Friday, December 27, 2019

2019's Top Books for the Workers' Compensation Professional: One Teacher's Selections

            Here are my humble recommendations of the best books for the workers’ compensation professional – at least those that I read – for 2019.

            Let’s start, however, with two brief, largely negative, mentions. In the category of the entirely unsatisfactory experience falls the novel My Chemical Mountain (2013), by Corina Vacco. The teen protagonist spends the book working out a vendetta against his late father’s employer, a Buffalo, NY-area chemical factory, and its employment lawyer. The latter is an evildoer who has tricked the widow into signing what appears to be a very illegal workers’ compensation release and who tools around in a glitzy silver Lexus. In the end, our hero dynamites the factory and its attorney is sent to jail for his many misdeeds. “Kiss your stupid Lexus good-bye!” is our protagonist’s final ungenerous sentiment.  

            Not much better was Stephanie Land’s Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive (2019). Land – whose sudden status as single-mother, thrown out by her abusive boyfriend – finds herself in an epic struggle to get by. She does recount what it is like to work as a maid. We learn, for example, that it is hard on one’s back, and she tells of many an Ibuprofen 800 popped to help her get through the day. Yet, much of the book is comprised of her bitter complaints about governmental poverty programs, the indifference of her family, and the innumerable woes of her toddler.

            Enough complaining of my own!

            The most educational book I read this year was The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation (2019), by Carl Benedikt Frey. Frey addresses that ubiquitous concern we talk about at workers’ compensation conferences: the growing threat of artificial intelligence (AI) to eliminate the jobs of millions of workers. The concern is voiced by lawyers and others in our community in a more narrow, existential way. If the number of jobs is significantly truncated, particularly those in the industrial sector, will workers’ compensation become superannuated, and along with it those who labor in the dispute resolution process? Of course, a healthy commentary already exists in this realm. But in this new book, Frey takes a novel retrospective/historical look at the situation and tries to predict the future from experiences of the past.

            Journalist Steven Greenhouse’s tour de force history of the labor movement, particularly as it has unfolded since the New Deal, is invaluable. That book, Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor (2019), is, indeed, a history of labor and not simply of unions. The author treats the remarkable phenomena of fast-food workers campaigning for equitable pay in the “Fight for $15” movement and immigrant tomato harvesters fighting for humane working conditions in Florida. These are workers who were not, and are not likely to be, laboring under the auspices of a collective bargaining agreement. While this new book discusses all aspects of labor, front and center is the unavoidable account of the decline of union power and influence. For those sympathetic to labor, the Greenhouse book is a grim read.                                  

            Next on my recommended list is Jeffrey Pfeffer’s Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance – and What We can Do About It (2018). The author asserts that modern business practices create harmful work conditions for employees. He argues that businesses as a whole do little to tend to the emotional well-being of their workers. As a result, workers become disaffected, sick and, in some cases, even die because of work conditions. To Pfeffer, this is at once an injustice, as business, and hence society, are shown to have little regard for workers’ overall health; and a waste, because establishing good work conditions, and keeping workers happy, should both enhance employee performance and the success of business.

            Journalist David Owen’s new book, Volume Control: Hearing in a Deafening World (2019), is a personal-journey account his investigation into hearing loss, remedies for the same, and seemingly all of its cultural manifestations. Owen explores the mechanics and physiology of hearing loss, causation, audiograms, how such losses have been interpreted over the centuries, the experience of the deaf, the business and progress of hearing aids and cochlear implants, and regulation of noise in industry, the military, and in our personal lives.

              Workers’ compensation professionals can benefit by a grounding in the industrial and organized labor histories which were so formative to our field and the larger system of which we’re a part. Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World (2018), by Joshua Freeman, assists in providing such education. The book is an account of the rise and partial fall of the great factories which were, for so many years, the centers of international industrial growth. The manufacturing facilities treated by the author range from the early cotton mills of Britain and New England to those of the Ford Motor Company, its Soviet imitators, and the modern mega-factories of mainland China.

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