Rethinking Public and Private Power: Anderson’s Private Government and Labor Law Reform

This post is part of a symposium on Elizabeth Anderson’s Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It). Read the complete symposium here.

Catherine L. Fisk –


Elizabeth Anderson has gained rock star status as the leading philosopher-critic of rising economic inequality and its threat to democratic society. In her second Tanner Lecture, Anderson provides one of the most exciting theoretical justifications for labor law reform since the demise of popular interest in Marxist theory. Anderson’s work inspires me to think about the importance of worker control of access to jobs, co-determination of workplace and corporate governance, and the importance of inclusive unionism along the entirety of a supply chain.

The Industrial Revolution, Anderson says, shattered eighteenth century egalitarian theorists’ hope that “a free society of equals might be built through a market society.” Employment in large enterprises for the vast majority of workers after the Industrial Revolution, whether in a Ford factory in 1930 or in McDonald’s today, was to subject oneself to a dictatorship for most of one’s waking hours. The only real freedom the worker enjoys is to quit. The freedom to quit is not much freedom. (After all, Anderson points out, Mussolini was no less a dictator because Italians could emigrate.)

Labor unions are the only mechanism in history that institutionalized what Anderson identifies as the four essential ways to protect “the liberties and interests of the governed under any type of government.” These are (1) an effective use of the threat of exit (as by striking or enabling workers to leave a job without being blacklisted or unemployed), (2) the rule of law (effective enforcement of contractual and statutory rights to minimum standards and fair treatment), (3) substantive constitutional rights (rights at work), and (4) voice (a say over working conditions). Unions are the only institution that achieved nationwide scale and a sustainable funding mechanism to enable consistent performance of these four functions by and on behalf of workers. Other worker formations (worker organizations like ROC United in the restaurant industry or the National Domestic Worker Alliance in domestic work) could play many of these functions, and already do on a limited scale, but they have yet to achieve meaningful voice in the workplace.

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