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The "tyrannical" nature of companies and how we can change them

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Odds are you work for a dictator. Even if you love your CEO to pieces, the buck stops there. It ain’t no democracy, as they say. Many companies can tell you what to do, say and write — even in your off hours, based on the theory that everything you do reflects back on the company and that personal character counts.

Elizabeth Anderson, a professor of philosophy and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, addresses this in her new book, “Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk About It).”

David Brancaccio: Let’s talk about it. You can think of companies like miniature tyrannical states?

Elizabeth Anderson: That’s exactly right. The private workplace is a little private government where bosses order workers around, sometimes tyrannically, and there’s very little accountability for the power that they exercise over their workers.

Brancaccio: You’re talking beyond 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.?

Anderson: Absolutely. So we live under an employment-at-will regime, and what that means is that employers can fire workers for any or no reason, even for off-duty activities that they do in their private life, over the weekend, on vacation. That can include, for instance, supporting a political candidate, donating to a political campaign or just speaking out on a political issue where they disagree with their boss.

Brancaccio: Now you have thought a lot about this. You would like to strengthen systems that give rank-and-file people a greater voice in the workplace.

Anderson: Yes. Germany offers the leading case of this. They have a system at larger firms known as code determination. And under code determination, workers actually get an official say. And that appears to be quite consistent with high wages, very good working conditions, stable employment. Workers are pretty happy with the system.

Brancaccio: What about going the whole hog — labor unions?

Anderson: One of the minuses that a lot of workers feel about labor unions is that it puts them in an adversarial relationship. And a lot of workers would actually prefer a more cooperative relationship, and that’s something that code determination offers. When they are made responsible for the effective functioning of the firm, they can advocate for better working conditions, but cast that in a way that will be helpful to the firm, rather than just seeing every encounter as a zero-sum struggle for benefits against their employer.

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