Scholars of work and labor do not often analyze labor coercion these days. It is considered a bit passé, and is simply taken as a given that economic coercion undergirds labor relations in capitalist economies. With this implicit foundation in place, the primary story of work and labor in contemporary scholarship is one of precarity: the instability, insecurity, and low wages of gig work, temp work, freelancing, day labor, adjunct work, just-in-time work, and more.
But precarity does not characterize the work lives of all workers, and economic coercion is not the only power dynamic that shapes labor relations. In my new book Coerced: Work Under Threat of Punishment, I identify a different form of labor coercion, one in which employers’ power does not stem from their control over workers’ wages (e.g., through their ability to hire, fire, promote, and demote workers). Rather, it stems from their control over workers’ “status” and all of the rights, privileges, and opportunities—economic and otherwise—that such status confers.
I call it “status coercion.” To show how it operates, I examine four very different groups of workers: prisoners who labor behind bars, welfare recipients assigned to workfare programs, Division I football and basketball players, and graduate students in the sciences.
But before delving into how these workers experience this form of coercion, please note: I do not argue that these workers are the same in any way. Prisoners are far removed from graduate students! Yet I do argue that all of these workers (along with others) experience the same type of coercion—in kind, but not intensity—just as managers and frontline workers both experience economic coercion in kind but not in intensity.
Take, for example, prisoners. Much more than being worried about working enough hours or losing their jobs, incarcerated workers are worried about the other (often severe) punishments their bosses can exact. For, if they do not comply with any demand from the corrections officers who oversee their labor, incarcerated workers can be fined a week’s wages, put on “keeplock” (confined to one’s own cell), put in solitary confinement (an enclosed and segregated cell for 23 hours a day without human interaction), and lose opportunities for parole. Nearly all of these consequences entail loss of the human entitlements that become “privileges” behind bars: interaction with friends and family, as well as access to food, basic amenities, recreation, and freedom of movement (however constrained).
In workfare, if workers do not comply with demands from their worksite bosses or caseworkers, they can be sanctioned—that is, denied access to key social safety net programs, including cash benefits, rent and utility subsidies, health care, SNAP benefits, and childcare and transportation assistance. Although such sanctions are usually temporary, their effects are permanent. They reduce welfare recipients’ lifetime allotment of public assistance under TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and, moreover, the effects of homelessness and other consequences of extreme material hardship for these workers and their families are severe and long-lasting.
Meanwhile, for the two groups of university student workers in this study—Division I college athletes and graduate students in the sciences—the power their bosses wield is much less severe, though nonetheless far-reaching and punitive. If athletes do not comply with their coaches’ directives, they will likely lose playing time: the chance (and usually their only chance) to play their sport at an elite level. This may harm their professional opportunities as well, since athletes’ performance on the field (or on the courts) is their path to professional recruitment and, even more, because professional recruiters rely on their coaches’ assessments of them. As athletes told me, coaches are not likely to recommend athletes who do not “fall in line” to NFL or NBA recruiters. In addition to losing playing time and the chance to play professionally, athletes who do not “fall in line” may also lose their scholarships and, thus, their access to subsidized education and the accreditation it confers.
The same is broadly true of PhD students in the sciences. These students labor in the labs of their advisors, who control what their research entails, if and when they can leave graduate school with a degree, whether they can publish their research (or even be included as an author), and whether they can obtain future employment in the field. For example, former graduate students told me that it is relatively common practice for advisors to prevent their PhD students from graduating because they had become productive workers in the lab. Because, in point of fact, the scientific enterprise in the academy depends on the labor of graduate students and postdocs. They are the “hands” that perform the experiments in the lab. So, when advanced graduate students become skilled and productive workers, there is a strong disincentive for their advisors to allow them to graduate. PhD students labor (and graduate or not) at their mercy.
Of course, not all faculty advisors, coaches, caseworkers, and corrections officers deploy these punitive powers, at least not in mean-spirited ways. But those who do are not “bad apples.” They are not exceptions to the rule. They are the rule. Their access to such expansive punitive power is simply a matter of course in these labor relations and, as a result, it often remains unquestioned by workers and supervisors alike. This is just “how things are done” in these workplaces.
Thus, I argue, these workers labor under the threat of punishment. Whether or not they experience such punishment firsthand, they are acutely aware of the punitive power that their supervisors can wield and this awareness pervades the workplace, fundamentally shaping their actions and experiences. Their labor is predicated on coercion.
Yet, as I argued at the start of this post, this type of coercion differs from economic coercion, which is centered on employers’ power over workers’ wages. Though these workers may also experience some degree of economic coercion, the primary coercion they face stems from the other punishments their bosses can wield. At the heart of these punishments is their bosses’ power to discharge them from a particular status—as prisoner, welfare recipient, college athlete, and graduate student “in good standing”—and thereby deprive them of the rights, privileges, and opportunities that such status confers.
Because, in fact, in the U.S. these workers do not occupy the status of “worker” or “employee,” and therefore they do not have access to the cultural standing and legal rights and protections that this status usually yields. Instead, they occupy a variety of other statuses, each with its own obligations, constraints, rights, and privileges. To be sure, such statuses are not always desirable. Indeed, it is likely that no one desires to occupy the status of “prisoner.” But, once in it, retaining one’s status as prisoner in good standing is of utmost importance, because it gives prisoners access to all of those human entitlements that become privileges behind bars.
The other statuses that I examine in this book are similar, for even when they impose constraints on their worker-occupants, they also offer important rights and privileges. For workfare workers, for example, being a welfare recipient in good standing is a prerequisite for their continued access key safety net programs and, in New York City, even homeless shelters. Meanwhile, for Division I college athletes, occupying that status in good standing gives them access to subsidized university education and its credentials, as well as the chance to play the sport they love and, for some, professional sports opportunities. Likewise, being a graduate student in good standing offers access to subsidized graduate education, as well as high-status credentials, experience, training, and professional opportunities.
Therefore, even though these statuses do not confer the right to a minimum wage or collective bargaining, as would the status of “worker,” such statuses offer rights and privileges that are highly valued within their respective institutions. Yet, in each of these cases, supervisors have the capacity to revoke such rights and privileges, the consequences of which extend beyond the job and its wages to affect these workers’ lives, families, and futures in far-reaching ways.
Of course, these are not the only labor relations in which workers experience status coercion. “Regular” workers may be subject to status coercion as well since, at the most basic level, being fired from one’s job means being ejected from one’s status as worker and the considerable rights and privileges it confers in American society. Such loss of status can have significant psychological and physiological consequences, in addition to economic consequences, especially for those who are culturally expected to be “breadwinners.” In other labor relations, status coercion may be even more severe. For foreign “guest workers” and undocumented workers, for example, employers have power over whether they are legitimate “workers” or “criminals” to be expelled from the U.S. And these are only a few examples of how this type of coercion operates for a broad range of workers in America today.
Thus I argue that control over status is a key mechanism of coercive employer power, which—along with other forms of punitive employer power—should be moved from the margins to the center of work and labor scholarship.
Erin Hatton is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University at Buffalo.
This article is based on Erin Hatton, Coerced: Work Under Threat of Punishment (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2020)
Image: Adapted from book cover for Coerced: Work Under Threat of Punishment.