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Labor Coercion and the Status/Economy Distinction


Noah Zatz (@NoahZatz) is Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law.

This post continues a symposium on Coerced: Work Under Threat of Punishment. Read the rest of the symposium here.


Erin Hatton’s outstanding book Coerced provides rich empirical grounding and generative theoretical framing for LPE analysis. The book’s core concept, “status coercion,” provides the glue that binds together four seemingly disparate work structures: prison labor, welfare work programs, undergraduate student athletics, and graduate student research.

Hatton’s key insight is that across these settings, employers wield power over workers by virtue of control over their institutional status and not solely, or even principally, by virtue of the power to cut off wages—the more familiar idea of “economic coercion.” In this fashion, Coerced underlines the incompleteness of attributing contemporary worker subordination and exploitation to the nexus between market wages and consumer purchasing. Hatton thereby complicates influential analyses of contemporary work as characterized primarily by deepening precarity driven by neoliberal marketization. Implicitly, this point also suggests caution about uncritically embracing “decommodification,” once “the market” is not a lone villain.

Indeed, and with specific significance for legal scholars, Hatton argues that the sociolegal construction of certain institutions as non-workplaces facilitates status coercion. This characterization, as I’ve also explored in my work, turns principally on dissociating work from market forms and associating it with some kind of non-market cultural and institutional domain. As Hatton writes, “this cultural and legal intersection of working but not being recognized as workers” facilitates status coercion by positioning these workers “as something other than rights-bearing employees.” Although in Coerced Hatton hews closely to her rich base of interview and documentary evidence (her earlier article substantially engages legal classification), the work structures she studies have all been the subject of high-profile litigation over employee status, with mixed results (prison labor, workfare, student athletes, graduate researchers). Similar disputes also have arisen in neighboring areas involving work mandates related to debt and non-carceral punishments, medical rehabilitation, and drug treatment, as well as the applicability of antitrust law’s application to NCAA college athletics per a recent Supreme Court decision.

The ambition of Coerced builds on its integration across disparate contexts. By organizing the chapters conceptually, rather than by institutional setting, Hatton develops a framework of broad applicability. Thus, in addition to the early and essential identification of status coercion, subsequent chapters trace practices of surveillance and degradation, worker resistance strategies, and workers’ conceptualization of their own work experiences. 

Indeed, part of what is so striking about Coerced is how familiar these later chapters read, identifying dynamics that also arise within more conventional workplaces (and drawing on literatures grounded in them). This commonality advances Hatton’s self-conscious project of characterizing her protagonists as workers. Indeed, as she takes care to note, status coercion operates within more conventional workplaces, too (including via the very status of being a “worker”).

But crucial to Hatton’s foundational category of “worker” is the notion that even when what is at stake for workers is some form of “status,” nonetheless what is at stake for employers is economic extraction. Across all her cases Hatton sees workers “performing labor for someone else’s benefit.” Indeed, she explicitly conceptualizes economic and status coercion as distinct, though interacting, forms of “labor control” that “produc[e] compliant yet productive workers.” In this sense, status coercion remains a fundamentally economic practice, an example of the “economic difference”—among class processes in particular—that J.K. Gibson-Graham contrast with a homogenizing view of capitalist labor markets. Coerced thus helps answer the call for LPE analysis “to see the economy as more than the domain of market exchange.”

Arguably, though, there is a tension between, on the hand, the status/economic distinction so central to Hatton’s analysis of how workers experience coercion and, on the other, treating the two forms of coercion as flip sides of a single coin of employer economic extraction. Without purporting to resolve this tension, I will suggest some questions provoked by this configuration and some paths toward divergent potential answers.

One difficulty, on the worker side of the equation, concerns the status/economic distinction itself. Hatton’s foil of “economic coercion” relies, consistent with much common usage, on a notion of market coercion: status coercion arises when “[workers’] bosses can do more than harness the lash of the market by firing them.” But here the distinction seemingly relies on a society/economy divide in which status is implicitly non-economic and the economy operates apart from the social. Yet as already noted, including by Hatton herself, “market worker” itself operates as a form of status.

Moreover, as Viviana Zelizer’s work shows and systematically theorizes, not only does status routinely have economic entailments, but those entailments are partially constitutive of that status. Consider, for instance, the status of “wife” within a stylized “family wage” model. In Hatton’s framework, a husband’s threat of divorce (including as a form of control over family labor) would be paradigmatic status coercion—”the power to discharge them from a particular status.” Yet it also constitutes an economic threat, not just incidentally but as part of the very institutionalization and social meaning of wifely “dependence” on male market breadwinning.

Nonetheless, these distinctions retain power in practice even if we can dismantle them analytically, a phenomenon Hatton observes among some workers themselves. For instance, one college athlete explained that he “didn’t feel like a worker” because he “felt like a football player. I mean, I love football…”, while a graduate researcher distanced herself from “worker” status precisely because she did not see herself instrumentalized as “just a number.” Ironically, some interview subjects distanced themselves from “worker” status precisely on status grounds, contrasting “their (real or perceived) criminality, idleness, or dependence” with a view of “‘work’ as a distinct and privileged category of productive labor.”  It might be generative here to explore how market work functions as a status location that operates in part through denying that status by reference to the status/economy distinction (cf. Hannah Appel’s work on the “the licit life of capitalism”).

Hatton also highlights how work structured by status coercion remains intertwined with markets, and not only on the employer side. She notes that several of the settings she explores are meant to produce future market workers (an argument Joe Soss, Richard Fording, and Sanford Schram have developed with regard to workfare). This opens up a broader question of whether what presents as “status” might be reducible back to the “economic.” An athlete losing playing time or a researcher never graduating are paradigmatic examples of lost status for Hatton, and yet these outcomes are coercive at least in part via downstream effects on professional economic opportunities. Even more immediately, while, in Hatton’s characterization, workfare workers face sanctions that strip them of the status of social citizens entitled to a safety net, that “safety net” can be characterized as a “social wage” constituted by the economic resources needed for daily living, including food and medical care. What is more classic economic coercion than “work or starve”?

Some traction on these status/economic questions might come from asking somewhat more generally what these work settings, as well as more conventional ones, are producing. Methodologically, Hatton focuses on worker experience while noting that a complete account would need to interweave what she refers to as cultural and institutional levels of analysis. Is status at stake here only for the workers? Or do the complexities of status/economy also apply to what “employers” are extracting, producing, and circulating more widely? For instance, in her brilliant book on Black women in convict leasing, Sarah Haley argues that for the Jim Crow carceral regime, “[a]ssault and destruction of the body in specific contexts (riots, scaffolds, penal camps) were fundamental tools in the construction of white civil society, white human value, and white personhood more broadly.” Race/gender status here are not simply resources that facilitate status coercion in the service of economic extraction but also part of what these labor structures produce. Similarly, Kelly Lytle Hernandez’s work on early 20th century Los Angeles chain gangs notes that, while no doubt productive, they also were very expensive and not obviously cheaper on net than other potential labor structures. On her account, for city elites the system’s value “registered not in dollars and cents but in preserving the Anglo settler fantasy at the heart of the city’s development.”

Juxtaposing these perspectives with Hatton’s suggests the value of complicating the potentially reductive category of “worker.” But the challenge is how to do so without giving sustenance to the very strategies that enable subordination, and exploitation, by undermining the claims to dignity, authority, and, yes, resources so often grounded in the status of “worker.”