Friday, July 27, 2012

further thoughts on workplace democracy: importance of law

While it has been immensely fruitful to have scholars from political science, economics, and philosophy contribute to the debate on workplace democracy, one field has been surprisingly absent from that conversation: law. A quick check over at the Workplace Prof blog, for example, does not give any evidence of the debate being discussed. The Legal History Blog has also not engaged.

That's really too bad, because I believe that law can shed a useful perspective on some of the misconceptions held by those on both the right and the left in this debate.

First, on the right, Tabarrok chimes in with his discussion of worker quits. I actually already replied to him in this post -- but allow me to briefly flesh out the idea more.

The big event in early 1800s labor law was the conscious choice of applying Master-Servant law to all contract labor, not just contracts of servitude (i.e. indentured servants). Master-Servant law, as you can imagine, is more than simply "free contract"! It permitted judges to assume a substantial degree of authority into the labor contract as a contract which implies a degree of obedience of the worker to the capitalist. Such a law is, as Karen Orren states, essentially feudal. But Master-Servant law was a conscious choice of the judges at this time! Talking about this aspect of labor law is, I think, more crucial for understanding how workplace democracy has been prohibited over the history of capitalism.

On the left, Konczal replies to Tabarrok on quits, choosing to fight Tabarrok on his own turf rather than direct the workplace democracy debate in a more fruitful direction. Even Corey Robin commits a similar error by talking about pee breaks.

In short, the point is not about freedom to exit or not to exit, the point of workplace democracy is to control the conditions of one's work -- rights over how production is actually managed. Quitting or peeing may be part of that question, but on a more fundamental level we must recognize a legal system which implicitly assumes a degree of obedience and master authority which has existed and still exists to this day.

It would be interesting to see what legal scholars have to say about the space for expanding workplace democracy, or the history of workplace democracy over time. Yes we know a lot about unions, but we don't know as much about other forms of participation as sanctioned (or not) in the law.

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