Control over Status as Labor Coercion

In this paper I identify “status coercion” as a heretofore unrecognized form of labor coercion through analysis of four groups of workers who are not deemed “employees” under labor law: incarcerated workers, workfare workers, student athletes, and graduate students in the sciences. As different from each other as they are, all of these workers confront this form of coercion, because their bosses have power to remove them from a key status and revoke its rights and privileges. For instance, though it is unlikely that anyone desires to occupy the status of “prisoner,” once in it, retaining one’s status as prisoner in good standing is of utmost importance, because such status gives prisoners access to the many human entitlements that become “privileges” behind bars (e.g., relationships, recreation, consumer goods, and parole). But such privileges can be revoked, and they often are when incarcerated workers are not the docile and productive workers they are broadly expected to be. The same is true of the other workers in this study. Workfare workers can be removed from the status of welfare recipient in good standing, and thereby lose access to key elements of the social safety net. Student athletes and graduate students can be removed from their statuses as well, and therefore lose access to subsidized education and professional opportunities. Other workers also experience this form of coercion, particularly noncitizen workers such as foreign “guestworkers” and undocumented workers. Thus my analysis reveals how this form of coercion operates for these (and other) workers, from the margins of the economy to its center.