Skip to content

Status As Sword


Michael M. Oswalt (@MichaelMOswalt) is a Professor of Law at Wayne State University Law School.

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


Adequate workplace regulation requires a 360° accounting of employer power. Erin Hatton’s illuminating treatment of how economic coercion interacts with workers’ social “status” to escalate managerial dominance gets us much closer to completing the circle. She is also right that although threats affecting familial, health, and future prospects are “entrenched,” “pervasive,” and growing, compared to the money pressures automatically generated by unstable jobs, status coercion remains a scholarly also-ran.

But I don’t think status will stay at the theoretical margins much longer, and not only because Hatton’s insight about coercion’s diverse forms rings so true. While employers have long conflated status with vulnerability, workers are starting to show how status itself can also be as a source of power—one that the courts, co-workers, and the public increasingly see as justification for broad-based change.

That status can at times assist both self-organization and popular mobilization can be seen even in the bounded workplace categories that Hatton highlights. Unpaid college football players mint millions for coaches as they practice and play “always in fear” of losing their scholarships (endangering their education) and playing time (endangering their dreams). Gritting through injuries and projecting “coachability” through default subservience are the natural reactions. Yet, over time these obviously ludicrous power imbalances have led players to speak out and ultimately fight back, accumulating broad public support in the process. By 2020, a unanimous Supreme Court had turned its back on earlier statements to openly mock the NCAA’s tired paean to “amateurism” in allowing players to at least be paid for the business use of their names. Public pressure, especially from the media, also underpinned the NCAA’s liberalization of the sport’s oppressive transfer rules. Both were blows to status coercion’s gravity, and both are so recent that they are not reflected in Hatton’s interviews. 

Moreover, it was the risk of injuries—specifically brain injuries—that led Northwestern football players to defy the deep culture of deference and petition for a union before it was even clear that they had the right to self-organize under the National Labor Relations Act. The NLRB punted, but scholars uniformly agree that one day, probably soon, they’ll win the rights and the union. The accumulated crush of employer control is simply too damning to ignore. (At Northwestern, practice schedules preclude pre-med, and players and coaches are Facebook “friends” by force). 

Graduate assistants, captive to their advisors for publication, degree, and employment purposes, are status sensitive too. Again, though, there is evidence of vulnerability-as-catalyst, both collectively and legally. Hatton describes how one student, “Emily,” views her academic overseers as having a “frightening amount of power, I think because they sort of have unchecked dominion, like, over multiple aspects of your life.” Tellingly, she continues: “I think this is one of the reasons that some groups of graduate students have tried to unionize.” In fact, the Board itself has marveled at graduate workers’ now decades-long reaction to the absence of labor protections: “fervent[]” organizing anyway. In 2016, the agency’s response to was to grant grad workers coverage under the NLRA.

In these more bird’s-eye view examples, we see workers spinning status to collective and judicial advantage. This instrumental use of status works in tandem with, but is distinct from, the many fascinating examples of courageous resistance detailed in Chapter 4 of Hatton’s book, which tend to be more individualized (like complaint-making and talking-back) or furtive (like avoidance and shirking).

But perhaps the most powerful and accessible example of status’s leveraging dynamic—its potential as a predicate for internal resistance and external support—emerged during the early months of 2020’s COVID-19 emergency. In March, schools went virtual, stores shuttered, and healthcare, grocery, delivery, warehouse, and transportation workers were sent to the pandemic’s front lines. Legally, they were now “essential.” Practically, their plight was reminiscent of the cultural perceptions of prisoners and welfare recipients identified in Coerced: they “[could], and should, be compelled to work,” but in this case for the public’s own convenience. In seeming recognition, they also found themselves cloaked with a sudden social status: heroes. Among the avalanche of appreciative ads and open letters, Walmart set its commercial against The Band’s song “The Weight” and its classic chorus, Take a load off Fanny, And you put the load right on me.

Of course, those lines are preceded by the offer to Take a load for free, which, in the newly deadly context, was not that far off. Certainly, essential workers—who were overwhelmingly BIPOC—were not being paid, or protected, like heroes. Conscription rarely came with raises, paid sick days, gloves, or masks. Positive cases were treated like trade secrets. At McDonald’s, doggie diapers doubled as face shields.

The result, in many cases, was strikes. At Amazon, Whole Foods, Instacart, Taco Bell, Family Dollar, and FedEx, workers walked out, logged off, or staged sick-outs. A website tracked 900 separate stoppages from March to the middle of July.

Here, status became sword. The grim irony of “heroes” skipping pay for things anyone would want in a world where people wiped-down groceries became impossible for executives to ignore. Paid sick leave and bonuses sometimes followed. Target limited shoppers. McDonald’s workers got soap.

All of it was temporary, all of it was inadequate. But by standing up, a deeper power arguably emerged. Public defiance of the economic vulnerabilities inherent in at-will, low-wage jobs is one thing. Public defiance of existential vulnerabilities—non-inherent risks unexpectedly taken on to protect the rest of us—carried a new recognition: bad jobs affect all of us. Working conditions had always been community conditions, but when the doorbell rang with take-out, that truth became personal. Politicians and celebrities wanted in on the safe jobs cause. Promoting really big tips became a thing. New York City had a nightly balcony clap. Two-thirds of the public (and nearly two-thirds of Republicans) claimed to support an “Essential Worker Bill of Rights.” This was the era of supportive lawn signs. “Social distancing is a privilege,” read one in my neighborhood.

With newfound social power came a degree of moral authority and, with that, moral innovations on the job. From today’s vantage, it is unsurprising that Trader Joe’s employees once agitated for masks. But yesterday’s vantage includes this tweeted reminder from the then-U.S. Surgeon General around the same time: “Seriously people—STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing the general public from catching #Coronavirus…” By June, Chicago McDonald’s workers were allowed face coverings but also instructions that, so long as conversations lasted less than 10 minutes, maskless was fine. Workers alleged the policy was a “public nuisance,” a theory applied to the workplace rarely, if ever. A Cook County judge agreed, enjoined it, and it seems likely we’ll see the legal strategy again.

All of this could have led, perhaps, to a Triangle Fire tragedy-type moment, the horrors of which spurred the enactment of dozens of state and federal workplace health and safety laws. But the Essential Workers Bill of Rights never got a hearing, and in many places the public’s empathy left with the lawn signs. For most of this year mask and vaccine wars continued to rage as service workers were tasked with the perilous task of checking immunization cards and flight attendants defended themselves with coffee pots.

That, though, may suggest an important lesson about status coercion. Hatton concludes on the optimistic note that “revealing how status coercion affects a wide range of workers…broadens their community of allies,” citing the rise of ex-prisoner groups fighting to limit solitary confinement and the potential for student-assistants and student-athletes to “join forces.” I think the pandemic-era has unlocked the possibility that the net could be cast much wider. Status may itself sometimes facilitate strength, but if—in addition—the public understands that they too have a stake in workers’ plight, they’ll want in on pressing to find a solution. As the COVID-19 years have exposed, whether that support can be sustained is the ultimate “if.” But if it can be, I think we’ll see that it doesn’t take “Superpeople” to lighten coercion’s load—just regular people, supporting regular workers, all throughout Metropolis.