Looking for balance in employment laws

             I am currently teaching Employment Law at Oklahoma City University Law School and we have been discussing a concept called “Private Ordering”, a phrase that means employers and employees are free to work out their relationship however they wish.  If a worker wants a job badly enough to work for a sub-minimum wage, Private Ordering says they should be allowed to do so.  If the employer does not wish to pay “time and a half” for overtime work done by employees, the employer can pay straight time if they wish.  In a world where Private Ordering is the rule, workers and employers are considered to be on equal footing and can contract with each other however they choose.  In a Private Ordering world, there would be no mandatory minimum wage, overtime, child labor law or discrimination statutes.  This is a world some business owners long for so they can be relieved of the burdens of government dictates.  At the other end of the spectrum is a world of “mandates” where government or union contracts or some other third party impose constraints on employers and employees and dictate certain aspects of their work relationship.  “Mandates” include things like the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) which requires safe work places, or the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) which sets minimum wage and overtime standards, or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) which prevents discrimination.

           But, as I explained to my class, a work world at either extreme on the Private Ordering/Mandate spectrum is far from ideal.  Too much government interference stifles business, but too little leaves workers unprotected.  Employment law–and employment lawyers like me–constantly struggle to find the right balance between Private Ordering and Mandates.

           Some, of course, think Mandates are the greater evil and there have been efforts in recent years in Oklahoma to pare back employee protections and give employers greater freedom with regard to their employees.  This creates a more “business friendly” environment, according to these advocates, which results in greater economic growth for the state.  But moving toward greater Private Ordering comes at a cost:  decreased protection for workers.  To illustrate the danger of extreme Private Ordering I told my class about my Grandpa, Tom Priest.  Here, in my own father’s words, is Tom’s story:

             Tom was born November 29, 1900.  I know little about his life until he was eleven years of age.  He was the oldest of four children.  He had two younger sisters (Marion and Lillian) and a brother (William) who was six months old when the dead body of his father, Teddy, was brought home by friends.  Teddy had been killed that day at work in the coal mines of Pennsylvania.  They brought him home in a wheelbarrow and placed his body on the living room floor.   

           I imagine when they dropped off Teddy’s body they said they were sorry and left.  The family had no insurance and no money.  No workers compensation existed.  Someone needed to take Teddy’s place at work the next day because the family lived in a house owned by the company and they owed money to the company store. If someone did not show up at work the next day the family would be thrown out of the house by the company.  The only one who could go to work the next day was eleven year old Tom.  That day was the end of Tom’s boyhood.  His mother, a small quiet, sweet woman, paid for Teddy’s burial by taking in washing and ironing for fifty cents a basket.  I knew her many years later and never once heard her complain.

            At age eleven Tom had to quit school and went to work in the coal breaker (the mouth of the coal mine) as a “breaker boy”.  The school principal came to Tom’s house and begged his mother to keep Tom in school because he was a bright boy.  But the family needed to eat and Tom had to quit school and work.  For the first three years that he worked Tom never received a paycheck because they always owed more to the company store than he earned.  Tom’s income put food on the table for his family and he was a father figure to his two sisters and brother until the day he died. I believe after three years he was given a job down in the mines as what they called a “sprag boy”.  It must have been shortly after this he became a “laborer” (one who shovels coal into the cars–a miner’s helper).  At age sixteen he broke his leg while down in the mine.  He laid the rest of the day in what they called the “shift shanty” until the end of the shift at which time they took him to the hospital.  He had a limp the rest of his life.

        That’s what life was like for workers in a world of Private Ordering.  It’s little wonder a union called the United Mine Workers rose up and demanded greater protections for mine employees.  Work in today’s coal mines is still dangerous and tough, but it’s not nearly as terrible as it was when my Grandpa went to work at the age of eleven.

        I told my class there are evils to be avoided at both ends of the Private Ordering/Mandates spectrum and, as lawyers, we are part of the process that seeks to find the right balance.  It’s not an easy task but it’s definitely a worthy endeavor.

        I’m not going to tell you to “hug a lawyer” today, but the next time you’re tempted to think the world would be better off without lawyers, remember Grandpa Tom and be thankful there are lawyers working to keep the right balance between Private Ordering and Mandates.

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Which person in the parables are you?

I had an interesting conversation with a friend recently who told me he was trying to figure out which person in the parables of Jesus he was most like–and which person he WANTED to be most like–and what he needed to do to make the change. My friend said “character change” is hard work and you have to “give up stuff” to accomplish it. “Whatever is holding you back is what you have to give up”, he told me.

This got me thinking about who I am–and who I want to be in the parables of Jesus. I think I’m something like the man described as “The Rich Fool” in Luke 12:16-21. The Rich Fool wasn’t a bad guy. He had done well in life and had acquired a lot of “stuff”. But his focus was more on his “stuff” and not on spiritual life. Jesus said he was a fool because he spent time investing in the short term rather than the long term. I really do try to think “long term” but find myself constantly pulled back into “short term” thinking. I don’t want to end up being that guy.

So who DO I want to be in Jesus’ parables? I want to be the prodigal father in Luke 15:: 11-32. We often refer to this as the parable of the “Prodigal Son” but my pastor, Rick Harvey, says it was actually the father who was “prodigal” because the word prodigal means “spendthrift–lavish spender”. The father was a “spendthrift” when it came to love; he lavished grace and poured out love and acceptance to both his sons: the wayward son and the stay-at home-with-a-bad-attitude son. He was the man who stood on the front porch waiting, looking, praying. He was a spendthrift when it came to love and acceptance and grace. THAT’s the guy I want to be.

I want to be a giver of grace and acceptance. I want to stand on the front porch and keep an eye out for those who want to come home. I want to be the guy who runs toward them while they are still “a long way off”. I want to embrace them and welcome them. Put a robe around their shoulders and a ring on their finger. I want to throw a party for those who have decided to turn their lives around. And I want to be the gentle voice of wisdom to others who would condemn or criticize the one who has come home (like the stay at home brother did). Yeah, I want to be THAT guy.

But the gap between the Rich Fool and the Prodigal Dad is wide and I cannot leave the fool behind and become the dad without the grace of God in my life, gently–and sometimes not so gently–shaping me, sanding me, and filing off my rough edges.

Lord, help me to be more like the Prodigal Dad and less like the Rich Fool, beginning today.

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What if….?

My Bible reading this morning was Genesis 50:15-21. It’s the story of Joseph and his brothers in Egypt after their father has died. It’s a story that merges the past with the present.  Smitten by jealousy years earlier, the brothers sold Joseph into slavery in order to rid themselves of their pesky, Dad’s pet brother. After being thrown into a pit and sold into bondage Joseph survived and eventually thrived during his decades of slavery, rising to the position of Prime Minister of Egypt, saving the Egyptians and even his own family from starvation. The family was ultimately reunited and enjoyed many good years together in Egypt. But now the father has died and the brothers are worried that with dad gone, Joseph will seek revenge on them for the evil they visited on him many years earlier.

When reading this passage I have always focused on the kind and compassionate response of Joseph, who allays his brothers’ fears and concerns by saying “Am I in God’s place? You meant it for evil but God meant it for good. Don’t be afraid.”

But today my attention was caught by the question that started the passage: “What if….?” The brothers began by asking themselves “What if Joseph is carrying a grudge and decides to pay us back for all the wrong we did him?”

There is no evidence they had cause for concern. Joseph had never given the least hint he carried a grudge. I suppose the brothers were worried about this because THEY would have carried a grudge if someone had wronged them like they wronged Joseph. The were “projecting”.

So to protect themselves from their projections, what did they do? They lied. They made up a story that their dad, before he died, gave them a message for Joseph that he should forgive them. They were still conniving. Still lying, just like they did years before. They still couldn’t draw a straight line with a ruler.

It is clear they need not have worried about their “what if”. Joseph’s response shows he carried no grudge and was tenderhearted toward them. Apparently their fears were allayed by Joseph’s words of assurance and we see no further record of trouble between Joseph and his brothers. All ended well.

This passage got me wondering how much of my/our worries are started by “What if” questions that need never be asked. What if…..my spouse dies….I lose my job….my kids rebel…God is not really there. Often our “what if” are prompted by projections. We envision something bad and become concerned it’s going to happen. So to head off the anticipated calamity we devise a scheme to cope with it. A scheme which is probably unnecessary. A scheme by which we try to control the future through our own efforts.

As much as it pains me to say this, we don’t really control our future. We can save for retirement–and we should. We can buy life insurance–and we should. We can try to be excellent parents–and we should. Even Joseph took proactive preparations to deal with the Egyptian famine.  But ultimately we are not in control.

That’s when the words of Joseph in verse 19 should ring in our ears: “Do not be afraid.” That phrase is the most frequent greeting of angels in the Bible. It is the heavenly message to mortal men and women who live their lives worrying, fearing and uttering “What if…?.”  Ultimately, God is in control and we need not overly concern ourselves with the what ifs of life.

I think the message to us is to live in “No fear”…not “What if….?”

Shackleton: Behaving decently in tight places

It’s the 100 year anniversary of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s epic Antarctic expedition.  If you have never heard of him (I had not until about 10 years ago despite being a history major in college) you need to.  Here is an article I wrote some years ago about his epic journey and the lesson we can learn from it. (Click on the article to enlarge it)

Shackelton Behaving decently

A Person of Influence

August 5, 2014 is my dad’s 93rd birthday and in his honor I’m reprising, with some editing, an article I wrote about him on his 80th birthday. Happy Birthday Dad!

I have written many times about the profoundly serious problem of “fatherlessness” in America. Far too often in this generation, men have become biological fathers without sticking around to be dads. While there are still many good dads in America today, the state of fatherhood in our country is in trouble.

It was not that way in 1921 when my father, Ted Priest, was born in the Pennsylvania coal town of Taylor. Ted’s father, Tom supported his own and his extended family. He arose before dawn each day to descend a dark, bleak shaft that carried him to a vein of coal he would mine all day. Near nightfall, heavily sooted and wet, Tom would make his way home to be a father of influence to my dad. Ted Priest became a good father to me, in large part, because of the example set before him.

When he was twenty-two years old my dad went to war. In response to Hitler’s hostilities, he fought in France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and finally marched to Germany. He helped General George Patton conquer Berlin and saw the famous general up close, ivory handle revolvers and all. Dad also claimed he was a close personal friend of Winston Churchill and told me that in all those famous photos of Mr. Churchill with two fingers up in a “V”, Mr. Churchill was really ordering two drinks: one for himself and one for my dad.

After the war ended my father returned to the States and, like many returning GIs, got married in the spring of 1946. He met Margie–a sweet Pennsylvania girl who worked in the local General Electric factory. Soon, my sister Linda was born and the three of them lived in a one-room apartment on Green Street in Syracuse, sharing a common bathroom down the hall with other tenants.

By the time I arrived the Priest family economy had improved. Through hard work the family owned a little home and a car. Later we added a television. Like his own father, my dad arose early each day and headed out to the factory to repair machinery. He’d return at night to be a father of influence to my sister and me. Dad made sure we went to church each Sunday. He disciplined us but also wrestled on the floor with us. He called my sister “Sunshine” and me his “Pal”. He took me hunting and fishing and taught me everything I know about changing a tire, swinging a hammer, fixing a lawnmower and replacing a faucet washer. If any aunt or cousin had a broken television or a frig on the fritz, Dad was there to fix it, with me in tow. Even today, when I can’t get my lawnmower running I call my dad, long distance, for advice.

And speaking of advice, my dad never lacked for that. He had a considered opinion on most subjects and, with just a little priming, would gladly share it with you. Around our kitchen table I learned about world geography and national politics. Labor unions and laboring for a living. Family relations and relations with China. Proper table etiquette and rules for dating. I can’t remember a quiet dinnertime at our house. Dad wasn’t employed as a teacher, but he was in the education business every night at the dinner table.

When I got ready to go to college Dad had a talk with me about my future. “I’m not sure how we’ll get it all paid for, but I want you to go to college if that’s what you want. But I want you to know whatever you do, I’ll be proud of you.” He kept that promise. He and Mom helped me through college and smiled proudly when I graduated. He always encouraged us and urged us that we could do anything we set our mind to do. He made both my sister and me feel like we were somebody special.

Some years ago Dad retired from General Electric after thirty-two years of service. Since then his hair turned gray and he doesn’t hear quite as well as he once did (or so he claims!). I can finally out-run him and I think I might even be able to beat him two out of three at arm wrestling. And when a man gets to be Dad’s age and looks back on his life, he wonders whether he’s made a difference. Has he had an impact? Has his life counted for anything?

I’m sorry to say the world has not showered my dad with ticker tape parades or a Congressional medal of honor, even though he deserves them. He was not the CEO of a large organization. He held no political office. He never led the majors in homers or RBIs. His face didn’t make the cover of Time or Newsweek or People. But he should have. He made a vital difference. He had a significant impact. His life counted importantly for something lasting and memorable.

For he was a faithful husband to my mother and an exemplary father to my sister and me. A loving, disciplining, listening, involved, present-in-our-lives man who let us know, by word and actions, that we were loved. He still does. Not a perfect man, but a caring one. And that has made all the difference. That has made him a person of influence.

You can be a person of influence too. Without being a CEO or Governor or baseball player. You can be a faithful example of love and commitment and faithfulness. You can answer the call of duty, whether it’s your country or your family. You can work hard to improve your family’s economy and come home at night to discipline and wrestle with your kids. You can be an encourager, by your word and by your example. And, maybe, when you reach the age of 93, you’ll be reminded that you made a difference where it counted most. In your family.

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Thinking Christianly about the Israeli-Palenstinian Conflict

I teach a Sunday School class of, shall we say, “mid-stream” adults. Recently, one of the class members asked if we could discuss the question, “Who should Christians support in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?” Hmmm. How about we skip that one and go to something easy like, an analysis of quantum physics? But I plunged in and taught a class on the subject yesterday.

I began by disclaiming any expertise in this area but said I had studied many resources in preparation for the class. Most importantly, I thought, was to start with some over-arching, beginning principles. These principles apply to virtually any subject and form the core of critical thinking:

 (1) Move from “principle” to “position” rather than “position” to “proof-texting”
In other words, look for broad themes or principles in the Bible rather than looking for singular verses that justify whatever position you’ve already staked out.What broad Bible themes should shape our view?

 God is a God of love—to all the world. Arab, Jew and Gentile
 The ultimate goal of God is peace.
 The Old Testament indicates God has special relationship with Israeli—but the New Testament clearly shows God’s outreach goes beyond Israeli.
 ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. There are no faultless parties.

 (2) Be skeptical of all information and read/listen with a critical eye and ear. Every source of information—and I mean EVERY source of information has some kind of bias. Some are evident, some not. A person wanting to think critically about the Middle East, or any other subject, should analyze the bias of the source and determine whether the bias has compromised the source’s honest objectivity.

 (3) Think from both a New Testament as well as an Old Testament perspective. There is a tendency for Christians to only rely on Old Testament passages in defending the rights of Israel. But the Bible must be read in its entirety. This ties in with the recommendation that we not “proof text” our positions but rather evaluate our positions in light of the entirety of Scripture.

(4) Read from a variety of sources to fully inform your opinions. Read information from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Read Jim Wallis from Sojourners magazine. Read from sources that are advocates for one side or the other. Insight is gained from reading sources with which you disagree. You don’t have to like them to read them and they may lend a new perspective.

The Israeli Palestinian crisis is complicated and multifaceted. There is the political crisis, the military crisis and the humanitarian crisis. I don’t pretend to know who is right and who is wrong–and neither side is fault free. But I know the place to begin is to try to more fully understand what’s going on in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and in the nation of Israel so we can pray more intelligently. Some say “The least we can do is pray.” Prayer is not a “least” kind of thing. But if we can’t do much (which is true when it comes to the Middle East) we can at least pray and pray intelligently.

So who should we support in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? We should support peace. We should support humanitarian efforts. We should support those trying to make a positive impact. As Abraham LIncoln once said “I do not pray that God is on our side in this civil war. I pray that we are on God’s side.”