Are Employers Too Powerful?

It’s not often that a philosopher’s book makes even a small splash in the business world. This one may be an exception: Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It) by University of Michigan philosophy professor Elizabeth Anderson. The book, published earlier this year by Princeton University Press, has attracted attention in Forbes, on the daily public-radio business show Marketplace and elsewhere.

It’s not hard to see the interest for business leaders. Anderson argues that despite our faith that the nation is rooted in freedom and egalitarian values, many Americans work in oppressive conditions, with bosses who exercise tyrannical control over their lives both at work and home.

Anderson sketched parts of her thesis in a 2015 lecture at Princeton, according to a university transcript [pdf here]:

“Most workers in the United States are governed by communist dictatorships in their work lives. Usually, those dictatorships have the legal authority to regulate workers’ off-hour lives as well—their political activities, speech, choice of sexual partner, use of recreational drugs, alcohol,smoking, and exercise. Because most employers exercise this off-hours authority irregularly, arbitrarily, and without warning, most workers are
unaware of how sweeping it is. Most believe, for example, that their boss cannot fire them for their off-hours Facebook postings, or for supporting a political candidate their boss opposes. Yet only about half of U.S. workers enjoy even partial protection of their off-duty speech from employer meddling.”

“Far fewer enjoy legal protection of their speech on the job,
except in narrowly defined circumstances. Even where they are entitled to legal protection, as in speech promoting union activity, their legal rights are often a virtual dead letter due to lax enforcement: employers determined to keep out unions immediately fire any workers who dare mention them, and the costs of litigation make it impossible for workers to hold them accountable for this.”

Employment lawyers might challenge some of Anderson’s claims, and most HR executives likely would say they don’t recognize the business world she describes.

But Anderson’s book comes at a volatile time in America, and it’s difficult to predict which public-policy issue will next catch fire. If the nation’s recent populist anger swings in a new direction, it’s not hard to imagine Anderson’s work providing intellectual fuel for a left-wing presidential candidate such as Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren in 2020. Private Government provides a sneak peak at possible stump-speech talking points.

In longer-range terms, this book also could influence the common perception about business as did Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary Roger & Me, or Nickle & Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 book about her attempt to live on a minimum wage.

Asked in a Q&A with Princeton University Press editors how she would prefer workplaces to be organized, Anderson says this:

“I argue that workers need a voice in how the workplace is governed. Other measures, such as making it easier for workers to quit, and laws protecting workers’ privacy and off-duty activities from employer meddling, can certainly help. But these can’t substitute for workers having a say in how the workplace is governed. Labor unions once gave voice to more than a third of American workers. These days, outside the state sector, few workers are represented by a union. Yet unions are not the only way that workers can have a say in workplace governance. In Europe, so-called co-determination, in which workplaces are jointly managed by owners and workers, is common. I make the case for exploring different ways workers could have a say, to open up a topic that is hard to frame in today’s impoverished political discourse.”