chief, the city manager, teachers, a local principal, social agency workers, four students, business entrepreneurs – and two elderly residents. The residents expressed regret that “there are so few citizens.” No one from any of the worksites in the community raised any questions about their definition, although when I did so it prompted a lively conversation
The focus on associational life and civil society takes discussion of institutional change off the map. It is fatalistic, assuming the impossibility of re-invigorating the public cultures and purposes of institutions such as higher education, as well as professional systems, businesses, and government.
But fatalism about work and workplaces is challenged by the careful studies of legal scholar and civic theorist Cynthia Estlund. In earlier writings and most extensively in her path-breaking book Working Together: How Workplace Bonds Strengthen a Diverse Democracy (Oxford, 2003), she brings together a wealth of theoretical perspectives with a large body of social science research and examples from popular culture in order to remedy what she sees as the neglect of work and the workplace by communitarian and civil society theorists who focus on associational life.
Estlund studies many different kinds of workplace and notes wide variation, from “social capitalist” settings which seek to facilitate civic connections across differences to low wage and often highly coercive settings, where job security is nonexistent. For all the differences, overall she makes a compelling case that, despite continuing patterns of hierarchy and discrimination and large needs for change, workplaces are still the only environments where most people are likely to have sustained encounters with people of differing racial, cultural, and ideological backgrounds. They also engage in such experiences with relative civility, and around practical, goal-directed tasks, making them relatively conducive to sustained experiences of collaboration.
Her evidence shows that these features of work and workplaces enable people to develop enhanced respect for others, reduce their prejudices and stereotypes, build trust, develop civic skills, and create cross-group networks. Estlund observes that “It is not just the friendship potential of workplace relations that makes it a promising source of interracial contact.” The work process itself “is generally cooperative and directed toward shared objectives; much of it is sustained, personal, informal, and one-to-one.” Workplaces further democratic equality by “convening strangers from diverse backgrounds and inducing them to work together toward shared objectives under the aegis of the societally imposed equality principle.” She concludes with a strong challenge to civil society theorists:
“Contrary to the thrust of much of the growing literature on civil society, civic engagement, and associational life, workplace ties do many of the things that civil society is supposed to do. Those ties provide a medium for the cultivation of empathy and a sense of belongingness, of ‘social capital’ and habits and norms of cooperative and reciprocity, of civic skills of participation, communication, and compromise, and of conversations that enrich public discourse. The fact that they cultivate all these qualities, skills, habits, and feelings in an environment of relative diversity and even compulsory integration makes the workplace a central and uniquely important component of civil society.”
Estlund also shows how U.S. social movements such as union organizing efforts in the 1930s, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and the feminist movement of the 1970s and 1980s made the workplace more open and public. Thus, Section 7 of the Wagner Act, in part the product of New Deal reform and organizing, created “a kind of rudimentary system of civil liberties within the workplace” which in turn allowed further organization and action by workers. The equal protection of the law provision, enshrining in words “the notion that people should not be segregated or subordinated on the basis of their race or certain other immutable traits” was the result of civil rights efforts.
Though the effort to democratic the workplace is far from completed, this rich history also shows large possibilities for democratic change. These include broad changes to “make work more public” in our colleges and universities.
Harry C. Boyte Director of the Center for Democracy and CItizenship at Augsburg College, is a partner with ADP in the Civic Agency Initiative.