The Employee: A Political History

The Employee: A Political History

The Employee: A Political History

The Employee: A Political History

Synopsis

In the present age of temp work, telecommuting, and outsourcing, millions of workers in the United States find themselves excluded from the category of "employee"--a crucial distinction that would otherwise permit unionization and collective bargaining. Tracing the history of the term since its entry into the public lexicon in the nineteenth century, Jean-Christian Vinel demonstrates that the legal definition of "employee" has always been politically contested and deeply affected by competing claims on the part of business and labor. Unique in the Western world, American labor law is premised on the notion that "no man can serve two masters"--workers owe loyalty to their employer, which in many cases is incompatible with union membership.

The Employee: A Political History historicizes this American exception to international standards of rights and liberties at work, revealing a little known part of the business struggle against the New Deal. Early on, progressives and liberals developed a labor regime that, intending to restore amicable relations between employer and employee, sought to include as many workers as possible in the latter category. But in the 1940s this language of social harmony met with increasing resistance from businessmen, who pressed their interests in Congress and the federal courts, pushing for an ever-narrower definition of "employee" that excluded groups such as foremen, supervisors, and knowledge workers. A cultural and political history of American business and law, The Employee sheds historical light on contemporary struggles for economic democracy and political power in the workplace.

Excerpt

On September 29, 2006, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) touched off a rare controversy over labor law when it published its rulings in the “Kentucky River cases”—three legal disputes bearing on the definition of workers in American labor law. Holding that nurses acting as “charge nurses” in an acute care hospital in Detroit had no substantive bargaining rights because they were not “employees” but “supervisors” directing other health care staff, the conservative majority of the NLRB elicited a chorus of outraged responses from union leaders and Democratic Party members. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, lost no time in condemning the agency. The board’s new policy regarding the definition of “employee,” she argued, was a “ruthless attack on American workers,” one that fitted quite well in the antiunion pattern set by President George W. Bush’s labor policies since 2001. “In an economy when wages are down,” she lamented, “and the income of middle class families continues to stagnate, the Bush administration continues to undermine hardworking families.”

Quite beyond their economic impact, the Kentucky River cases also raised important questions about civic belonging for workers seeking to reconcile freedom of association with the ascribed categories of labor law, questions that Cheryl Johnson, the president of United American Nurses, formulated rather well. “I’m a registered nurse. I take care of patients. I’m very good at it. I make decisions every day, and I give a few orders from time to time whether I’m assigned as charge nurse or not. I am a key leader on the health care team. But I’m not a supervisor. Today, we have a Labor Board that makes its bread . . .

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