How Widespread Is This?

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.


  1. Coming from a union family, men and women, I have always viewed the “right to work” movement as a labrys, a double-edge ax which can cut both ways. People do have the right to work and not be forced to contribute to an organization they do not agree with. On the other side; they should not benefit from the labors of union members. Why and how has this become the new Rule of Law under control of corporations and the wealthy, and a primary part of Republican campaign foundations?

    Also; why and how are workers denied the right to form a union to protect their rights and provide a safe workplace with decent pay? Their organization meets outside the workplace and work hours. Again; why and how has this become the new Rule of Law under control of corporations and the wealthy, and a primary part of the Republican campaign foundations?

    “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.”

  2. Our president is a shining example of this type of employer. His abuses of both employees and contracters were highlighted in the news while he campaigned and then again early in his ‘reign of terror’ on us, but those stories have fallen into the dust bin.

    He perfectly fits this description from the article referenced in today’s blog –

    “The corporate oligarchs, however, live in a world where monopoly, fraud and other financial wrongdoing are legal or rarely punished and taxes are minimal or nonexistent. Among the population, only a tiny percentage—most of whom come from inherited wealth and have been groomed in elitist, plutocratic universities and institutions—dominate the corporate hierarchy. ”

    His fellow oligarchs and the members of Congress that they own and control have been allowing this type of employee abuse to get worse and worse for the past three decades.

  3. The social contract has been stripped away for decades. What remains is public relations or propaganda to shine up this treatment of the American worker.

    Are unions part of the problem?

    Yes, they are because they sold out for the almighty dollar. I think it’s great that teachers still have a union and might be getting a minimum wage of $50,000 but what about social workers who work for poverty wages all across Indiana. It was so bad at the DFC lawsuits were filed against the state.

    The reason it’s called private government is our government (especially those run by the Koch backed GOP) operates the same way. Our so-called public servants serve the Oligarchs, not the public, and especially not the working public.

    How do we know propaganda is at play in the USA?

    There are NO Yellow Vest movements in the USA. Workers cannot fight back or risk termination and they cannot afford to be terminated because they are living check to check and have mountains of student debt and/or credit card debt.

    It’s not the social contract…it’s the economic system which has contaminated all levels of government and the free press.

    Albert Einstein identified our country as an Oligarchy in 1949 and called capitalism, “Evil.” He did so based on human instincts. It’s taken lots and lots of propaganda and denial to prevent his findings from becoming widespread thus condemning our economic system for what it’s doing to the individual and society.

  4. The only thing surprising to me is that you were shocked, Sheila. Being in the workforce has shown me much of this first-hand, and what I’ve not witnessed personally would not surprise me at all. It is the rare corporate exception that treats its “Human Resources” as such.

  5. I can’t count the number of times I have been told by workers that their unions are corrupt, but I can guarantee it’s the same number of times I asked why they didn’t become more active in and work to change the union. It’s also the same number of times i heard the same excuses, “I don’t have time,” or “It wouldn’t do any good,” or a number of others, but you get my point.

    An organization is as good or as bad as the members allow it to be. A government is as good or as bad as its voters allow it to be.

  6. a perfect follow up article today in, adam simpson,,”the problem isnt robots taking our jobs its the oligarchs taking our power..”eye opening,but i will say this has been on my mind for 30 years, the above article ,ive read like it,10 times or more for 20 years. its not a new crisis,its been this way for that long. if your in the field of labor relations or compensation lawyers,you have seen the games, heres a personal attack on me, a former employer in easton minn,hired me to drive a truck, its run by people in the office,not by a ass kissing owner,who cant control his office. money is the bottom line. i went to work for them,not knowing about this, first to get the job,i had to sign a relase,to be checked on by a third party clearinghouse,known as hirerite, formally, has a bitch line for employers,to, send off crap about employees,in the trucking industry,we the drive,dont, have the right to have erronously made attacks removed,only questioned. employers in this field of trucking for some idealism,actully pay money,to hear what other trucking companies say about former employees. now, in my field,if you get busted for a bad drug test, its on a federal record,and you dont drive,and this federal record is monitored by both,the trucking companies,and,insurance companies,who will not hire you,, heres a company i worked for who, after they see me as the owners friend,it didnt score well,when i requested the office staff to remove a release that i had to sign to get this jobs,where i was required to pay,25% of the permits to haul wide and heavy load,heres a perfect example when i had to use my money,to buy thier permits. 70% of those loads hauled,are ODs and heavy. when they balked,the office staff ran to him and bitched,he folded(though he said i earned it 5 minutes before i asked the staff). i asked because my work ethic and performance was well above many on this companies payroll. and was told this by the office staff and the owner. heres the bitch,i fell off the truck,sprang my wrist to a point i could not drive, (out of state)did the manditory,insurance company mandated,drug test,passed under federal guidelines,though,i was not obligated under federal guidelines because i was not,driving the truck,i was off duty,and cleaning out my truck. i was oit of state,and needed a ride home,they calously said take a bus.. kiss my ass i quit, at the same call to them,I rented a car,and headed home. they wanted another test,hell im not working for you,but said what the hell, drove to the place where i did my pre employment screen is thier contract,mayo clinc,albert lea,mn,passed again. since there was a argument with them,and i had quit because of the staffs attitude,they wrote me as refusing a drug test,via hirerite,and its been there for 7 years, no federal rules broken,or i would have been out of trucking,no, they made it impossible for any company that buys this crap from a third party clearing house,to ban me from driving for them.i couldnt even find a lawyer for any money,wanting to take this to court.too many hurdles,and the money via hour was staggering.this has been a mainstay in trucking since 1980 when this started. it has ruined many a driver over lies,by companies willing to,pay money to screw someone,without recourse,other than a compalint,via,hirerite. im working,and never lost a day,many companies are above bitch lines,and see and read enough to havee decent people walk thriu thoer doors..but,if this can be a future issue,oh,i forgot,facebook, damn, sure glad im not online.

  7. one more issue, when i entered the workforce after the navy,1974, no employer could take money from your check for any reason,they couldnt even ask for a release,and this was how i remembered it,like Sheilas ice age comment,i remember,and I didnt forget,but i doubt a progressive wrote that law into effect. thanks, its been a hard road,on the road,as a trucker.

  8. There are some end runs around this: coops, “B Corps” , ESOPs. Just waiting for the so called “progressives” to suggest that these structures get tax incentives….

  9. This supports the argument by David Brooks that our economic philosophy lacks a moral compass. Whatever happened to the belief that if you want to succeed in business you need to care for your employees so that they can care for you? Coal mining companies have taken no measures to ensure that miners do not develop black lung, and government agencies who are supposed to monitor this have turned a blind eye to their regulatory violations. I heard the coal miners talk about how they “love coal mining.” This reminds me of codependent people who tolerate the intolerable in the name of love. Coal miners are literally dying for their love of coal mining.

    There are also studies that indicate when employees take ownership of the work and have stock in the company that they are more invested in making the company succeed. I recall that Eli Lilly’s employees did not unionize at one point and heard that they were treated well by their employer.( Again that was in the 70’s) When I was a student we visited their occupational health site. The nurses working there enjoyed their work, and it was obvious the company had invested well in their occupational health facility to ensure high quality of care for their employees.

    Correct me if I am wrong my fellow citizens, but it is my belief that the loss of power by the labor unions began with Reagan’s administration. I heard an economist speak at the University of Indianapolis(it was then named Indiana Central University)in the early 70’s. He stated that in order to stop double digit inflation, someone in the oval office would have to put the economy into recession.

    There have been attempts to unionize by RN’s but none have succeeded. We do not have the bargaining power that nurses in Ohio or California have with hospital administrators. In many places it is nurses from the float pools who work on the weekend’s. When nurses and teachers go on strike, we do so out of concerns for patient safety and the educational needs of children. I have believed for years as a nurse that if health care facilities really supported their nursing staff they would never have to worry about their patients receiving high quality of care. Now nurse managers have to spend lots of time crunching numbers to show senior executives that understaffing actually damages their bottom line. They don’t seem to care as much about the quality of care nor the safety of nurses and patients. They seem more concerned with raising their profit margin.

    This report simply supports the belief that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. What will it take? People died for better labor conditions and the creations of unions. Have they died in vain?

  10. A relative of mine worked for an Electric Utility back in the 1980’s. His Union went on strike. The company realized management alone could not run the plant. Management offered retired Union employees temporary employment to keep the plant running. Enough of of them (scabs) went back to work to keep the plant running. Even though these scabs had benefited from the Union during their working career they turned their backs on their brothers and sisters in the Union.

    During the strike other Union workers crossed the picket line to deliver supplies.

    My sister who worked for one the railroads, constantly complained that Union Leaders were selling out to management. Her Union leadership took the approach it was better to rule over a weakened Union, pad their own pockets, than to challenge the company.

    Challenging Union leadership could be a dangerous proposition as Jimmy Hoffa found out.

    Right to Work Laws were not about employee freedom, it was done to destroy Unions.

    Unions were a great danger to the class system. Union membership crossed racial and ethnic lines with a common goal – All for One, and One for All. Unions also prevented the exploitation of labor by the 1%.

    Even though I grew up in the South Chicago area, which had many Union Workers and I worked for awhile as a Union Worker in a steel mill our High School History Classes had virtually no information on the Union struggles for the people. There was plenty of “history” about the 1%, such as Henry Ford among others.

  11. Such actions started way back. I remember my first face to face encounter was a Lover Boy and Donnie Iris concert in Sioux City IA… the ‘security people’ were going through my POCKETS! I was so revolted I almost just walked out but the two people with me were riding with me. It is insidious… they started with small things then moved to a major factor – airports and now millions get felt up by the most intelligent and brightest and qualified employees to be found anywhere… Want to know why I do not fly – no matter what? Your computer can be seized by the FBI or any governmental security agency – they don’t have to give you a receipt or let you know they are coming and can use force they deem correct. And you will never see that computer again whether or not you committed a crime. THAT is a FACT. How widespread is the new Police State – it is everywhere. It is everywhere. It just is a matter of how strongly you stand against it. You should study some of the recent cases brought by the ACLU… since the inception of the Patriot Act.

  12. Robin,

    You are mostly correct about the Reagan/Regan administration putting the screws to labor unions AND the rest of the middle class. They embraced Milton Friedman’s/Friederich Hayak’s “Supply-side” economics were unions were forbidden and worker rights were anathema. Both Bushes doubled down on this nonsense. Add to that, the creep of corporate money into (mostly) Republican politics – even before Citizens United v. FEC – and worker rights laws were changed to favor corporations and their control over their workers.

    My spouse was a labor/discrimination lawyer and the protege’ of Paul Grossman who wrote the book (literally) on the subject at hand. As a former industrial engineer and an observer and analyst of labor, I personally watched “management” deny workers safe and/or healthy workplaces and their right to speak out. I was, in some cases, the only conduit for these people to air their grievances. We both found that in union shops, if the labor force was treated humanely, productivity was high and worker morale was positive.

    Lee Iacocca showed that putting unionized labor on the board of directors improved the working environment and profitability significantly. So, naturally, the stockholders got him fired from Chrysler. The two most important books on this subject are Jane Mayer’s “Dark Money” and Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine”. I tried to summarize some of their points in my books too.

    Karl Marx predicted all of this, of course. He understood far more about capitalism and its self-immolating end game than he did about Communism. The root cause for communism’s failure is the same as it is for capitalism: MONEY. As long as humans cling to this abstraction on how to run the world for the nearly 8 billion of us, these two ideologies will forever be in mortal combat.

    Fascism, of course, is the worst-case scenario where unregulated capitalism is married to corrupt government via authoritarian dictatorship. Pretty grim situation, isn’t it? Labor unions are the only salvation, temporary that they are, to keep the two forces in some sort of balance. We’re seeing the results today from that imbalance created by Reagan/Friedman/Regan: Donald Trump and a totally corrupt Republican party.

  13. An off-topic P.S. to alert you all to something rather interesting … It was to me at least, my younger Son just sent it to me; “”

  14. The decline of labor unions has been steady since 1955. It is statistically correlated to an increase in income inequality, and I would argue mirrors the power loss Ms. Kennedy reports.

    Its decline is not a natural phenomenon but the byproduct of political assault (Right to Work etc) and globalism.

    These conditions combined have precipitated the world wide populist revolt, including the election of Donald Trump. Sure-civic ignorance, parochialism, racism, and nativism are important factors. But without structural economic reform I fear all is lost.

  15. Years ago back during the Clinton- Evan Bayh years I worked for a large multi-national Property-Liability – Worker’s Compensation Insurance Company. We had a seminar of larger companies from Indiana and Kentucky, which included members of the Chamber of Commerce and representatives of the Federal and State of Indiana OSHA (Occupational Safety Health Administration).

    The OSHA types went to great lengths to describe themselves as partners with business to improve safety rather than adversaries. Sounds good, work together and all that happy stuff.

    What I did learn was OSHA was woefully underfunded which resulted in few inspections by personnel. Fines if and when they were levied were wrist slaps, even then the companies could fight the fines and have them reduced.

  16. Wait, you’re surprised by this? Really? It’s been this way so long, I don’t know where it started. And it’s all legal. That’s why the corporations and small businesses have more cash than ever. They don’t share it with the employees that make it for them. Of course not. Why should they? They have lobbyists writing the laws for Congress and only the rich are getting richer.

    It’s a jungle out there and only the beasts survive.

  17. Thanks for the reference to this report, Sheila.

    Being a white collar union leader, I remind folks that there is union representation for nearly any work. Office and Professional Employees organized the New York stock exchange and TVA and now represents public and private sector workers from DC to Hollywood, helicopter pilots in the Gulf of Mexico to nurses in Hawaii. Here we represent about 275 office workers and credit union employees, but welcome others.

    In my spare time, I helped found and volunteer at Indianapolis Worker Justice Center to support the unorganized with rights at work training, and to fight the epidemic wage theft robbing workers and communities!

    Most union leaders aren’t high paid scoundrels. Our unit stewards may have paid representation time in their contract, plus mileage to meetings and our Board’s highest paid officer has a $500 stipend – monthly. Fair representation takes commitment and dedication to fight flagrant abuse of workers – even with a collective bargaining agreement!

    The same billionaires who profit from private prison contracts, polluting our environment, decimating public education and healthcare for all, buy legislators support for state, and now, national Right to Work laws to “drive a stake through the heart of unions”. They demonize organized labor because unions know years of work organizing and bargaining can be wiped out with the swipe of the pen on anti-worker legislation.

    The last figures I remember showed corporate political donations dwarf those of organized labor 11 to 1. Our members’ donations, volunteer phone banks and canvassing fellow members support candidates who believe that good wages, benefits and working conditions, respect, job safety and having a voice are a right! We believe workers’ rights are human rights and support equality and voters’ rights because we all do better, when we all do better!

    These particular corporate snakes would eliminate Departments of Labor, Education, OSHA, EPA, ACA, federal minimum wage and social safety net programs for the aged, poor and disabled. Unions did much more than bring the forty hour week and the weekend that we now take for granted! Those hard won markers of worker justice are now eroded by the corporate greed of “slave masters” who illegally classify countless employees (one form of rampant wage theft) as independent contractors to boost profits and undercut law abiding business competitors.

    I’d be the first to agree money and power can corrupt. But union organizers from 1800s on fought for fairness and safety for oppressed working people from apple pickers, miners, railroad building and textiles. Today air traffic controllers, bus drivers, construction trades, daycares & nursing homes, entertainment industry, farm workers, financial industry, food service, garbage collection/recycling, highway departments, hospitality workers, manufacturing, insurance agents, janitors, librarians, office workers, nurses (and some doctors), petroleum, pilots, postal service, public safety, retail, security guards, sports, stage hands, steelworkers, taxi drivers, teachers, truck drivers, university staff, utilities, writers, and many more benefit from union representation!

    We are diversity. We built America and make America great. We are the gatekeepers for the middle class and offer a hand up for those living on the fringe. We stand in the way of total eradication of labor law and we are in peril! Unions are the proverbial canary in the coal mine. If the war led by this group of billionaires and its political puppets eliminates us – America will be great only for the elite.

  18. If Democrats ignore this problem, it will result in another demagogic/populist victory for DJT. All people want to hear is that somebody is listening to their problems and their plight – they’ve almost lost hope in a fix. Trump isn’t interested in this problem, of course, but he says he is which at least acknowledges his awareness of it. We blew it in 2016 by denying and ignoring the depth of the American worker’s concerns. Will electoral history repeat itself, or will Sherrod Brown and Ocasio-Cortez’s messages about working people wake up the somnolent Democrats? God help us if we continue to deny how unequal we’ve become.

    The next election is not about DJT. As Elizabeth Anderson implies, it’s about whether the land of the free still cares about the bottom 80% of its workers. Allowing 3 billionaires to control as much wealth as the lowest fifty percent of the population (Institute for Policy Studies) won’t be any more acceptable in 2020 than it was in 2016.

  19. The disempowerment of unions started in the Reagan admin means there is no organized opposition to the massive overreach of 45. At this point there should be labor opposition to this government shut down. We should be out on general strike in support of federal workers who are not getting paid. But there is no organization in place. Gavin Newsome California’s governor referenced a letter sent by 45 directing the states to refuse to pay workers comp to federal employees. I can’t imagine what he hopes to gain by forcing fed employees out of their jobs but it can’t be good for the country.

  20. It tuns out that make more money now regardless of the impact on any others ever is not a very effective way to run society. The only real question is why would any one ever think that it was?

    I have never worked in an union environment, I was lucky enough to never need to, so I can’t speak to that solution but I am of the opinion that that is only one solution.

    The other is regulated capitalism in a democracy free from entertainment media political influence and with progressive taxes that distribute back to wealth creators, workers, what capitalism distributes up and away from them.

    I don’t know which team of Democrats will end up most capable of creating that solution over time but I will look very closely at that this year.

    But then next year I will support the team that the party elects to run because the doomsday solution in 2020 are Republicans.

Comments are closed.