Labor Day Readings

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.


  1. I'm with stupid September 1, 2014 at 1:27 pm | #

    “all too typical of all-will employees ”


  2. realthog September 1, 2014 at 3:00 pm | #

    Congrats on all the new readers, CR! Well deserved.

  3. George Ovitt September 1, 2014 at 5:21 pm | #

    An instructive case of higher education’s fear of real dissent and unfettered speech might be that of my late and lamented friend David Noble, fired from both MIT and the Smithsonian, and, had he lived longer, perhaps from Toronto as well. Sure, a day in court, certainly some media attention, but the costs of having one’s livelihood–one’s speech–curtailed remain painful long after a settlement has been reached. I trust Professor Salaita will be vindicated or compensated, but the damage has been done, both to him and to the reputation of UI. It’s gratifying to see the professors up in arms on Salaita’s behalf–would that the good profs had joined him more vocally in the matter that precipitated his de-hiring in the first place.

    I just signed on to this blog and have been reading literally all the laborless day. Thanks for your provocative and informative posts and wonderfully clear writing.

  4. ovitt September 1, 2014 at 5:57 pm | #

    I have passed much of my laborless day reading your political theory entries. While I read Mr. Perlstein for the Caroesque (!) details of our late republic’s reactionary history, henceforth I will be reading you for the political background. I especially appreciate the clear manner in which you have described the Austrian school’s role in the rise of America’s plutocrats, and debunked the myth that somehow Hayek et al. were champions of liberty. It’s a complicated story, not one with which to regale the neighbors at our Labor Day block party, but, inch by inch, the truth will either set us free or allow us to die laughing.

  5. randwilson September 4, 2014 at 2:35 pm | #

    Interesting reading and a very good critique of the “at-will” employment backwardness of U.S. labor law. Your readers might be interested in my recent article in Dollars and Sense magazine: “Just Cause” and the Attack on Job Security,

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