“Workers Are Being Told to Shut Up and Work”

Erin Hatton

Capitalism runs on economic coercion, presenting most people with the choice to work or starve. But many workers, from prisoners to college athletes, face other types of coercion that exact a heavy cost for anyone who dares to tell the boss "no."

Prisoners from the Brevard County Jail in Florida work to fill sandbags for residents in preparation for Hurricane Irma on September 7, 2017. Brian Blanco / Getty Images

Interview by
Meagan Day

A prisoner ladling soup in the cafeteria bears little resemblance to a graduate student weighing samples in a university science lab. Likewise, a college athlete playing in a brightly lit stadium bears little resemblance to a welfare recipient fulfilling her work requirement by cleaning subway cars.

But in Coerced: Work Under Threat of Punishment, sociologist Erin Hatton argues that there are surprising connections between such seemingly disparate workers. In each case, Hatton argues, the worker is denied the protections afforded traditional workers, and bosses’ leverage over workers extends far beyond wages. When considered together, Hatton posits, a distinct pattern of coercion emerges, with its own power dynamics and rationalizations. By exploring the surprising connections between disparate groups of nontraditional workers, Coerced deepens our understanding of labor dynamics and the intimate power bosses have over their workers’ lives.

Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke with Hatton about Coerced.


MD

While our laws protecting workers are not nearly as strong as they ought to be, they do exist. In the introduction to your book, you write that the type of coercive relationship you’re exploring is made possible when people are working but are not recognized as workers, and therefore denied these protections.

You give several examples, starting with prisoners. What does prison labor have to tell us about coercive work?

EH

Prison labor is the most extreme example of the type of coercion that I’m talking about in the book, because prison labor is the sole exception to the abolition of slavery in America. The Thirteenth Amendment explicitly outlawed slavery except as punishment for a crime, and prisoners are broadly expected to work behind bars.

They perform all types of labor, most often doing the work necessary to keep the institution running, and they can be forced to do this work legally. But they are not protected under labor and employment laws, such as minimum wage, overtime, workers’ compensation for injuries, unemployment insurance, and the ability to organize and bargain collectively. Virtually none of the labor laws we have in place extend to prisoners, because they’re not considered workers even though they work. They are working as part of their punishment.

As I explain in the book, all workers experience coercion to some degree in the form of economic coercion. Because we need money to get by in this capitalist economy, we face difficult choices and often choose to keep our jobs even when we might not otherwise. But the type of coercion I’m focused on in the book is different from that, because the difficult choices people make do not revolve around money per se. They revolve around access to all of the rights and privileges that come with a particular status. Prisoners are paid almost nothing for their labor. What’s held over their head is not money but the status of being a prisoner in good standing.

When you are living and working behind bars, being in good standing is crucial. It’s important to access all the rights and entitlements that become privileges behind bars, like being able to buy food from the commissary, or being able to go to the recreation area and exercise and socialize with friends, or being able to have visits from your family or use the phone to call your spouse and your children. All of these are privileges that can be taken away by corrections officers, and it’s those same corrections officers that are supervising prisoners’ labor.

So if you don’t do what they demand, if you resist performing a task like, say, having to clean up feces with nothing more than a tissue, then those privileges can be taken away. You can even be put in solitary confinement and kept there twenty-three hours a day without any human interaction for an undefined length of time. The threat of losing good standing keeps prisoners from pushing back when they’re on the job. That’s an additional type of coercion beyond basic economic coercion.

MD

While prison labor is extreme and unique in many ways, a similar dynamic is at play outside of prisons. You argue that workfare is the other side of the coin — that the contraction of the welfare state and expansion of the carceral state go hand in hand, and that the contraction of the welfare state is characterized by the growth of coercive labor in exchange for benefits. Can you explain how workfare fits into your analysis?

EH

I’m not the first scholar to argue that the expansion of the carceral state and the contraction of the American welfare state are two sides of the same coin. But my book makes a connection between the type of labor performed by the populations affected by these processes. Just as prisoners are broadly required to work, so increasingly are welfare recipients. With the implementation of welfare reform in 1996, there was a paradigmatic shift in the welfare system that included assigning people to menial tasks for twenty-five or thirty-five hours a week in order to receive public assistance.

What this has meant is that in order to access key elements of the social safety net, like food stamps, Medicare and housing vouchers, utility vouchers, cash assistance, and so on, people are required to work, doing things like cleaning subway cars in New York City. And again, like prisoners, if they get into an argument with their supervisor — let’s say they’re assigned to pick up used drug needles off the streets and don’t have the equipment — they can be sanctioned and lose their access to benefits for some length of time.

Again, this is a very expansive form of power their bosses have over them, one that’s not typical of the workplace and represents a different type of coercion.

MD

Your book does something surprising when it incorporates college athletes. There are of course professional athletes who you call “rights-bearing workers,” but college athletes are not among them. What about college athletes begs inclusion in this category of coercive labor?

EH

First of all, I don’t mean to suggest that college athletes are like prisoners in any way, nor are they coerced to work to the same degree. The coercion involved in prison labor is quite extreme, and less extreme is the coercion involved in workfare, and then less extreme than that is the coercion involved in being a college athlete. Your coach can’t put you in solitary confinement or take away your food stamps.

All that said, if you are a college athlete, your coach does have expansive power over your life. You don’t receive the protections of a regular worker, and you have to comply or else your status is in danger.

If you don’t do what the coach says on any given day, the coach doesn’t have to play you. For this book, I interviewed college athletes in Division I football and basketball teams, and many of them told me that verbal abuse is very common. But let’s say you push back against that verbal abuse — the coach can simply decline to play you, taking away what for many of them is the apex of their athletic career. Coaches also have power to take away your scholarship, and therefore in many cases your access to education.

And coaches also wield power over workers by being able to make recommendations to recruiters. One of the worst things that can happen, some athletes told me, is that a recruiter can express interest and a coach can tell the recruiter that you’re not “coachable.” Coachable athletes are those who are basically submissive to whatever the coach says to do, including, for example, playing through injuries. And in addition to all of this, college athletes are not regarded as workers and extended the protections that are afforded to workers.

MD

You also include graduate student workers in your analysis. The lives of a workfare worker and a graduate student worker may look wildly different, but you observe some similarities. For example, neither of their work is regarded as true work: the former’s work is characterized as work experience and the latter’s work is characterized as a learning opportunity. What are the relevant features of graduate student work that made you want to include it in your analysis?

EH

I originally set out to study workers who are not protected by labor and employment laws, but after interviewing prisoners and workfare workers, the power dynamics really came to the fore and elements of coercive labor became the centerpiece of my book. And as I was trying to figure out what really defined this type of coercion, I began looking for other types of work that might follow similar patterns. And I wasn’t sure that this type of expansive, punitive power was solely relegated to those marginalized populations that you might find in prisons and on welfare.

When it comes to graduate student workers, I argue that they experience a coercion that is similar in kind but not intensity. They’re not nearly as vulnerable. I interviewed science PhD students who work in the labs of their advisers, who they often call their boss. They perform almost all of the research that goes on in the lab along with postdocs, while their adviser is largely in charge of overseeing the work but not actually doing the work. The graduate students work in labs, and all of the publications, all of the findings, any patents, and so on that comes out of that lab are owned by their advisers.

This is an incredibly uneven power dynamic, where the graduate student’s whole future is essentially at stake. Their education, their ability to graduate, and their ability to get a high-status job are all resting on their faculty advisers’ shoulders. Of course in all of these cases, you can have a good boss and you can have a bad boss. But when the bosses are bad, they’re really bad, because there’s no mechanism in place to mitigate bosses’ punitive power over these workers.

One of the things I did in the book is analyze the different rhetorics that are used to justify these uneven power dynamics. For college athletes and graduate students, you often hear rhetoric about how lucky and privileged they are, how high-status they are, and so they should stop complaining. The opposite is true for the other two groups. Prisoners are characterized as immoral because the argument against them is that they’re criminals, and welfare recipients to a lesser degree are considered immoral because they’re presumed from the outset to be defrauding the system.

In both of these cases though, from grad students and college athletes to prisoners and welfare recipients, workers are being told that they aren’t workers, and don’t get the rights of workers, and to shut up and work.

These are not the only examples of this type of coercive work. For example, the proliferation of noncompete clauses is giving employers expansive, punitive power over even more traditional workers. And then you have for example undocumented immigrants who are typically under contacts with one employer, and if they leave that job for any reason, they can be deported. As with the other examples I’ve identified, this gives employers an unusual degree of power, and that power often leads to a great deal of abuse.