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Penn State, Democracy, and Modern Workplace Culture

Pundits will draw many lessons from the Penn State scandal, but the role and predicament of the janitor strikes me as in need of more attention. According to Louis Freeh’s detailed report on the university’s handling of the sexual abuse allegations: “A janitor spots Sandusky in the shower with a boy but is afraid to say anything because crossing Paterno ‘would have been like going against the president of the United States.’”

The report provides ample reason to suspect that the janitor was right. Football was synonymous with the university’s identity and the source of essential revenues for its programs and staff. Undermining the reputation of its leaders would be seen as analogous to an act of sabotage during war. And since football is often seen as the moral equivalent of war, critics of the program would be fortunate if being dismissed were their only fate.

(At Penn State, a student affairs administrator who challenged Paterno’s lax discipline of football players involved in an off campus brawl saw her house vandalized and her safety threatened. See

The janitor’s caution, however, invites several other questions. Is the janitor’s concern not matched by comparable fears in other US workplaces? In most businesses any worker can be fired without cause, with the exception of discharge for reasons of race or sexual orientation. Thus relaying to the boss or superior qualms or problems about a product or production process can lead to immediate discharge. The history of American capitalism is replete with mine or factory disasters where silencing or firing concerned workers played a key role. Warnings from front line workers were treated as unpardonable offenses. In today’s economy, where jobs are very scarce, fear of being fired can only be more intense.

The Penn State story is a tale of casual disregard of sexual abuse and of the overweening economic and cultural importance of big time football, especially in culturally and economically deprived areas of the country. Penn State is hardly unique. Other colleges and universities have concealed scandals involving crude exploitation of young women in the interests of recruiting. But it is also a commentary on the American workplace, both public and private. The conscientious janitor and even the PhD research scientist occupy vulnerable positions and are reminded of this daily. Exposing atrocities or even asking for careful studies can lead to one’s dismissal. Challenging authority not merely threatens profits or TV revenues or top- drawer recruits. It also questions the judgment and prestige of administrators or CEOs.

In theory government workers often have more rights than private employees, but in practice these are hard to enforce. This is especially true in the realm of “national security,” a field that seems to expand its reach by the day. The Penn State janitor need only talk to Bradley Manning to get a sense of what “opposing the president” can bring. Nevertheless, even domestic health and safety agencies are not immune from a culture of elite domination and repression. FDA administrators conducted a long campaign of surveillance and slander against its own scientists for expressing concerns about over radiation hazards posed by some of GE’s medical imaging devices. These abuses are a sad commentary on both corporate dominance of the regulatory process and staff powerlessness within many administrative agencies. (See

Redressing these abuses will require some attention to the structure of the workplace itself, where most of us spend much of our lives. In America’s official democratic narrative, the janitor and the CEO are equals, at least within the political arena. Of course, even within that arena equality is becoming an elusive ideal. The structure of electoral politics gives wealth an ever- louder megaphone even as it silences the poor. Many Republican governors and legislators now advocate and enact new voter identification laws. They bemoan voter fraud, but can cite scarcely any evidence of this crime. Their laws are another crime, disenfranchising the poor.


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Feeling and often being powerless in the electoral arena gives a janitor little confidence in challenging a college president or athletic director. Yet the dynamic works in the other direction as well. Workers who have no voice in the basic investment, product priorities, leaders, and personnel procedures where they work are less likely to come into the electoral arena with much confidence or even to see that arena as important.

There is of course no guarantee that faculty, staff, and administrators in a more democratic Penn State would listen to reports of abuse, especially by community sports heroes. But democratic workplaces at least provide channels for whistleblowers and prevent dismissal without cause. Such communities do encourage more concern for the rights of the vulnerable.

In addition, over the long run any struggle for a more democratic workplace must be attentive to gender and racial justice if it is to mobilize the support workplace democracy would require.

Unfortunately most mainstream Democrats have never embraced the ideal of the democratic workplace. Even European social democrats have long since given up on this cause. Nyegosh Dube. a Poland-based consultant on social economy, puts the case for a renewed democratic workplace thus. {We must} control economic institutions and processes for their collective benefit and ensure that the public interest takes precedence over narrow private and oligarchic interests. Much of this control has to be exercised by citizens in their capacity as working people who produce society’s wealth. This means control over production and investment, and over distribution of the fruits of these activities, with an equitable distribution of income and wealth being a fundamental goal. The only way citizens can exercise control over the economy is through democratic mechanisms, both existing political institutions and new democratic economic institutions, including democratized business enterprises.” (Social Europe Journal--

If political elites have prematurely given up on this ideal, many ordinary citizens have not. The Mondragon experiment in the Basque region of Spain, embracing manufacturing, high tech, services, and finance is a powerful example. Gar Alperovitz (America Beyond Capitalism) presents many comparable examples here in the US. Amidst these turbulent economic times, policy makers will have ample opportunity and need to bail out banks and other key enterprises. We should demand that a commitment to democratizing workplaces is a key criterion for providing public assistance.

That such workplace organization is efficient and economically progressive has been amply demonstrated. Social justice demands action on many fronts, but none seems more urgent than our undemocratic workplaces.

John Buell

John Buell

John Buell has a PhD in political science, taught for 10 years at College of the Atlantic, and was an Associate Editor of The Progressivefor ten years. He lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His most recent book, published by Palgrave in August 2011, is "Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age." He may be reached at

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