Working Together: How Workplace Bonds Strengthen a Diverse Democracy

By Cynthia Estlund | Go to book overview

7
COMPULSION, CONNECTEDNESS, AND
THE CONSTITUTION OF THE WORKPLACE

To claim for workplace associations a more central role in democratic society, one must confront two distinguishing features of the workplace, both traceable to its firm footing in the market: First, workplaces are subject to pervasive regulation; they lack the autonomy from the state that civil society institutions need, on some accounts, to perform their crucial functions. Second, workplace relations are often undemocratic, unfree, and permeated by elements of economic coercion and power that are radically at odds with the egalitarian principles that must prevail—again, on some accounts—in the institutions of civil society.

These objections, and my response to them, go to the heart of the unique role of workplace relations in civil society. For it has become apparent that both the regulability of the workplace and the presence of economic pressure and authority play an ambiguous but largely constructive role in the cultivation of socially valuable workplace associations. These features of contemporary work life disable the workplace from doing some of what voluntary associations do in civil society; yet they enable the workplace to play a role that voluntary associations cannot play. In particular, the law's capacity to compel racial integration, together with the capacity of authorities within the workplace to compel people to get along with each other, help to make workplace associations distinctively important in a diverse democratic society.

The point is not, however, that authoritarian and hierarchical governance structures are necessary to produce these most valuable workplace bonds. Workplaces that are less hierarchical and more committed to building productivity through cooperation, commitment, and trust appear to produce more of the connectedness on which society thrives as well. So the role of workplace authority poses a puzzle, not necessarily a problem, for the “working together” thesis. The solution to that puzzle lies in the law's broad and legitimate role in governing the workplace, which opens up rich opportunities for building upon the partially realized potential of workplace relations to enrich social and political life.

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