BOSSES ARE LIKE DICTATORS
Anderson is John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy
and Women's Studies at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She
is the author of Value in Ethics and Economics, The Imperative
of Integration, Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives
(And Why We Don't Talk about It), and dozens of articles
in journals of philosophy, law and economics. You can find out
more about her here.
Consider some facts
about how American employers control their workers. Amazon prohibits
employees from exchanging casual remarks while on duty, calling
this ‘time theft.’ Apple inspects the personal belongings
of its retail workers, some of whom lose up to a half-hour of
unpaid time every day as they wait in line to be searched. Tyson
prevented its poultry workers from using the bathroom.
Some have been forced to urinate on themselves while their supervisors
half of US employees have been subject to suspicionless drug screening
by their employers. Millions are pressured by their employers
to support particular political causes or candidates. Soon employers
will be empowered to withhold contraception coverage from their
employees’ health insurance. They already have the right
to penalize workers for failure to exercise and diet, by charging
them higher health insurance premiums.
we understand these sweeping powers that employers have to regulate
their employees’ lives, both on and off duty? Most people
don’t use the term in this context, but wherever some have
the authority to issue orders to others, backed by sanctions,
in some domain of life, that authority is a government.
assume that government refers to state authorities. Yet the state
is only one kind of government. Every organization needs some
way to govern itself — to designate who has authority to
make decisions concerning its affairs, what their powers are,
and what consequences they may mete out to those beneath them
in the organizational chart who fail to do their part in carrying
out the organization’s decisions.
in private firms can impose, for almost any reason, sanctions
including job loss, demotion, pay cuts, worse hours, worse conditions
and harassment. The top managers of firms are therefore the heads
of little governments, who rule their workers while they are at
work — and often even when they are off duty.
government has a constitution, which determines whether it is
a democracy, a dictatorship, or something else. In a democracy
like the United States, the government is public. This means it
is properly the business of the governed: transparent to them
and servant to their interests. They have a voice and the power
to hold rulers accountable.
government is public in this way. When King Louis XIV of France
said, “L'etat, c'est moi,” he meant that
his government was his business alone, something he kept private
from those he governed. They weren’t entitled to know how
he operated it, had no standing to insist he take their interests
into account in his decisions, and no right to hold him accountable
for his actions.
Louis XIV’s government, the typical American workplace is
kept private from those it governs. Managers often conceal decisions
of vital interest to their workers. Often, they don’t even
give advance notice of firm closures and layoffs. They are free
to sacrifice workers’ dignity in dominating and humiliating
their subordinates. Most employer harassment of workers is perfectly
legal, as long as bosses mete it out on an equal-opportunity basis.
(Walmart and Amazon managers are notorious for berating and belittling
their workers.) And workers have virtually no power to hold their
bosses accountable for such abuses: They can’t fire their
bosses, and can’t sue them for mistreatment except in a
very narrow range of cases, mostly having to do with discrimination.
workers subject to private government? The state has set the default
terms of the constitution of workplace government through its
employment laws. The most important source of employers’
power is the default rule of employment at will. Unless the parties
have otherwise agreed, employers are free to fire workers for
almost any or no reason. This amounts to an effective grant of
power to employers to rule the lives of their employees in almost
any respect — not just on the job but off duty as well.
And they have exercised that power.
the lawn care company, fired an employee for smoking off duty.
After Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) notified Lakeland Bank
that an employee had complained he wasn’t holding town hall
meetings, the bank intimidated her into resigning. San Diego Christian
College fired a teacher for having premarital sex — and
hired her fiancé to fill her post. Bosses are dictators,
and workers are their subjects.
means that workers are forced to pee in their pants, why shouldn’t
they have a say in whether such “efficiency” is worthwhile?
American public discourse doesn’t give us helpful ways to
talk about the dictatorial rule of employers. Instead, we talk
as if workers aren’t ruled by their bosses. We are told
that unregulated markets make us free, and that the only threat
to our liberties is the state. We are told that in the market,
all transactions are voluntary. We are told that since workers
freely enter and exit the labour contract, they are perfectly
free under it. We prize our skepticism about government, without
extending our critique to workplace dictatorship.
we talk like this? The answer takes us back to free market ideas
developed before the Industrial Revolution. In 17th- and 18th-century
Britain, big merchants got the state to grant them monopolies
over trade in particular goods, forcing small craftsmen to submit
to their regulations. A handful of aristocratic families enjoyed
a monopoly on land, due to primogeniture and entail, which barred
the breakup and sale of any part of large estates. Farmers could
rent their land only on short-term leases, which forced them to
bow and scrape before their landlords, in a condition of subordination
not much different from servants, who lived in their masters’
households and had to obey their rules.
was that the state had rigged the rules of the market in favour
of the rich. Confronted with this economic situation, many people
argued that free markets would promote equality and workers’
interests by enabling them to go into business for themselves
and thereby escape subordination to the owners of capital.
some of the early advocates of free markets in 17th-century England
were called 'Levellers.' These radicals, who emerged during the
English civil war, wanted to abolish the monopolies held by the
big merchants and aristocrats. They saw the prospects of greater
equality that might come from opening up to ordinary workers opportunities
for manufacture, trade, and farming one’s own land.
18th century, Adam Smith was the greatest advocate for the view
that replacing monopolies, primogeniture, entail and involuntary
servitude with free markets would enable labourers to work on
their own behalf. His key assumption was that incentives were
more powerful than economies of scale. When workers get to keep
all of the fruits of their labour, as they do when self-employed,
they will work much harder and more efficiently than if they are
employed by a master, who takes a cut of what they produce. Indolent
aristocratic landowners can’t compete with yeoman farmers
without laws preventing land sales. Free markets in land, labour,
and commerce will therefore lead to the triumph of the most efficient
producer, the self-employed worker, and the demise of the idle,
stupid, rent-seeking rentier.
and his contemporaries looked across the Atlantic and saw that
America appeared to be realizing these hopes — although
only for white men. The great majority of the free population
in the Revolutionary period was self-employed, as either a yeoman
farmer or an independent artisan or merchant.
United States, Thomas Paine was the great promoter of this vision.
Indeed, his views on political economy sound as if they could
have been ripped out of the GOP Freedom Caucus playbook. Paine
argued that individuals can solve nearly all of their problems
on their own, without state meddling. A good government does nothing
more than secure individuals in “peace and safety”
in the free pursuit of their occupations, with the lowest possible
tax burden. Taxation is theft. People living off government pay
are social parasites.
is the chief cause of poverty. Paine was a lifelong advocate of
commerce, free trade and free markets. He called for hard money
and fiscal responsibility.
was the hero of labour radicals for decades after his death in
1809, because they shared his hope that free markets would yield
an economy almost entirely composed of small proprietors. An economy
of small proprietors offers a plausible model of a free society
of equals: each individual personally independent, none taking
orders from anyone else, everyone middle class.
Lincoln built on the vision of Smith and Paine, which helped to
shape the two key planks of the Republican Party platform: opposition
to the extension of slavery in the territories, and the Homestead
Act. Slavery, after all, enabled masters to accumulate vast tracts
of land, squeezing out small farmers and forcing them into wage
labour. Prohibiting the extension of slavery into the territories
and giving away small plots of land to anyone who would work it
would realize a society of equals in which no one is ever consigned
to wage labour for life. Lincoln, who helped create the political
party that now defends the interests of business, never wavered
from the proposition that true free labour meant freedom from
Revolution, however — well underway by Lincoln’s time
— ultimately dashed the hopes of joining free markets with
independent labour in a society of equals. Smith’s prediction
— that economies of scale would be less important than the
incentive effects of enabling workers to reap all the fruits of
their labour — was defeated by industrial technologies that
required massive accumulations of capital. The US, with its access
to territories seized from Native Americans, was able to stave
off the bankruptcy of self-employed farmers and other small proprietors
for far longer than Europe. But industrialization, population
growth, the closure of the frontier, and railroad monopolies doomed
the sole proprietorship to the margins of the economy, even in
libertarian vision was rendered largely irrelevant by industrialization,
which created a new model of wage labour, with large companies
taking the place of large landowners. Yet strangely, many people
persist in using Smith’s and Paine’s rhetoric to describe
the world we live in today. We are told that our choice is between
free markets and state control — but most adults live their
working lives under a third thing entirely: private government.
A vision of what egalitarians hoped market society would deliver
before the Industrial Revolution — a world without private
workplace government, with producers interacting only through
markets and the state — has been blindly carried over to
the modern economy by libertarians and their pro-business fellow
is a condition called hemiagnosia, whose sufferers cannot perceive
one half of their bodies. A large class of libertarian-leaning
thinkers and politicians, with considerable public following,
resemble patients with this condition: They cannot perceive half
of the economy — the half that takes place beyond the market,
after the employment contract is accepted, where workers are subject
to private, arbitrary, unaccountable government.
can we do about this? Americans are used to complaining about
how government regulation restricts our freedom. So we should
recognize that such complaints apply, with at least as much force,
to private governments of the workplace. For while the punishments
employers can impose for disobedience aren’t as severe as
those available to the state, the scope of employers’ authority
over workers is more sweeping and exacting, its power more arbitrary
and unaccountable. Therefore, it is high time we considered remedies
for reining in the private government of the workplace similar
to those we have long insisted should apply to the state.
types of remedy are of special importance. First, recall a key
demand the United States made of communist dictatorships during
the Cold War: Let dissenters leave. Although workers are formally
free to leave their workplace dictatorships, they often pay a
steep price. Nearly one-fifth of American workers labour under
noncompete clauses. This means they can’t work in the same
industry if they quit or are fired.
not just engineers and other knowledge economy workers who are
restricted in this way: Even some minimum wage workers are forced
to sign noncompetes. Workers who must leave their human capital
behind are not truly free to quit. Every state should follow California’s
example and ban noncompete clauses from work contracts.
consider that if the state imposed surveillance and regulations
on us in anything like the way that private employers do, we would
rightly protest that our constitutional rights were being violated.
American workers have few such rights against their bosses, and
the rights they have are very weakly enforced. We should strengthen
the constitutional rights that workers have against their employers,
and rigorously enforce the ones the law already purports to recognize.
the most important of these rights are to freedom of speech and
association. This means employers shouldn’t be able to regulate
workers’ off-duty speech and association, or informal non-harassing
talk during breaks or on duty, if it does not unduly interfere
with job performance. Nor should they be able to prevent workers
from supporting the candidate of their choice.
we should make the government of the workplace more public (in
the sense that political scientists use the term). Workers need
a real voice in how they are governed — not just the right
to complain without getting fired, but an organized way to insist
that their interests have weight in decisions about how work is
to do this would be to strengthen the rights of labour unions
to organize. Labour unions are a vital tool for checking abusive
and exploitative employers. However, due to lax enforcement of
laws protecting the right to organize and discuss workplace complaints,
many workers are fired for these activities. And many workers
shy away from unionization, because they prefer a collaborative
to an adversarial relationship to their employer.
when employers are decent, workers could still use a voice. In
many of the rich states of Europe, they already have one, even
if they don’t belong to a union. It’s called ‘co-determination’
— a system of joint workplace governance by workers and
managers, which automatically applies to firms with more than
a few dozen employees. Under co-determination, workers elect representatives
to a works council, which participates in decision-making concerning
hours, layoffs, plant closures, workplace conditions, and processes.
Workers in publicly traded firms also elect some members of the
board of directors of the firm.
these proposals, libertarian and neoliberal economists theorize
that workers somehow suffer from provisions that would secure
their dignity, autonomy, and voice at work. That’s because
the efficiency of firms would, in theory, drop — along with
profits, and therefore wages — if managers did not have
maximum control of their workforce. These thinkers insist that
employers already compensate workers for any “oppressive”
conditions that may exist by offering higher wages. Workers are
therefore free to make the trade-off between wages and workplace
freedom when they seek a job.
theory supposes, unrealistically, that entry-level workers already
know how well they will be treated when they apply for jobs at
different workplaces, and that low-paid workers have ready access
to decent working conditions in the first place. It’s telling
that the same workers who suffer the worst working conditions
also suffer from massive wage theft. One study estimates that
employers failed to pay $50 billion in legally mandated wages
in one year. Two-thirds of workers in low-wage industries suffered
wage theft, costing them nearly 15 percent of their total earnings.
This is three times the amount of all other thefts in the United
have such contempt for their employees that they steal their wages,
how likely is it that they are making it up to them with better
also easy to theorize that workers are better off under employer
dictatorship, because managers supposedly know best to govern
the workplace efficiently. But if efficiency means that workers
are forced to pee in their pants, why shouldn’t they have
a say in whether such efficiency is worthwhile? The long history
of American workers’ struggles to get the right to use the
bathroom at work — something long enjoyed by our European
counterparts — says enough about economists’ stunted
notion of efficiency.
our false rhetoric of workers’ choice continues to obscure
the ways the state is handing ever more power to workplace dictators.
The Trump administration’s Labor Department is working to
roll back the Obama administration’s expansion of overtime
pay. It is giving a free pass to federal contractors who have
violated workplace safety and federal wage and hours laws. It
has canceled the pay check transparency rule, making it harder
for women to know when they are being paid less for the same work
government is arbitrary, unaccountable government. That’s
what most Americans are subject to at work. The history of democracy
is the history of turning governance from a private matter into
a public one. It has been about making government public —
answerable to the interests of citizens and not just the interests
of their rulers. It’s time to apply the lessons we have
learned from this history to the private government of the workplace.
Workers deserve a voice not just on Capitol Hill but in Amazon
warehouses, Silicon Valley technology companies, and meat-processing
plants as well.