Common Dreams has posted an extensive review–or perhaps “report” is a more accurate term–of philosopher Elizabeth Anderson’s new book, “Private Government.” It is an examination of work environments in which millions of Americans apparently find themselves stripped of rights to a degree that I found shocking.
I don’t usually quote material at length, but in this case I’ll make an exception: here are the first two paragraphs of the Common Dreams report.
Corporate dictatorships—which strip employees of fundamental constitutional rights, including free speech, and which increasingly rely on temp or contract employees who receive no benefits and have no job security—rule the lives of perhaps 80 percent of working Americans. These corporations, with little or no oversight, surveil and monitor their workforces. They conduct random drug testing, impose punishing quotas and targets, routinely engage in wage theft, injure workers and then refuse to make compensation, and ignore reports of sexual harassment, assault and rape. They use managerial harassment, psychological manipulation—including the pseudo-science of positive psychology—and intimidation to ensure obedience. They fire workers for expressing leftist political opinions on social media or at public events during their off-hours. They terminate those who file complaints or publicly voice criticism about working conditions. They thwart attempts to organize unions, callously dismiss older workers and impose “non-compete” contract clauses, meaning that if workers leave they are unable to use their skills and human capital to work for other employers in the same industry. Nearly half of all technical professions now require workers to sign non-compete clauses, and this practice has spread to low-wage jobs including those in hair salons and restaurants.
The lower the wages the more abusive the conditions. Workers in the food and hotel industries, agriculture, construction, domestic service, call centers, the garment industry, warehouses, retail sales, lawn service, prisons, and health and elder care suffer the most. Walmart, for example, which employs nearly 1 percent of the U.S. labor force (1.4 million workers), prohibits casual conversation, which it describes as “time theft.” The food industry giant Tyson prevents its workers from taking toilet breaks, causing many to urinate on themselves; as a result, some workers must wear diapers. The older, itinerant workers that Amazon often employsare subjected to grueling 12-hour shifts in which the company electronically monitors every action to make sure hourly quotas are met. Some Amazon workers walk for miles on concrete floors each shift and repeatedly get down on their hands and knees to perform their jobs. They frequently suffer crippling injuries. The company makes injured employees, whom it fires, sign releases saying the injuries are not work-related. Two-thirds of workers in low-wage industries are victims of wage theft, losing an amount estimated to be as high as $50 billion a year. From 4 million to 14 million American workers, under threat of wage cuts, plant shutdowns or dismissal, have been pressured by their employers to support pro-corporate political candidatesand causes.
There is much more, and I encourage you to click through and read the review in its entirety.
At risk of oversimplification, I attribute this horrific situation to the decimation of American labor unions. When I was a girl (back in the Ice Age), unions were not only powerful, they often dominated (and sometimes even terrorized) the management of targeted enterprises, and were subject to legitimate criticisms for overreach.
That was then.
Now, after years of concerted attacks, passage of “right to work” laws encouraging free riders, and the explosive growth of the gig economy, unions are virtually non-actors, and without them, most workers have no bargaining power. If Anderson is correct–if 80% of America’s labor force has been stripped of what we think of as fundamental rights and even human dignity–it’s time to rethink both employment law and the American social contract.