‘After the eighth such incident this year, Vista Consulting Partners human resources director Beth Shumaker sent out a company-wide email Thursday reminding employees not to scrawl the word “revenge” in blood across any surface in the conference room. “Most of you are already familiar with this rule, but just as a refresher, it’s directly against company policy for an employee to use blood to write ‘revenge’ on the conference room walls, door, or table,” wrote Shumaker, emphasizing that it did not matter if the word was rendered in human or animal blood. “Remember that we all use this room, and it’s inconsiderate to force your colleagues to delay their meeting to scrub ‘revenge’ off the whiteboard or windows.” Shumaker added that any employee who wanted revenge should simply carve the word into the forehead of his or her supervisor.’
It’s directly against company policy for an employee to use blood to write “revenge” on the conference room walls13 Sep
Over the weekend, I got a really nice shout-out in the New York Times Book Review from the historian Rick Perlstein. In fact, you guys, my readers and commenters, also got a really nice shout out.
And who today are the best writers on American politics?
There are two, and they both are bloggers. One, Corey Robin of Brooklyn College, is also a political theorist; his book “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin” provides the most convincing account about what right-wing habits of mind are ultimately all about. His humane and erudite blog — and its spirited commenters — deepen that conversation. A favorite theme is the emptiness of right-wing notions of “freedom” that actually leave us less free. See, for instance, his work on “Lavatory and Liberty,” which points out that the government doesn’t even enforce the right to bathroom breaks at work. What could be a greater insult to liberty than that?
My other favorite political writer, Heather Parton, blogs under the name “Digby.” Daily for over 10 years she’s been unleashing a fire hose of brilliance on the fecklessness of the Democrats, the craziness of the Republicans and especially the way that what we now call the “culture wars” has been seared into our national DNA at least since the Civil War. In the acknowledgments to “Nixonland,” I called her the other half of my brain.
Thank you to all my commenters, to Rick, and also to Digby, who was one of this blog’s earliest champions and who is, as Rick says, a great blogger herself. I’m humbled to be in such company.
I’m mindful that, thanks to Rick, I now have many new readers; over the weekend, I’ve gotten hundreds new subscribers to this blog. And because it’s Labor Day, I’m mindful that many of you might want to read something about labor. Unfortunately, because of my involvement in the Salaita affair, the beginning of the semester, and the fact that I’m department chair, I don’t have anything new to post here on labor.
I would urge all of you newbies to maybe start by reading all that I’ve written about the Salaita affair on this blog. It’s easy to forget, in all the back and forth about academic freedom, that Salaita’s situation is actually all too typical of at-will employees across the country. The only difference is that Salaita, being an academic, may have a chance in court—and has been the recipient of a certain kind of internet and now media attention that non-academics almost never get.
But readers of this blog know all too well that American employees are routinely punished by their employers for speaking out, controversially or uncontroversially, on political issues (and for a great many other things). As I’ve argued many times, this is a distinctly American mode of political punishment and repression: outsource to the private sector (or the workplace) the coercion that a liberal state is constitutionally forbidden to do, a feature of our system noticed by everyone from Tocqueville to DuBois that nevertheless continues not to get enough play.
In order to get new readers started on some of these issues, and in honor of Labor Day, I thought I’d present here a Greatest Hits of some of my posts about labor, law, and political and other kinds of repression in the United States.
This post, which I wrote with Chris Bertram and Alex Gourevitch over at Crooked Timber, will help get you started. It provides a good overview about “unfreedom” at work.
Unfreedom in the workplace can be broken down into three categories.
1. Abridgments of freedom inside the workplace
On pain of being fired, workers in most parts of the United States can be commanded to pee or forbidden to pee. They can be watched on camera by their boss while they pee. They can be forbidden to wear what they want, say what they want (and at what decibel), and associate with whom they want. They can be punished for doing or not doing any of these things—punished legally or illegally (as many as 1 in 17 workers who try to join a union is illegally fired or suspended). But what’s remarkable is just how many of these punishments are legal, and even when they’re illegal, how toothless the law can be. Outside the usual protections (against race and gender discrimination, for example), employees can be fired for good reasons, bad reasons, or no reason at all. They can be fired for donating a kidney to their boss (fired by the same boss, that is), refusing to have their person and effects searched, calling the boss a “cheapskate” in a personal letter, and more. They have few rights on the job—certainly none of the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Amendment liberties that constitute the bare minimum of a free society; thus, no free speech or assembly, no due process, no right to a fair hearing before a panel of their peers—and what rights they do have employers will fight tooth and nail to make sure aren’t made known to them or will simply require them to waive as a condition of employment. Outside the prison or the military—which actually provide, at least on paper, some guarantee of due process—it’s difficult to conceive of a less free institution for adults than the average workplace.
2. Abridgements of freedom outside the workplace
In addition to abridging freedoms on the job, employers abridge their employees’ freedoms off the job. Employers invade employees’ privacy, demanding that they hand over passwords to their Facebook accounts, and fire them for resisting such invasions. Employers secretly film their employees at home. Workers are fired for supporting the wrong political candidates (“work for John Kerry or work for me”), failing to donate to employer-approved candidates, challenging government officials, writing critiques of religion on their personal blogs (IBM instructs employees to “show proper consideration…for topics that may be considered objectionable or inflammatory—such as politics and religion”), carrying on extramarital affairs, participating in group sex at home, cross-dressing, and more. Workers are punished for smoking or drinking in the privacy of their own homes. (How many nanny states have tried that?) They can be fired for merely thinking about having an abortion, for reporting information that might have averted the Challenger disaster, for being raped by an estranged husband. Again, this is all legal in many states, and in the states where it is illegal, the laws are often weak.
In other words, it’s really easy to get yourself fired in this country. Even for liking My Little Pony.
The 2012 election brought to public attention a whole series of stories about employers forcing employees to attend campaign rallies of the employers’ favored candidates (almost invariably Mitt Romney; you can see why they support Romney, after you read this piece I wrote for the New York Times on the Republican war on worker rights). This is a serious issue in that it involves coercing workers to support a certain kind of political speech; indeed, if you take participation in a rally as a mode of political speech, you could say that employers were actually forcing their employees to speak with a particular opinion. What also came to light: employers trying to force workers to vote for one candidate, as employers do in some countries the US disapproves of.
One of the basic themes of this blog, and which Rick referred to in his interview, is about employers controlling the bodily functions of their employees. Sometimes employers are trying to prohibit workers from going to the bathroom; other times, they’re trying to force them to go to the bathroom. Employers are also obsessed with when workers get to eat. Goodbye to the lunch break.
Another theme, related to the bathroom, is how employers infantilize employees. Sometimes, employers are quite explicit about this, comparing their workers to children. Sometimes employees find themselves participating in this regime in the most unsavory ways.
We often think non-profits like universities and hospitals do better on this front because they’re non-profits. Think again. Universities can be terrible; hospitals, even worse. Even the ACLU seems to have trouble with liberty in its workplaces.
Ah, but can’t workers just join unions to fix all this? Turns out that a combination of US law and employer resistance makes that a very difficult thing to do.
These last posts try to put some of these the issue in broad historical perspective: showing how workplace unfreedom can be traced back to the feudal origins of the American workplace, which persisted well into the twentieth century; how minimal sometimes are the protections for workers’ freedom of contract, which is supposed to be the capitalist freedom par excellence; how the workplace functions as a private government, exercising powers that have been outsourced to it by the state; (which may be the best way to think about the whole question of birth control and Hobby Lobby); how this relates to some of the classical themes and questions of liberalism; and how one of our most famous metaphors of freedom of speech—shouting fire in a theater—has its origins in a forgotten labor struggle from 1913.
Happy Labor Day.
I’ve mentioned Greg Grandin’s book Empire of Necessity on this blog before. It’s basically the true story—and more!—behind Melville’s Benito Cereno, which if you haven’t read, you should read right away. And then read Greg’s book. In any event, Alex Gourevitch has a wonderful interview with Greg up today at Jacobin. It’s got all sorts of gems in it, but I thought readers here would be especially interested in this:
Scholars have long examined the ways in which slavery underwrites capitalism. I thought this story, though, allowed attention to slavery’s role in shaping not so much the social or financial dimensions of capitalism but its psychic and imaginative ones.
Capitalism is, among other things, a massive process of ego formation, the creation of modern selves, the illusion of individual autonomy, the cultivation of distinction and preference, the idea that individuals had their own moral conscience, based on individual reason and virtue. The wealth created by slavery generalized these ideals, allowing more and more people, mostly men, to imagine themselves as autonomous and integral beings, with inherent rights and self-interests not subject to the jurisdiction of others. Slavery was central to this process not just for the wealth the system created but because slaves were physical and emotional examples of what free men were not.
But there is more. That process of individuation creates a schism between inner and outer, in which self-interest, self-cultivation, and personal moral authority drive a wedge between seeming and being. Hence you have the emergence of metaphysicians like Melville, Emerson, and of course Marx, along with others, trying to figure out the relationship between depth and surface.
What I try to do in the book is demonstrate the centrality of slavery to this process, the way “free trade in blacks” takes slavery’s foundational deception, its original deceit as captured in the con the West Africans were able to play on Amasa Delano, and acts as a force multiplier. Capitalism disperses that deception into every aspect of modern life.
There’s many ways this happens. Deceit, through contraband, is absolutely key to the expansion of slavery in South America. When historians talk about the Atlantic market revolution, they are talking about capitalism. And when they are talking about capitalism, they are talking about slavery. And when they are talking about slavery, they are talking about corruption and crime. Not in a moral sense, in that the slave system was a crime against humanity. That it was. But it was also a crime in a technical sense: probably as many enslaved Africans came into South America as contraband, to avoid taxes and other lingering restrictions, as legally.
Sometimes slaves were the contraband. At other times, they were cover for the real contraband, luxury items being smuggled in from France or Great Britain, which helped cultivate the personal taste of South America’s expanding gentry class. And since one of the things capitalism is at its essence is an ongoing process to define the arbitrary line that separates “self-interest” from “corruption,” slavery was essential in creating the normative categories associated with modern society.
If you ever needed a better example of Fear, American Style—or a demonstration of the limits of libertarianism—here’s an illustrative story out of Washington State. For years, activists—including, to their credit, libertarians—have been pushing for the legalization of marijuana. In 2012, Washington did it. This ensued:
The first person to legally purchase marijuana in the state of Washington was fired from his job as a security worker after he was spotted on television making the purchase.
At 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Mike Boyer was the first person in the door of the Spokane Green Leaf marijuana dispensary. He was captured on video by KXLY yelling, “Go Washington!” as he legally purchased four grams of Sour Kush.
The network then followed him home and filmed him smoking his legally purchased marijuana.
Boyer told The New York Daily News that a client of the security firm he formerly worked for saw him on the KXLY report and contacted his employer, who then asked Boyer to submit to a urinalysis test within 24 hours.
The test came back positive for THC, the mind-altering ingredient in marijuana.
“I’ve worked for them on and off for 12 years and several years ago, I signed a document that said I wouldn’t have [THC] in my system,” he said.
For years, libertarians have fought for the decriminalization of drugs in the name of freedom. Now, with pot in Washington (and Colorado), we have it. So what are libertarians going to do about this kind of firing? They need to come clean: either they really care about freedom, in which case they need to support the rights of workers in the workplace, or they should just admit that their real agenda is to strip the state of all of its functions, good or bad.
Update (1:15 pm)
Turns out, after this story was publicized and went viral, the security company that fired Boyer decided to hire him back. Said it was all a misunderstanding. Mistakes were made.
I haven’t had time to read much beyond the basics about today’s Hobby Lobby decision, but here are a few posts I’ve written over the years that should help put the Supreme Court’s decision in theoretical and historical perspective:
1. First, a general primer on neoliberalism, which makes the point—contra many on the left and the right—that at the heart of our contemporary capitalist economy are not individualistic choosers but men and women, in semi-”private” institutions, in thrall and subjugation to their superiors. It’s the Feudalism, Stupid!
2. Second, two posts on free-market types and birth control, how even the most libertarian-ish free-wheeler seeks to control women’s bodies: Love For Sale: Birth Control from Marx to Mises and Probing Tyler Cowen: When Libertarians Get Medieval on Your Vagina.
3. Last, a post that brings it all together—the private life of power; fear, American Style; and freedom, oh freedom—in one place: Birth Control McCarthyism.
In the coming days, I hope to have something more on the decision.
Was struck, in reading this piece by David Montgomery, by just how radical the CIO was after World War II. At its annual convention, writes Montgomery, the CIO called for:
continuation of government controls over prices and the allocation of production materials, “development of atomic energy for civilian purposes under United Nations auspices,” government sponsorship of housing to offset the failures of the market to provide for workers’ urgent needs, and expansion of social security to encompass all agricultural, domestic, and maritime workers and to include health protection.
That was in 1946, more than a decade after the Wagner Act, which some people think ended the radicalism of the labor movement. 1946 was also the year that saw the largest strike wave in American history, including a general strike in Oakland.
Good news: The Supreme Court ruled today that the police have to have a warrant to search the cell phone of someone they arrest.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the court, said the vast amount of data contained on modern cellphones must be protected from routine inspection.
The old rules, Chief Justice Roberts said, cannot be applied to “modern cellphones, which are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.”
The courts have long allowed warrantless searches in connection with arrests, saying they are justified by the need to protect police officers and to prevent the destruction of evidence.
But Chief Justice Roberts said neither justification made much sense in the context of cellphones. On the other side of the balance, he said, is the data contained on the typical cellphone. Ninety percent of Americans have them, he wrote, and they contain “a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives — from the mundane to the intimate.”
Even the word “cellphone” is a misnomer, he said. “They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, Rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps or newspapers,” he wrote.
Chief Justice Roberts acknowledged that the decision would make law enforcement more difficult.
“Cellphones have become important tools in facilitating coordination and communication among members of criminal enterprises, and can provide valuable incriminating information about dangerous criminals,” he wrote. “Privacy comes at a cost.”
Bad news: The Supreme Court ruled four years ago that employers have the right to search the cell phones of their employees.
A hesitant Supreme Court waded cautiously into a question that arises daily in workplaces and offices across the country: whether employers have the right to look over the shoulders of workers who use company computers and cellphones for personal communication.
In the first ruling of its kind, the justices said they do, as long as there is a “legitimate work-related purpose” to monitor them. But the court said it would proceed cautiously in deciding how far an employer can go in searching the “electronic sphere” that has become an inescapable part of the modern workplace.
In the case at hand, the court ruled unanimously that a police chief’s search of text messages sent and received by a SWAT team officer did not violate his constitutional protection against unreasonable searches.
Even though Sgt. Jeff Quon of Ontario, Calif., had some expectation of privacy, the court said, the police department’s review — which turned up sexually explicit messages to his wife and his mistress — was justified.
But at a time when many employers warn that they can monitor workers’ use of company computers and cellphones, the court was reluctant to draw clear lines between what is private and what is not.
Quon’s case may sound familiar to many workers. Even though the department told him and his co-workers that they should not expect privacy when using their pagers, they were also told that personal use would be tolerated to a certain degree. If he exceeded the monthly allotment of texts, he was told, he would have to pay the difference.
He did go over the allowed number, but his superiors tired of collecting the fees and wondered whether the plan was too limited. The police chief ordered the records from the company that provided the texting service.
After removing the texts Quon sent when he was off-duty, his bosses found that the vast majority of his texts were personal — 400 of 456 one month. According to Kennedy’s opinion, he was “allegedly disciplined.”
Quon sued, saying the search violated the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches for him and those who texted him.
A district judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit agreed with him.
But the justices said Quon should not have assumed that his text messages “were in all circumstances immune from scrutiny.” Kennedy said the department’s search was reasonable and, by eliminating those messages he sent while off-duty, not intrusive.
To my knowledge, the Court has not yet ruled on cases where the communication device in question was the employee’s personal property. That said, the fact that the pager in Quon’s case belonged to the employer does not seem to have been the operative issue; more important was, given the employer’s policies, the employee’s expectation of privacy. And since many employers make it explicit that employees should have little to no expectation of privacy on their communication devices at work, I’m not sure a case in which the phone belonged to the employee would make much of a difference.
So here is how things stand: when it comes to cell phone use, you have more protection against government searches than you do against employer searches. As an employer, the police have far more freedom to search cell phones than they do as an agency of the government.
Update (10 pm)
I should have noted this earlier, but it should also be emphasized that in the second case, the employer is the government. That the Court is even as solicitous of an employee’s privacy rights in that case as it is is probably due mostly to the fact that the employer in this case is the government. If the employer were private, there would be a much lower guarantee of employee privacy.
I should also note that in the Quon case, part of the employee’s expectation of privacy had to do with the fact that the pager belonged to the police. But the Court was careful to note that it did not want to make hard and fast rules about under what circumstances an employee could have a legitimate expectation of privacy.