The Prison House of Labor

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.


  1. BillW March 12, 2012 at 1:51 am | #

    How about labor of 13 years olds? Some of the scenes and protagonists reminded me of Pasolini’s (or Sade’s) Salò.

  2. David Kaib March 12, 2012 at 8:14 am | #

    It seems to me that when a lot of people hear ‘free enterprise’ or ‘capitalism’ they imagine a small shop owner and some employees who aren’t so desperate that they couldn’t leave if they were mistreated. On some level, I think they appreciate how powerless an individual worker or consumer is in relation to a large corporation. Despite the fact that it is organizing 101, we rarely see the stories of people facing this sort of despotism which is quite common. I think neoliberals resist this sort of thing because they recognize that it might be successful, that it could raise questions they don’t want to have to answer. Despite this, we are starting to see more of people’s stories – in the wake of Komen / force ultrasound laws, and the Koch-Cato controversy. Glad to see you firing away at this. Very few people think that an employer should be able to treat people like this or prevent them from using the bath room.

  3. Stephen Zielinski March 12, 2012 at 8:53 am | #

    One could not prove it, but I’ve long believed that authoritarianism in the United States rests on three principles:

    1. Everyone must submit to the disciple of the labor market (“Get a job, loafer”)

    2. Everyone who works must submit to the discipline of the organization that employs them (“Yesum, boss”)

    3. Government ought to not over-regulate capital (Efficient production requires unregulated capital)

    Americans expect to take a beating at work and often do. They are often grateful for the ‘opportunity’ to work for a wage. They not only must “go along to get along,” they expect others to do the same. And, of course, joblessness is a source of shame.

    Where might the spirit of political liberty take hold given this situation?

    • nillionaire March 12, 2012 at 2:04 pm | #

      build on the american admiration of entrepreneurship and self-ownership by facilitating the creation of worker-controlled/owned businesses

      • Stephen Zielinski March 12, 2012 at 7:03 pm | #

        Worker owned firms. That’s certainly one key solution to the problems posed by workplace barbarism!

  4. b-psycho March 12, 2012 at 1:08 pm | #

    Interesting that the massive subsidies that brought Landis there in the first place apparently had no strings attached concerning workplace conditions. The state doing everything short of fellating the owner, then turning a blind eye to what their new welfare king was doing on their dime under the assumption that a job is a job and who cares beyond that, could be argued as a dereliction of duty.

    Of course, I’d say it’s business as usual, but then I’m a nutjob.

  5. Todd March 12, 2012 at 8:42 pm | #

    “this story gives a visceral sense of the neo-feudalism of the workplace I often talk about.”

    Ugh! But using “feudalism” in this sense puts my teeth on edge; it’s as if one can’t just come out and call it what it’s been called since this kind of crap happened in the 19th century: capitalism.

    • Corey Robin March 12, 2012 at 10:15 pm | #

      In my March 8 post about bathroom breaks, I give some sense why I call it neo-feudalism. And in earlier posts, if you want to scroll through, I elaborate on some of the implications of that term. Anti-union rulings in the judiciary are rooted in conspiracy doctrines that predate the 19th century and the rise of capitalism. There’s a whole legal apparatus rooted in medieval common law that props it up throughout the 19th century.

      • Todd March 13, 2012 at 6:25 pm | #

        I read your March 8 post,and I can follow the reasoning. I just don’t see what gain this can make (beyond a left bougeois one), and it reminds me too much of the logic behind the “Rotten Apple” Theory that singles out particularly egregious violations but leaves alone the “good apples” that nonetheless fell from the same tree (which is also left unnamed).

        It reminds me of people who insist on talking about “globalization” as an evil somehow separate from capitalism, as if little “local, family-run” businesses are somehow beyond reproach (not, as we can clearly see by this post).

  6. Richard Schroeder March 13, 2012 at 9:46 pm | #

    Why did Rick Perlstein counsel you to take this out? I’m not questioning his wisdom (I’m a fan of work by both of you), just curious.

  7. gatherdust March 17, 2012 at 2:53 pm | #

    I haven’t read much of your work which puts me a risk of foot swallowing. So at that risk and the high hope that I can convert the damage to trimming toenails with my teeth, I’m also struck by the way capitalism gets a pass. The factory floor and the struggles on it have everything to do with capitalism even if private hierarchies transcend capitalism in some way. I wonder if your fascination with conservative political ideology and movements has shaped your perception of the conflicts in the labor process.

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