If the laws of economics were enforced as strictly as the laws of physics, America would be a workers' paradise. The supply of most kinds of labor is low, relative to the demand, so each worker should be treated as a cherished asset, right? But there have been only grudging gains in wages over the last few years, and in the realm of dignity and autonomy, a palpable decline.
In the latest phase of America's one-sided class war, employers have taken to monitoring employees' workplace behavior right down to a single computer keystroke or bathroom break, even probing into their personal concerns and leisure activities. Sure, there's a job out there for anyone who can get to an interview sober and standing upright. The price, though, may be one's basic civil rights and -- what boils down to the same thing -- self-respect.
Not that the Bill of Rights ever extended to the American workplace. In 1996, I was surprised to read about a grocery store worker in Dallas who was fired for wearing a Green Bay Packers T-shirt to work on the day before a Cowboys-Packers game. All right, this was insensitive of him, but it certainly couldn't have influenced his ability to keep the shelves stocked with Doritos. A few phone calls though, revealed that his firing was entirely legal. Employees have the right to express their religious preferences at work, by wearing a cross or a Star of David, for example. But most other forms of "self-expression" are not protected, and strangely enough, Green Bay Packer fandom has not yet been recognized as a legitimate religion.
Freedom of assembly is another right that never found its way into the workplace. On a recent journalistic foray into a series of low-wage jobs, I was surprised to discover that management often regarded the most innocent conversation between employees as potentially seditious. A poster in the break room at one restaurant where I worked as a waitress prohibited "gossip," and a manager would hastily disperse any gathering of two or more employees. At the same time, management everywhere enjoys the right to assemble employees for lengthy anti-union harangues.
Then there is the more elemental and biological right -- and surely it should be one -- to respond to nature's calls. Federal regulations forbid employers to "impose unreasonable restrictions on employee use of the facilities." But according to Marc Linder and Ingrid Nygaard, co-authors of "Void Where Prohibited: Rest Breaks and the Right to Urinate on Company Time," this regulation is only halfheartedly enforced. Professionals and, of course, waitresses can usually dart away and relieve themselves as they please. Not so for many cashiers and assembly-line workers, some of whom, Linder says, have taken to wearing adult diapers to work.
In the area of privacy rights, workers have actually lost ground in recent years. Here, too, the base line is not impressive -- no comprehensive right to personal privacy on the job has ever been established. I learned this on my first day as a waitress, when my fellow workers warned me that my purse could be searched by management at any time. I wasn't carrying stolen salt shakers or anything else of a compromising nature, but there's something about the prospect of a purse search that makes a woman feel a few buttons short of fully dressed. After work, I called around and found that this, too, is generally legal, at least if the boss has reasonable cause and has given prior notification of the company's search policies.
Purse searches, though, are relatively innocuous compared with the sophisticated chemical and electronic forms of snooping adopted by many companies in the 90's. The American Management Association reports that in 1999 a record two-thirds of major American companies monitored their employees electronically: videotaping them; reviewing their e-mail and voice-mail messages; and, most recently, according to Lewis Maltby, president of the Princeton-based National...
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