Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Work, Inc.

Work, Inc.: A Philosophical Inquiry

Edmund F. Byrne
Copyright Date: 1990
Published by: Temple University Press
Pages: 360
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Work, Inc.
    Book Description:

    Many workers today feel that the longstanding social contract between government, business, and labor has been broken. This book examines legal and philosophical problems that must be addressed if there is to be a new social contract that is fair to workers. Drawing on a wide variety of sources, from the popular press to technical philosophy, Edmund F. Byrne brings into focus ethical issues involved in corporate decisions to reorganize, relocate, or automate. In assessing the human costs of these decisions, he shows why, to a worker, "corporations are not reducible to their assets and liabilities any more than a government is merely its annual budget. That they are organizations, that these organizations do things, and that they are socially responsible for what they do."

    In support of this assignment of responsibility, Byrne seeks to demythologize corporate hegemony by confronting a variety of intellectual "dragons" that guard the gates of the status quo. These include legal assumptions about corporate personhood and commodification, private property and eminent domain; management ideas about the autonomous employee and profit without payrolls; technocratic dreams of a dehumanized workplace: ideological belief in progress and competition; and philosophical arguments for libertarian freedom, liberal welfare, and global justice.

    Because of these and other mainstream perspectives, workers today are widely perceived, in law and in common parlance, to be isolated atoms. But, Byrne emphasizes, work. including work done for a transnational corporation, is done in a community. Since corporate leaders make decisions that have an impact on people's lives and on communities, involvement in such decisions must be not only corporate or governmental but community-based as well.

    eISBN: 978-1-4399-0521-0
    Subjects: Philosophy, Business

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-xii)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-13)

    “We had a social contract, and now we don’t. The social contract has been broken. Government, business, and labor—each had its role and each understood its responsibilities to the others. All three together, cooperating, for the betterment of all. That’s how it was, but no more.”

    This, quite commonly, is how people in the labor movement explain to themselves and to anyone else who will listen what has been happening in recent years in the United States and elsewhere. They do not mean that it was always so. It obviously was not. Before the Depression, business-hired goons or even...

  4. Chapter 1 Corporations and Communities
    (pp. 14-34)

    There is a gut-level feeling, especially among those most immediately affected, that a plant closing or any other traumatic workforce restructuring must be unjust. But the instincts of corporate decision makers and their libertarian supporters engender no such feeling. As a result, at least in a capitalist society, anyone who doubts the propriety of this most literal form of moving and shaking is assumed to have the burden of proof. So be it, then. The question must be asked: Under what conditions, if any, is a workforce restructuring unjust?

    A person eager to be fair might answer that a workforce...

  5. PART I. Worker and Community

    • Chapter 2 Work and Play: The Obscurity of Obligation
      (pp. 37-61)

      Should a workers’ representative acknowledge that people have an obligation in principle to work? There is certainly strong support for an affirmative answer, especially among those who employ workers; and working people themselves seem inclined to agree. But people have often accepted an obligation to work only in conjunction with such factors as their traditions, cultural priorities, and available technology. In other words, people’s acknowledgment of an obligation to work has been more circumstantial than principled. So there are good reasons to proceed cautiously and not agree too readily to an unqualified obligation to work. To make this point, I...

    • Chapter 3 Whose Work? Which Ethic?
      (pp. 62-84)

      Given the competing values of work and play and the political dynamic of their allocation, a workers’ representative should not agree to include in a social contract any unqualified endorsement of an obligation to work. But that is by no means the end of the matter. For the discussion to this point has assumed, or at least not denied, the existence of a uniform, readily identifiable work ethic. This assumption, however, is unfounded. A work ethic, so called, may be associated with several significantly different motives for working, notably to maximize accumulation of wealth or, more narrowly, money; to fulfill...

    • Chapter 4 Work and Welfare: A Crisis of Responsibility
      (pp. 85-110)

      Our search for a light that would lead a workers’ representative to endorse some sort of work ethic in a social contract has led us to the notion of meaningful work, to be considered in Chapter 5. It should be noted at once, however, that meaningful work is not a light that shines regardless of time, place, or circumstances. For it too is fueled by an ambiguity that reduces any maxim in which it is mentioned to a merely conditional imperative. The ambiguity arises from our not having specified whether status work would be the principal source of subsistence. If...

  6. PART II. Worker and Corporation

    • Chapter 5 “Meaningful Work”: A Two-Edged Sword
      (pp. 113-135)

      Should a workers’ representative agree that, as long as there is work to be done, it ought to be as meaningful as possible to the worker? Or might the quest for meaning lead to another dragon’s lair? There is something quite seductive about the notion of “meaningful work” (MW). It is thought to be something that workers want and even need; so, not surprisingly, there are philosophers who defend it as a worker’s right.¹ Less clear is who or what is obliged to bring this about. For in the history of the human race there has been no shortage of...

    • Chapter 6 Worker Organizations
      (pp. 136-158)

      So meaningful work may be a dragon and as such not the sort of thing a workers’ representative should endorse absent an abundance of additional information. Never mind. Laying down minimum standards for job content is not the only way to promote fair employer-employee relations. One might, for example, follow John Rawls’s lead and call forproceduresthat would satisfy people’s sense of justice. This idea gets a strong boost toward “reflective equilibrium”¹ because it has already been put into practice and institutionalized. The practice in question is called collective bargaining. But collective bargaining by definition involves collective activity on...

    • Chapter 7 Equal Opportunity Employment?
      (pp. 159-180)

      A workers’ representative would have a hard time coming to terms with other social contractors about justice in the workplace. What principles should govern the distribution of meaning, or of liberty, or of power in the workplace? Such questions, we have seen, are difficult to resolve. But at least they take for granted that people are working, that is, that they have jobs. But if for some reason there are not or are not likely to be enough jobs to go around, the representative may have to endorse some morally acceptable way to allocate available openings.

      Here, one might think,...

    • Chapter 8 Automation: Laborsaving or Dehumanization?
      (pp. 181-206)

      Our reflections on various aspects of the work relationship have shown how difficult it would be to formulate principles that protect the rights of workers. Meaningful work, though widely endorsed, is a dragon insofar as it can so easily be co-opted and transformed into an instrument of exploitation. Liberty, even maximum mutual liberty, is no less attractive in the abstract; but when applied in a world of unequal bargainers, it too is suspect as a guide to fair terms and conditions of employment. Equal opportunity also seems to deserve inclusion in a social contract. But should it be understood in...

  7. PART III. Corporation and Community

    • Chapter 9 Corporation and Community In American Law
      (pp. 209-230)

      For most people, survival is a function of their opportunity to work. This is nothing new. What is new is that this opportunity is no longer assured by a community in and through which their talents are exercised, fulfilled, and appreciated. Work opportunities in a community depend increasingly on decisions made not only without a community’s involvement but even without its knowledge. Such decisions, however complex the process by which they are arrived at, are made by a comparatively small number of persons who effectively control one or another major corporation. In view of the inability of workers to counterbalance...

    • Chapter 10 The Ideology of Corporate Autonomy
      (pp. 231-255)

      As we have seen, there are good reasons why communities should have more “say” over what corporations do or fail to do in their regard and in their presence. The kind of say that is needed has, in fact, been assured in many West European countries for years. But in the United States comparable proposals are still very controversial, as they would, to some, be a violation of the liberty and democracy which are considered prerequisites to corporate autonomy. In this value-laden context, then, we need to look beyond the immediate, or apparent, level of controversy to an examination of...

    • Chapter 11 Global Justice and Corporation-Community Relations
      (pp. 256-274)

      Global justice. It certainly sounds appealing! Like “a war to end all wars,” or “one world,” or “perfect harmony.” Pollyanish, perhaps. But hope springs eternal, and our reachshouldexceed our grasp. This acknowledged, ideals do deserve serious consideration. But how can a responsible workers’ representative distinguish global justice from pie-in-the-sky when the battles all seem to be fought in local communities, with dispensable workers on one side and mobile capital on the other? My answer to this question might be referred to as controlled utopianism and will be arrived at by means of a retrospective and reductionist analysis that...

  8. Conclusions
    (pp. 275-282)

    The argument developed in this book leads through a labyrinth of particular concerns to three principal conclusions, one factual, one hortatory, and one theoretical.

    I. The factual conclusion is this:the social contract involving business, labor, and government is no longer tenable “as written,” because business now exercises de facto sovereignty over the other two parties to the contract.

    To say that this conclusion is factual is, of course, controversial. It has in its favor, however, everything that has been brought to bear on the subject in this book. (The notion of sovereignty is considered below, in regard to the...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 285-332)
  10. Index
    (pp. 333-340)