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The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy

Sociologist Lisa Dodson investigates the growing grassroots movement against unethical standards within the workplace.

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But Mary Jane found that the incident stuck in her mind. She imagined what it must have felt like for Jenna to be holding her child, all stressed out, and begging the child care worker to take her, without having diapers or clothing or any of the things a proper mother has when dropping off her baby. Could the child sense what was going on? And then Jenna having to leave, no doubt feeling humiliated, and then calling in to work and telling a lie because telling the truth was too embarrassing.

Mary Jane said she “just hated to think about it,” though really she knew that it was such a small incident in comparison to what goes on in many families that don’t have the money to care for their children. But it was that moment that shifted something for Mary Jane. She said she realized “this is [about] more than... just one kid.” She began to buy various items that helped out the mothers who worked for her, but that seemed so small. So she began to divert some of the available resources from the store, various “goods” that could get overstocked. She found ways to share the company’s wealth because the wages the company paid did not.

Mary Jane said, “As a mother, I just couldn’t act like this was okay.   I felt like I had to do something.” And finally, “something” for just one mother, just one time, wasn’t enough for Mary Jane.

Others too used their identity as a mother or the idea of kinship to assert their moral ground. When Cora in Boston—who put kids before scrod—called the women who worked for her “family,” so, by extension, were their children. She was establishing a changed backdrop, pushing the norms of American business where human harm is irrelevant.   She sketched out a landscape of relationship. In this terrain you get to act according to different principles because we all understand that kin ties are precious, and they come with obligations. By moving her employees into kinship space, Cora staked out the right to treat them in humane ways, and that included acting as though their children mattered.

This was precisely what Bea—who laid away prom dresses— meant when she said, “It gets messy quickly.” Bea was talking about the mess of human relationships from which one ought— according to business professionalism—to remain clean, or in any case anesthetized. That didn’t work for her. She said, “I can’t keep my distance.” Yet Bea had come to terms with her own conscience, and those terms started with treating the people she worked with as though they have value.

Margaret, who ran her own business in Wisconsin, agreed. She told me that the day when she looked into the face of a young mother who was carrying two sick children to work in freezing weather to get her small paycheck so that she could buy them some food and medicine, things changed for her. She opened the door to thinking about how—“there but for fortune”—those could have been her grandchildren. And even though they weren’t, didn’t they still need her understanding and help? And there ’s Dr. Smith at the city health center, who routinely cared for mothers, fathers, and children who didn’t have proper identification for health insurance or “correct” citizenship. He told me, “I’ve got kids and grandkids... give me a break.”

Being a parent—or as good as one—opened a door for many people, and the opening turned out to be wide enough for more than just their own children. For some people, the meaning of as a parent turned out to be as a brother or sister and a son or daughter too. Because increasingly, the problems that people bring with them have to do with other fragile kin. A manager in a hotel chain spoke of her sister’s bipolar disorder and how she often had to take time off unexpectedly to deal with her sister’s emergencies.   et—in turn—she was supposed to fire service staff “who don’t even get the paid days [she does]” when they had family crises. She worked around those rules and had even found ways to “extend” the health benefits that managers got so that they reached a few down below, because it just didn’t seem fair to her.

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