The New York Times, March 5, 2000.
If the laws of economics were enforced as strictly as the laws of physics, America would be a workers’ paradise. The supply of most kinds of labor is low, relative to the demand, so each worker should be treated as a cherished asset, right? But there have been only grudging gains in wages over the last few years, and in the realm of dignity and autonomy, a palpable decline.
In the latest phase of America’s one-sided class war, employers have taken to monitoring employees’ workplace behavior right down to a single computer keystroke or bathroom break, even probing into their personal concerns and leisure activities. Sure, there’s a job out there for anyone who can get to an interview sober and standing upright. The price, though, may be one’s basic civil rights and — what boils down to the same thing — self-respect.
Not that the Bill of Rights ever extended to the American workplace. In 1996, I was surprised to read about a grocery store worker in Dallas who was fired for wearing a Green Bay Packers T-shirt to work on the day before a Cowboys-Packers game. All right, this was insensitive of him, but it certainly couldn’t have influenced his ability to keep the shelves stocked with Doritos. A few phone calls though, revealed that his firing was entirely legal. Employees have the right to express their religious preferences at work, by wearing a cross or a Star of David, for example. But most other forms of “self-expression” are not protected, and strangely enough, Green Bay Packer fandom has not yet been recognized as a legitimate religion.
Freedom of assembly is another right that never found its way into the workplace. On a recent journalistic foray into a series of low-wage jobs, I was surprised to discover that management often regarded the most innocent conversation between employees as potentially seditious. A poster in the break room at one restaurant where I worked as a waitress prohibited “gossip,” and a manager would hastily disperse any gathering of two or more employees. At the same time, management everywhere enjoys the right to assemble employees for lengthy anti-union harangues.
Then there is the more elemental and biological right — and surely it should be one — to respond to nature’s calls. Federal regulations forbid employers to “impose unreasonable restrictions on employee use of the facilities.” But according to Marc Linder and Ingrid Nygaard, co-authors of “Void Where Prohibited: Rest Breaks and the Right to Urinate on Company Time,” this regulation is only halfheartedly enforced. Professionals and, of course, waitresses can usually dart away and relieve themselves as they please. Not so for many cashiers and assembly-line workers, some of whom, Linder says, have taken to wearing adult diapers to work.
In the area of privacy rights, workers have actually lost ground in recent years. Here, too, the base line is not impressive — no comprehensive right to personal privacy on the job has ever been established. I learned this on my first day as a waitress, when my fellow workers warned me that my purse could be searched by management at any time. I wasn’t carrying stolen salt shakers or anything else of a compromising nature, but there’s something about the prospect of a purse search that makes a woman feel a few buttons short of fully dressed. After work, I called around and found that this, too, is generally legal, at least if the boss has reasonable cause and has given prior notification of the company’s search policies.
Purse searches, though, are relatively innocuous compared with the sophisticated chemical and electronic forms of snooping adopted by many companies in the 90’s. The American Management Association reports that in 1999 a record two-thirds of major American companies monitored their employees electronically: videotaping them; reviewing their e-mail and voice-mail messages; and, most recently, according to Lewis Maltby, president of the Princeton-based National Workrights Institute, monitoring any Web sites they may visit on their lunch breaks. Nor can you count on keeping anything hidden in your genes; a growing number of employers now use genetic testing to screen out job applicants who carry genes for expensive ailments like Huntington’s disease.
But the most ubiquitous invasion of privacy is drug testing, usually of urine, more rarely of hair or blood. With 81 percent of large companies now requiring some form of drug testing — up from 21 percent in 1987 — job applicants take it for granted that they’ll have to provide a urine sample as well as a resume. This is not restricted to “for cause” testing — of people who, say, nod or space out on the job. Nor is it restricted to employees in “safety-sensitive occupations,” like airline pilots and school-bus drivers. Workers who stack boxes of Cheerios in my local supermarkets get tested, as do the editorial employees of this magazine, although there is no evidence that a weekend joint has any more effect on Monday-morning performance than a Saturday-night beer.
Civil libertarians see drug testing as a violation of our Fourth Amendment protection from “unreasonable search,” while most jobholders and applicants find it simply embarrassing. In some testing protocols, the employee has to strip to her underwear and urinate into a cup in the presence of an aide or technician, who will also want to know what prescription drugs she takes, since these can influence the test results.
According to a recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union, drug testing has not been proven to achieve its advertised effects, like reducing absenteeism and improving productivity. But it does reveal who’s on antidepressants or suffering with an ailment that’s expensive to treat, and it is undeniably effective at weeding out those potential “troublemakers” who are too independent-minded to strip and empty their bladders on command.
Maybe the prevailing trade-off between jobs and freedom would make sense, in the narrowest cost-benefit terms, if it contributed to a more vibrant economy. But this is hardly the case. In fact, a 1998 study of 63 computer-equipment and data-processing firms found that companies that performed both pre-employment and random drug testing actually “reduced rather than enhanced productivity” — by an eye-popping 29 percent, presumably because of its dampening effect on morale.
Why, then, do so many employers insist on treating their workers as a kind of fifth column within the firm? Certainly the government has played a role with its misguided antidrug crusade, as has the sheer availability of new technologies of snooping. But workplace repression signals a deeper shift away from the postwar social contract in which a job meant a straightforward exchange of work for wages.
Economists trace the change to the 1970’s, when, faced with falling profits and rising foreign competition, America’s capitalists launched an offensive to squeeze more out of their workers. Supervision tightened, management expanded and union-busting became a growth industry. And once in motion, the dynamic of distrust is hard to stop. Workers who are routinely treated like criminals and slackers may well bear close watching.
The mystery is why American workers, the political descendants of proud revolutionaries, have so meekly surrendered their rights. Sure, individual workers find ways to cheat on their drug tests, outwit the electronic surveillance and sneak in a bit of “gossip” here and there. But these petty acts of defiance seldom add up to concerted resistance, in part because of the weakness of American unions. The A.F.L.-C.I.O. is currently conducting a nationwide drive to ensure the right to organize, and the downtrodden workers of the world can only wish the union well. But what about all the other rights missing in so many American workplaces? It’s not easy to organize your fellow workers if you can’t communicate freely with them on the job and don’t dare carry union literature in your pocketbook.
In a tight labor market, workers have another option, of course. They can walk. The alarming levels of turnover in low-wage jobs attest to the popularity of this tactic, and if unemployment remains low, employers may eventually decide to cut their workers some slack. Already, companies in particularly labor-starved industries like ski resorts and software are dropping drug testing rather than lose or repel employees. But in the short run, the mobility of workers, combined with the weakness of unions, means that there is little or no sustained on-site challenge to overbearing authority.
What we need is nothing less than a new civil rights movement — this time, for American workers. Who will provide the leadership remains to be seen, but clearly the stakes go way beyond “labor issues,” as these are conventionally defined. We can hardly call ourselves the world’s pre-eminent democracy if large numbers of citizens spend half of their waking hours in what amounts, in plain terms, to a dictatorship.