At the new Gates Foundations headquarters in Seattle, there is a ban on whispering. This, despite the fact that the warm and fuzzy non-profit frowns on “expressions of hierarchy.” I’m not sure what’s crazier: the fact that Gates Foundation is doing this, or the fact that it’s perfectly legal for them to do this. One more example of workplace tyranny. Reminds me of this bit of wisdom from another political theorist.
After discussing the forgotten lunacies of the conservative movement during its heyday of the 1950s and 1960s—including one Fred Schwarz, right-wing crackpot and author of You Can Trust the Communists: To be Communists—Rick Perlstein, who knows more about the American right than just about anyone, writes this:
The notion that conservatism has taken a new, and nuttier, turn has influential adherents whose distortions derail our ability to understand and contain it. In a recent New York Review of Books review of Corey Robin’s ground-breaking book The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, which traces continuities in right-wing thought all the back to the seventeenth century, the distinguished political theorist Mark Lilla pronounced that “most of the turmoil in American politics recently is the result of changes in the clan structure of the right, with the decline of reality-based conservatives like William F. Buckley.” So what did a “reality-based conservative” like Buckley make of Fred Schwarz? Reader, he blurbed him, praising the good doctor for “instructing the people in what their leaders so clearly don’t know.” So, in fact, did Ronald Reagan, who in 1990 praised the quack’s “tireless dedication in trying to ensure the protection of freedom and human rights.” And here’s the late GOP heavyweight Jack Kemp, who wrote in praise of Schwarz’s 1996 memoir(Reagan is pictured with Schwarz on the flap): “How much I appreciate the fact that as much as anybody, including President Reagan, President Bush, and Pope John Paul … [Dr. Schwarz] has had the opportunity to educate literally thousands of young men and women all over the world in the struggle for democracy and freedom and the struggle against the tyranny of Communism.” The “establishment conservatives,” Reagan and Kemp, and the “nut,” Dr. Fred Schwarz, were never so far apart after all.
You hear a lot about Ronald Reagan from the conservatives-are-nuttier-than-ever-before crowd: They praise him as a compromiser and point out, correctly, that he raised taxes seven of his eight years as president, in stark contrast to today’s Republicans, who refuse to raise them at all. Here’s the thing, as I wrote amid the hosannas after he died in 2004, during the awful reign of Bush: “It is a quirk of American culture that each generation of nonconservatives sees the right-wingers of its own generation as the scary ones, then chooses to remember the right-wingers of the last generation as sort of cuddly. In 1964, observers horrified by Barry Goldwater pined for the sensible Robert Taft, the conservative leader of the 1950s. When Reagan was president, liberals spoke fondly of sweet old Goldwater.”
Climbing aboard the anti-birth control bandwagon, the Arizona Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-2 on Monday to endorse legislation that would: a) give employers the right to deny health insurance coverage to their employees for religious reasons; b) give employers the right to ask their employees whether their birth control prescriptions are for contraception or other purposes (hormone control, for example, or acne treatment).
There are three things to say about this legislation.
The Private Life of Power
First, as I argue in The Reactionary Mind, conservatism is dedicated to defending hierarchies of power against democratic movements from below, particularly in the so-called private spheres of the family and the workplace. Conservatism is a defense of what I call “the private life of power.” Less a protection of privacy or property in the abstract, as many conservatives and libertarians like to claim, conservatism is a defense of the rights of bosses and husbands/fathers.
So it’s no surprise, as I noted in the conclusion of The Reactionary Mind, that the chief agenda items of the GOP since its string of Tea Party victories in 2010 have been to roll back the rights of workers—not just in the public sector, as this piece by Gordon Lafer makes clear, but also in the private sector—and to roll back the reproductive rights of women, as this chart, which Mike Konczal discusses, makes clear. Often, it’s the same Tea Party-controlled states that are pushing both agendas at the same time.
What I hadn’t predicted was that the GOP would be able to come up with a program—in the form of this anti-birth control employer legislation we’re now seeing everywhere—that would combine both agenda items at the same time.
Fear, American Style
Second, in a way, I should have foreseen this fusion because, as I argued in my first book Fear: The History of a Political Idea, in the United States, it has historically fallen to employers rather than the state to police the political opinions and practices of citizens. Focused as we are on the state, we often miss the fact that some of the most intense programs of political indoctrination have not been conducted by the government but have instead been outsourced to the private sector. While less than 200 men and women went to jail for their political beliefs during the McCarthy years, as many as 2 out of every 5 American workers were monitored for their political beliefs.
I’ve spoken about this issue on this blog before—my apologies to the old timers here; unfortunately, this point can’t be repeated enough—but recall this fascinating exchange between an American physician and Tocqueville during the latter’s travels to the United States in the early 1830s. Passing through Baltimore, Tocqueville asked the doctor why so many Americans pretended they were religious when they obviously had “numerous doubts on the subject of dogma.” The doctor replied that the clergy had a lot of power in America, as in Europe. But where the European clergy often acted through or with the help of the state, their American counterparts worked through the making and breaking of private careers.
If a minister, known for his piety, should declare that in his opinion a certain man was an unbeliever, the man’s career would almost certainly be broken. Another example: A doctor is skilful, but has no faith in the Christian religion. However, thanks to his abilities, he obtains a fine practice. No sooner is he introduced into the house than a zealous Christian, a minister or someone else, comes to see the father of the house and says: look out for this man. He will perhaps cure your children, but he will seduce your daughters, or your wife, he is an unbeliever. There, on the other hand, is Mr. So-and-So. As good a doctor as this man, he is at the same time religious. Believe me, trust the health of your family to him. Such counsel is almost always followed.
While all of us rightly value the Bill of Rights, it’s important to note that these amendments are limitations on government action. As a result, the tasks of political repression and coercion can often be—and are—simply outsourced to the private sector. As I wrote in Fear:
There is little mystery as to why civil society can serve as a substitute or supplement to state repression. Civil society is not, on the whole, subject to restrictions like the Bill of Rights. So what the state is forbidden to do, private actors in civil society may execute instead. “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation,” Justice Jackson famously declared, “it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” But what star in our constitutional constellation forbids newspapers like the New York Times, which refused during the McCarthy years to hire members of the Communist Party, from prescribing such orthodoxy as a condition of employment? What in the Constitution would stop a publisher from telling poet Langston Hughes that it would not issue his Famous Negro Music Makers unless he removed any discussion of Communist singer Paul Robeson? Or stop Little, Brown from refusing to publish best-selling Communist author Howard Fast?
The Sixth Amendment guarantees “in all criminal prosecutions” that the accused shall “have the assistance of counsel for his defence.” But what in the Constitution would prevent attorney Abe Fortas, who would later serve on the Supreme Court, from refusing to represent a party member during the McCarthy years because, in his words, “We have decided that we don’t think we can ever afford to represent anybody that has ever been a Communist?”
The Fifth Amendment stipulates that the government cannot compel an individual to incriminate herself, but it does not forbid private employers from firing anyone invoking its protections before congressional committees. To the extent that our Constitution works against an intrusive state, how can it even authorize the government to regulate these private decisions of civil society? What the liberal state granteth, then, liberal civil society taketh away.
Let’s come back now to the birth control employer question. Thanks to the gains of the feminist movement and Griswold v. Connecticut, we now understand the Constitution to prohibit the government from imposing restrictions on access to birth control. Even most Republicans, I think, accept that. But there’s nothing in the Constitution to stop employers from refusing to provide health insurance coverage for birth control to their employees.
And here’s where the McCarthy specter becomes particularly troubling. Notice the second provision of the Arizona legislation: employers will now have the right to question their employees about what they plan to do with their birth-control prescriptions. Not only is this a violation of the right to privacy—again, not a right our Constitution currently recognizes in the workplace—but it obviously can give employers the necessary information they need to fire an employee. If a women admits to using contraception in order to not get pregnant, there’s nothing in the Constitution to stop an anti-birth control employer from firing her.
During the McCarthy years, here were some of the questions employers asked their employees: What is your opinion of the Marshall Plan? What do you think about Nato? The Korean War? Reconciliation with the Soviet Union? These questions were directly related to US foreign policy, the assumption being that Communist Party members or sympathizers would offer pro-Soviet answers to them (i.e., against Nato and the Korean War). But many of the questions were more domestic in nature: What do you think of civil rights? Do you own Paul Robeson records? What do you think about segregating the Red Cross blood supply? The Communist Party had taken strong positions on civil rights, including desegregating the Red Cross blood supply, and as one questioner put it, “The fact that a person believes in racial equality doesn’t prove that he’s a Communist, but it certainly makes you look twice, doesn’t it? You can’t get away from the fact that racial equality is part of the Communist line.” (Though Ellen Schrecker, from whose book Many Are the Crimes I have taken these examples, points out that many of these questions were posed by government loyalty boards, she also notes that the questions posed by private employers were virtually identical.) The upshot, of course, was that support for civil rights came to be viewed as a Communist position, making public support for civil rights a riskier proposition than it already was.
It’s unclear what the future of Birth Control McCarthyism will be, but anyone who thinks the repressive implications of these bills can be simply brushed aside with vague feints to the religious freedoms of employers—more on this in a moment—is overlooking the long and sordid history of Fear, American Style. Private employers punishing their employees for holding disfavored views or engaging in disapproved practices (disapproved by the employer, that is) is the way a lot of repression happens in this country. And it can have toxic effects, as Liza Love, a witness before the Arizona Senate committee, testified:
“I wouldn’t mind showing my employer my medical records,” Love said. “But there are 10 women behind me that would be ashamed to do so.”
In the debate over the legislation, Arizona Republican Majority Whip Debbie Lesko (also the bill’s author) said, “I believe we live in America. We don’t live in the Soviet Union.” She’s right, though perhaps not in the way she intended: unlike in the Soviet Union, the government here may not be able to punish you simply for holding unorthodox views or engaging in disfavored practices (though the government can certainly find other ways to harass or penalize you, if it wishes). What happens instead is that your employer will do it for the government (or for him or herself). As the president of Barnard College put it during the McCarthy years, “If the colleges take the responsibility to do their own house cleaning, Congress would not feel it has to investigate.”
Third, the standard line from Republicans and some libertarians is that requiring religious or religion-related employers (like the hospitals and universities that are funded by the Catholic Church) to provide health insurance coverage for their employees’ birth control is a violation of their First Amendment rights to religious freedom. The same arguments have come up in Arizona. Just after she made the comparison above between the United States and the Soviet Union, Lesko added:
“So, government should not be telling the organizations or mom and pop employers to do something against their moral beliefs.”
“My whole legislation is about our First Amendment rights and freedom of religion,” Lesko said. “All my bill does is that an employer can opt out of the mandate if they have any religious objections.”
Father John Muir, a priest at the All Saints Catholic Newman Center on the Tempe campus, said the controversial issue is not about birth control, but religious freedom and the First Amendment.
“It’s not about birth control,” Muir said. “It’s about the right to live out your beliefs and principles without inference by the state.”
There are many reasons to be wary of this line of argument, which I won’t get into here. Instead, I’d like to recall some more history.
It’s often forgotten that one of the main catalysts for the rise of the Christian Right was not school prayer or abortion but the defense of Southern private schools that were created in response to desegregation. By 1970, 400,000 white children were attending these “segregation academies.” States like Mississippi gave students tuition grants, and until the Nixon administration overturned the practice, the IRS gave the donors to these schools tax exemptions. And it was none other than Richard Viguerie, founder of the New Right and pioneer of its use of direct-mail tactics, who said that the attack on these public subsidies by the Civil Rights Movement and liberal courts “was the spark that ignited the religious right’s involvement in real politics.”
According to historian Joseph Crespino, whose essay “Civil Rights and the Religious Right” in Rightward Bound:Making American Conservative in the 1970s is must reading, the rise of segregation academies “was often timed exactly with the desegregation of formerly all-white public schools.” Even so, their advocates claimed to be defending religious minorities—and religious beliefs—rather than white supremacy. (Initially nonsectarian, most of these schools became evangelical over time.) Their cause, in other words, was freedom, not inequality—not the freedom of whites to associate with other whites (and thereby lord their status and power over blacks), as the previous generation of massive resisters had foolishly and openly admitted, but the freedom of believers to practice their own embattled religion. It was a shrewd transposition. In one fell swoop, the heirs of slaveholders became the descendants of persecuted Baptists, and Jim Crow a heresy the First Amendment was meant to protect.
So it is today. Rather than openly pursue their agenda of restricting the rights of women, the GOP claims to be defending the rights of religious dissenters. Instead of powerful employers—for that is what many of these Catholic hospitals and universities are—we have persecuted sects.
Knowing the history of the rise of the Christian Right doesn’t resolve this debate, but it certainly does make you look twice, doesn’t it?
Update (March 15, 4:30 pm)
This post got cross-posted at Salon; check out the comments there. In a very smart piece, also at Salon, Irin Carmon looks at the evolution (and continuities) of the GOP position on this issue. Also check out this excellent piece by Sarah Posner, again at Salon, which looks at the contributions of the Democrats to this morass we’re in.
Also, on the question of whether the Arizona law allows employers to fire employees on the basis of whether they use birth control for contraception purposes or not, check out this.
When Kathy Saumier learned that a new factory was coming to town, it seemed as if there really was—as that absurdist bit of suburban wisdom from The Graduate has it—a great future in plastics. Landis Plastics, to be exact. Landis, a family-owned company based in Illinois, makes containers for yogurt and cottage cheese. The company was opening a plant in Solvay, New York, not far from Syracuse where Saumier lived. She applied for a job. “It’s a new place,” she thought. “It’s more money. It sounded good.” New York Governor Mario Cuomo thought so too. With the help of Solvay officials, Cuomo’s administration had put together an $8.5 million package of tax breaks, cheap electricity, and direct aid to lure the factory – and 200 promised jobs – to upstate New York. The day the plant opened, Cuomo was there to welcome it.
For Saumier, however, the celebration was short-lived. Hired to operate a machine that produced 36,000 plastic containers per hour, Saumier was expected, within a single minute, to inspect 600 containers, pack them in a box, and haul the box over to a conveyor belt. The breakneck pace was the least of it. Safety conditions at Landis were dire. Within thirteen months of Saumier’s hiring, printing presses at the factory had claimed part of the finger of a co-worker, almost all of the finger of another worker, two fingers of a third, part of the pinky of a fourth, and the tip of the middle finger of a fifth. Sex discrimination and sexual harassment were rampant. Managers reserved all but one of the higher-paying and safer technician jobs for men – and openly admitted to doing so. Male workers asked female workers for oral sex, called them bitches and cunts, touched their breasts and buttocks, and humiliated new female employees with simulations of masturbation. Management did nothing about it.
Saumier decided to speak up. She got involved in a union drive at the plant. She filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) about the factory’s safety conditions and lodged a sex-discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Viewing her actions as the opening shot of a larger “insurrection” by the workers, Landis struck back. Harassment, particularly of Saumier and other pro-union employees, increased. When Saumier complained, the assistant director of human resources replied, “If you’re in the public eye, you’re opening yourself to harassment.” Saumier was called into a meeting where she was accused by a former FBI agent, now working for Landis’ lawyers, of sabotaging the cars of anti-union workers. Another pro-union worker was hustled off to jail by the police after a co-worker accused her of stealing a coat; the charges were later dropped. Saumier was forced to work by herself in a room called “hold,” where she was not permitted to talk to anyone. “It’s like they put you in solitary,” she told a reporter. She was again questioned by management, this time in the presence of a police officer, about sabotaging the car of an anti-union worker. Finally, after she herself was accused of sexual harassment – among other charges, it was alleged that she pulled down a co-worker’s pants and tried to touch his genitals and that she asked an African American co-worker about the size of his penis – Saumier was fired. Claiming that Landis treated its employees as “rabble that must be kept under the boss’s heel,” Syracuse’s mild-mannered local newspaper editorialized thus:
Like most central New Yorkers, we cheered when Landis came to Solvay, bringing nearly 200 jobs to a community that had been clobbered by the Allied pullout. [Allied Chemical had closed its Solvay plant in 1986.] But no one expected a seventeenth-century attitude toward worker rights to come with the deal. No one expected mangled bodies to be accepted as a cost of doing business.
Then the federal government stepped in, and things began to go Saumier’s way. OSHA fined Landis $720,700 – one of the largest safety fines in New York history – for seventy-four violations at the plant. An EEOC settlement forced Landis to pay $782,000 to former and current female employees. A federal judge issued an injunction, ordering Landis to reinstate Saumier. Pointing out that the company had done nothing in the past about female workers’ complaints of sexual harassment – or about black workers’ complaints of racial harassment – the judge ruled that Landis was retaliating against Saumier for her union activism and whistle-blowing activities. Then the National Labor Relations Board conclusively determined the same and ordered Landis to rehire Saumier.
By the time Saumier returned to her job thirteen months after being fired, the pace had increased: now the machines pumped out 700 containers per minute. Saumier could barely keep up, and a workplace injury caused her intense pain. Of the more than one hundred workers who had originally joined Saumier in signing union cards, only fifteen remained. Most of the new workers were immigrants, too frightened to speak up and suffer Saumier’s fate or worse. Saumier decided to quit, the union drive stalled. Today, there is no union at Landis Plastics.
• • • • •
In the course of cleaning up my computer, I found the above discussion of workplace coercion and labor unions that I wrote for, and had intended to include in, The Reactionary Mind. Originally I planned to use it to open the introduction—to give readers a more concrete sense of what I meant by the reactionary politics of the right, a politics dedicated to the preservation of private hierarchies of power—but Rick Perlstein wisely counseled me to take it out.
Since I’ve been talking quite a bit of late about workplace coercion—though it’s an old concern of mine, going back to my grad school work as a union organizer and my first book Fear: The History of a Political Idea (especially chapter 8)—I thought I’d post this passage here, particularly since it’s never been published anywhere.
The material is entirely drawn from Steven Greenhouse’s excellent book The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker (New York: Knopf, 2008), pp. 15-34, which I highly recommend. Focusing on a little known labor struggle from the 1990s, this story gives a visceral sense of the neo-feudalism of the workplace I often talk about. Outside the military and the prison, is there any institution that so controls the bodies of adult men and women? No wonder they call it the prison house of labor.
Milton F[riedman] is a bloody nuisance. In the end he is not right in his provocative stands, but it takes valuable time rebutting his arguments….Having just returned from UCLA where (as in Virginia and Washington) the place is jumping with energetic libertarian nuts, I realize that so much of one’s scientific life has to be occupied in sterile debate.
Inspired by all this libertarian talk, I dug out an old piece of mine from 2002, in the Boston Globe, that talks about a little known fact: many workers in the United States aren’t able to exercise their right to pee on the job—due to lack of government enforcement—and it wasn’t until 1998 (!) that they even got that right, thanks to the federal government. The piece pivots from there to a more general discussion about coercion in the workplace and its history.
I wish academics, journalists, intellectuals, and bloggers had a more concrete sense of what it’s like to work in an actual workplace in America (not to mention elsewhere). Sometimes, it seems that scholars and writers, if they think about it at all, simply assume the typical workplace to be a seminar room, a newsroom, the cafe around the corner, or their office at home.
The piece isn’t long, so I’m reproducing it here in its entirety:
IN HIS NEVER-ENDING quest for control of the workplace, Henry Ford confronted many foes, but none as wily or rebellious as the human digestive tract. Hoping to tame what he called the body’s ”disassembly line,” Ford wheeled lunch wagons into his auto plant in Highland Park, Mich., and forced workers to wolf down a 10-minute sandwich on the job. So industrialized was ingestion at the plant that workers growled about their ”Ford stomach.” But where Ford sought to speed up the meal’s entrance into the body, his successors – from store managers in the Midwest to fashion moguls in New York – have concentrated on slowing down its exit.
Today’s workplace can sometimes seem like a battlefield of the bladder. On the one side are workers who wanna go when they gotta go; on the other are employers who want to stop them, sometimes for hours on end. Just this past month, a Jim Beam bourbon distillery in Clermont, Ky., was forced to drop its strict bathroom-break policies after the plant’s union focused negative international attention – from ABC News to Australia – on Jim Beam and its parent company, Fortune Brands, Inc. According to union officials, managers kept computer spreadsheets monitoring employee use of the bathroom, and 45 employees were disciplined for heeding nature’s call outside company-approved breaks. Female workers were even told to report the beginning of their menstrual cycles to the human resources department, said one union leader.
In their 1998 book ”Void Where Prohibited: Rest Breaks and the Right to Urinate on Company Time,” Marc Linder and Ingrid Nygaard of the University of Iowa – he’s a law professor, she’s a urogynecologist – trace the long and ignoble history of the struggle for the right to pee on the job. In 1995, for instance, female employees at a Nabisco plant in Oxnard, Calif., maker of A-1 steak sauce and the world’s supplier of Grey Poupon mustard, complained in a lawsuit that line supervisors had consistently prevented them from going to the bathroom. Instructed to urinate into their clothes or face three days’ suspension for unauthorized expeditions to the toilet, the workers opted for adult diapers. But incontinence pads were expensive, so many employees downgraded to Kotex and toilet paper, which pose severe health risks when soaked in urine. Indeed, several workers eventually contracted bladder and urinary tract infections. Hearing of their plight, conservative commentator R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. advised the workers to wear special diapers used by horses in New York’s Central Park carriage trade.
How does a country that celebrates the joy of unfettered movement tolerate such restrictions on this most basic of bodily motions? Why do the freedoms that we take for granted outside the workplace suddenly disappear when we enter it? ”Belated Feudalism,” a study by UCLA political scientist Karen Orren, suggests a surprising, and shocking, answer. According to Orren, long after the Bill of Rights was ratified and slavery abolished – well into the 20th century, in fact – the American workplace remained a feudal institution. Not metaphorically, but legally. Workers were governed by statutes originating in the common law of medieval England, with precedents extending as far back as the year 500. Like their counterparts in feudal Britain, judges exclusively administered these statutes, treating workers as the literal property of their employers. Not until 1937, when the Supreme Court upheld the Wagner Act, giving workers the right to organize unions, did the judiciary relinquish political control over the workplace to Congress.
Prior to the ’30s, Orren shows, American judges regularly applied the ”law of master and servant” to quell the worker’s independent will. According to one jurist, that law recognized only ”the superiority and power” of the master, and the ”duty, subjection, and, as it were, allegiance” of the worker. Medieval vagrancy statutes forced able-bodied males into the workplace, while ancient principles of ”entire” contract kept them there. A worker hired for a period of time – often five to 10 years and beyond – was legally not entitled to any of his earnings unless and until he completed the entire term of his contract. When rules of vagrancy and entirety failed, judges turned to other precedents, some dating from the time of Richard II, requiring workers seeking employment to obtain a ”testimonial letter” from their previous employer. Because employers were under no legal obligation to provide such letters, judges could effectively stop workers from ever trying to move on.
As soon as workers entered the workplace, they became the property of their employers. Judges enforced the 13th-century rule of ”quicquid acquietur servo acquietur domino” (whatever is acquired by the servant is acquired by the master), mandating that employees give to their employers whatever they may have earned off the job – as if the employee, and not his labor, belonged to the employer. If an outside party injured an employee so that he couldn’t perform his duties, the employer could sue that party for damages, ”as if the injury had been to his chattel or machines or buildings.” But if the outside party injured the employer so that he could not provide employment, the employee could not likewise sue. Why? Because, claimed one jurist, the ”inferior hath no kind of property in the company, care, or assistance of the superior, as the superior is held to have in those of the inferior.”
”Belated Feudalism” set off multiple explosions when it appeared in 1991, inflicting serious damage on the received wisdom of Harvard political scientist Louis Hartz. In his 1955 classic ”The Liberal Tradition in America,” still taught on many college campuses, Hartz argued that the United States was born free: Americans never knew feudalism; their country – with its Horatio Alger ethos of individual mobility, private property, free labor, and the sacred rights of contract – was modern and liberal from the start. For decades, liberals embraced Hartz’s argument as an explanation for why there was no – and could never be any – radicalism in the United States. Leftists, for their part, also accepted his account, pointing to the labor movement’s failure to create socialism as evidence of liberalism’s hegemony.
But as Orren shows, American liberalism has never been the easy inheritance that Hartz and his complacent defenders assume. And the American labor movement may have achieved something far more difficult and profound than its leftist critics realize. Trade unions, Orren argues, made America liberal, laying slow but steady siege to an impregnable feudal fortress, prying open this ”state within a state” to collective bargaining and congressional review. By pioneering tactics later used by the civil rights movement – sit-ins, strikes, and civil disobedience – labor unions invented the modern idea of collective action, turning every sphere of society into a legitimate arena of democratic politics. It’s no accident that when the factory walls came tumbling down, other old regimes – of race, gender, and sexual orientation – began to topple in their wake.
If there’s one flaw in ”Belated Feudalism,” it may be Orren’s optimism about the irreversibility of feudalism’s demise and labor’s gains. For in today’s workplace, as Linder and Nygaard show, the spirit, if not the letter, of the old regime persists. And it may be gaining ground. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1979, 25 percent of employees in medium- to large-sized companies did not have paid rest breaks during which they could go to the bathroom. By 1993, the last year for which there are statistics, that number had jumped to 32 percent. (In 1992, 51 percent of employees working at small firms did not receive paid rest breaks; there are no statistics for earlier years.) Not until April 1998 did the federal government, under pressure from the labor movement, even maintain that employers had to grant employees an ill-defined ”timely access” to the bathroom.
Though most reviewers haven’t picked up on this theme, Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent bestseller ”Nickel and Dimed” offers a startling inventory of contemporary workplace feudalism, where workers are constantly forced to hand over body and soul to employers. Even before workers are hired, drug tests ask for their bodily fluids, surrendered in company bathrooms to proprietary supervisors. Personality tests insist on deep confession: Is the worker prone to self-pity? Does he think people talk about him behind his back? Once hired, employees confront the upstairs-downstairs world of old Europe. One advertisement for a corporate cleaning service brags, ”We clean floors the old-fashioned way – on our hands and knees.” At a Minnesota Wal-Mart, workers are punished for ”time theft” – doing anything besides work on company time – bringing to mind Frederick Douglass’s famous description of himself as a piece of stolen property. (It may be Wal-Mart itself that is stealing time. In class-action lawsuits across 28 states, employees are challenging a ”zero-tolerance” overtime policy that forces employees to clock out at the end of their shifts but then keep working.)
Like so much else in the contemporary economy, feudalism has gone upscale and high tech, eliminating liberal freedoms of speech and association in the wired workplace. Exxon Mobil and Delta have installed a software program on their company computers to ferret out any sign of employee opposition to management authority. The program forwards to managers all employee documents and e-mails – saved or unsaved, sent or unsent – containing ”alert” words like ”boss” or ”union.” As a supervisor explained to the Wall Street Journal, ”The workplace is never free of fear – and it shouldn’t be. Indeed, fear can be a powerful management tool.” So repressive is today’s workplace, wired or not, that Human Rights Watch recently sent Lance Compa of Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations there to investigate. What did he find? In the last decade alone, according to federal government statistics, almost 200,000 employees punished for exercising their right to form and participate in a union.
When Walt Whitman heard ”America singing,” he thought he heard the ”varied carols” of independent workers, ”each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else.” As Orren shows, it’s not clear that was ever true. But today, with the pink slips flying, it’s all too easy for corporate managers to make sure that employees sing only company tunes. As unions start to organize the low and high ends of the service economy, it may prove labor’s task, once again, to force a measure of modernity on this obstinate medieval world.
This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 9/29/2002.