Worker Voice, Worker Power

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.

Charles Du

anderson book coverEvery day, as in-house counsel for an activist, organizing union, I listen to workers’ stories of the indignities that come with being subject to the arbitrary power of their employers: being forced to work through breaks and lunch; facing sexual harassment from customers, coworkers, and supervisors; being fired for an offense they did not commit. It is gratifying to see these lived experiences of working people, so often ignored, being highlighted by a political philosopher of Elizabeth Anderson’s stature. By denaturalizing and challenging arbitrary and unaccountable authority in the workplace, Private Government is a powerful argument for an expansive commitment to democracy in private spaces like the workplace, where blinkered definitions of what counts as “government” have come to serve as ideological justifications for abuse and domination. Her book also comes at just the right time, providing conceptual clarity in a moment of rising social democratic sentiment and actual potential for change. I’d like to provide some reflections on practical lessons that labor law practitioners and academics might draw from Anderson’s work.

After laying out the problem of private government at work, Anderson examines four different strategies for tackling the problem: (1) exit, (2) the rule of law, (3) substantive constitutional rights, and (4) voice. She dispenses with the first three before concluding that “there is no adequate substitute for recognizing workers’ voice in their government.” I agree, but I believe that the critical question is how to achieve greater worker voice in the face of recalcitrant employer opposition, a problem that requires further attention to legal norms, constitutional rights, and worker exit.

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Lawyering and Political Economy: The Clinical Wing of LPE

Charles Du-

What does an LPE perspective imply for the practice of law? In other words, what is the “clinical wing” of LPE? My recently published essay, “Securing Public Interest Law’s Commitment to Left Politics,” seeks to denaturalize and politicize “public interest law,” arguing for a public interest law focused chiefly on building left political power by supporting movements and organizing. In its current popular usage, public interest law mostly refers to the wide variety of legal practices that are motivated by “progressive” political commitments on the part of the lawyer. (It also increasingly includes conservative causes, especially in the official, institutional definitions of some law schools, which serve as a sort of concession to right-wing students in the name of “intellectual diversity.”) Yet despite its vagueness, public interest law is highly institutionalized, with curricular offerings, scholarships, and fellowships devoted to it. The set of opportunities for each new cohort of progressive lawyers is essentially identical to the contemporary institutional forms of public interest law. This, at bottom, is why it matters to contest the meaning of the term.

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