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.