The persistence of feudalism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Sep 30 11:25:57 MDT 2002

Boston Globe, 9/29/2002
Lavatory and Liberty

The secret history of the bathroom break

By Corey Robin

IN HIS NEVER-ENDING quest for control of the workplace, Henry Ford
confronted many foes, but none as wily or rebellious as the human digestive
tract. Hoping to tame what he called the body's ''disassembly line,'' Ford
wheeled lunch wagons into his auto plant in Highland Park, Mich., and
forced workers to wolf down a 10-minute sandwich on the job. So
industrialized was ingestion at the plant that workers growled about their
''Ford stomach.'' But where Ford sought to speed up the meal's entrance
into the body, his successors - from store managers in the Midwest to
fashion moguls in New York - have concentrated on slowing down its exit.

Today's workplace can sometimes seem like a battlefield of the bladder. On
the one side are workers who wanna go when they gotta go; on the other are
employers who want to stop them, sometimes for hours on end. Just this past
month, a Jim Beam bourbon distillery in Clermont, Ky., was forced to drop
its strict bathroom-break policies after the plant's union focused negative
international attention - from ABC News to Australia - on Jim Beam and its
parent company, Fortune Brands, Inc. According to union officials, managers
kept computer spreadsheets monitoring employee use of the bathroom, and 45
employees were disciplined for heeding nature's call outside
company-approved breaks. Female workers were even told to report the
beginning of their menstrual cycles to the human resources department, said
one union leader.

In their 1998 book ''Void Where Prohibited: Rest Breaks and the Right to
Urinate on Company Time,'' Marc Linder and Ingrid Nygaard of the University
of Iowa - he's a law professor, she's a urogynecologist - trace the long
and ignoble history of the struggle for the right to pee on the job. In
1995, for instance, female employees at a Nabisco plant in Oxnard, Calif.,
maker of A-1 steak sauce and the world's supplier of Grey Poupon mustard,
complained in a lawsuit that line supervisors had consistently prevented
them from going to the bathroom. Instructed to urinate into their clothes
or face three days' suspension for unauthorized expeditions to the toilet,
the workers opted for adult diapers. But incontinence pads were expensive,
so many employees downgraded to Kotex and toilet paper, which pose severe
health risks when soaked in urine. Indeed, several workers eventually
contracted bladder and urinary tract infections. Hearing of their plight,
conservative commentator R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. advised the workers to wear
special diapers used by horses in New York's Central Park carriage trade.

How does a country that celebrates the joy of unfettered movement tolerate
such restrictions on this most basic of bodily motions? Why do the freedoms
that we take for granted outside the workplace suddenly disappear when we
enter it? ''Belated Feudalism,'' a study by UCLA political scientist Karen
Orren, suggests a surprising, and shocking, answer. According to Orren,
long after the Bill of Rights was ratified and slavery abolished - well
into the 20th century, in fact - the American workplace remained a feudal
institution. Not metaphorically, but legally. Workers were governed by
statutes originating in the common law of medieval England, with precedents
extending as far back as the year 500. Like their counterparts in feudal
Britain, judges exclusively administered these statutes, treating workers
as the literal property of their employers. Not until 1937, when the
Supreme Court upheld the Wagner Act, giving workers the right to organize
unions, did the judiciary relinquish political control over the workplace
to Congress.

Prior to the '30s, Orren shows, American judges regularly applied the ''law
of master and servant'' to quell the worker's independent will. According
to one jurist, that law recognized only ''the superiority and power'' of
the master, and the ''duty, subjection, and, as it were, allegiance'' of
the worker. Medieval vagrancy statutes forced able-bodied males into the
workplace, while ancient principles of ''entire'' contract kept them there.
A worker hired for a period of time - often five to 10 years and beyond -
was legally not entitled to any of his earnings unless and until he
completed the entire term of his contract. When rules of vagrancy and
entirety failed, judges turned to other precedents, some dating from the
time of Richard II, requiring workers seeking employment to obtain a
''testimonial letter'' from their previous employer. Because employers were
under no legal obligation to provide such letters, judges could effectively
stop workers from ever trying to move on.


Louis Proyect

PLEASE clip all extraneous text before replying to a message.

More information about the Marxism mailing list