Working Together: How Workplace Bonds Strengthen a Diverse Democracy

By Cynthia Estlund | Go to book overview

PREFACE

This book is about the significance of ordinary workplace conversations and interactions—especially conversations and interactions among heterogeneous groups of co-workers—to democratic life. Drawing on an eclectic mix of empirical research and social and political theory, I aim to elucidate the central and distinctive role of workplace relations and of the law regulating the workplace, within what is often called “civil society.”

The germ of this book was planted several years ago when I took on the vexing problem of discriminatory workplace harassment and freedom of expression. I saw a great deal at stake on both sides of what was at that point a rather polarized debate. On one side, it was clear that harassment—including some purely verbal harassment by co-workers with no supervisory authority over the target—is a potent mechanism for maintaining inequality and segregation in the workplace. The ban on discriminatory harassment is a crucial and necessary part of the law's commitment to workplace equality on the basis of race and sex in particular. On the other side, however, the law's tendency to induce employers to censor and monitor employees' informal interactions raised serious concerns not only about employees' freedom of speech but about their freedom of interaction more generally.

In the heated face-off in the law reviews between the partisans of workplace equality and the libertarian partisans of free speech, something was missing. I had explored elsewhere the importance of employee speech in and about the workplace and the value of workplace conversations in democratic society. Coming to the problem, as I did, from a labor law background made me especially wary of a doctrine that effectively compelled employers to use their economic power over employees to regulate co-worker interactions. Especially striking to me was the contrast between the vision underlying this doctrine, in which employers were required to regulate and discipline some employees in the interest of others, and the New Deal vision of labor relations, in which employers were to be constrained from regulating co-worker interactions in the interest of employees' freedom to discuss shared interests and undertake collective action in support of those interests.

Working through that problem led me to an initial account of the distinctive nature of the workplace community in the post-Civil Rights Act era and the

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