Monday, January 28, 2008

Break Your Contract, Go to Prison: Governing the Workplace through Crime

In the 19th century, Parliament turned the work rules of the British railways into a penal statutes. A trainman violating work rules, could find themselves facing not just discipline, but punishment. The growing political power of workers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries gradually eroded the practice of criminalizing labor disputes, but as the power of workers has declined, and the salience of crime to governance has gone up, governing through crime is becoming a more common way to exercise workplace power (see Chapter 8 of my book).

A recent example comes from New York where a group of Filipino nurses found that when they tried to quit their jobs at a hospital for critically ill children, they were facing not just unemployment, but criminal charges of child endangerment.

As reported by Frank Eltman of the AP:

For months, the nurses complained that they were subject to demeaning and unfair working conditions - not what they were promised when they came to America from the Philippines in search of a better life. So they abruptly quit.

But in doing so, they put more than their careers at risk: Prosecutors hit them with criminal charges for allegedly jeopardizing the lives of terminally ill children they were in charge of watching.

The 10 nurses and the attorney who advised them were charged with conspiracy and child endangerment in what defense lawyers say is an unprecedented use of criminal law in a labor dispute. If convicted of the misdemeanor offenses, they face up to a year in jail on each of 13 counts, and could lose their nursing licenses and be deported.


The case apparently has the fingerprints on it of liberal Democratic Senator, and long term crime warrior opportunist, Chuck Schumer.

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