A growing body of research reveals what most Americans already know from experience: that our coworkers play a central role in our lives. The significance of coworker relationships is only magnified in an era of expanding work hours in the twenty-four-seven economy. But the law does not reflect this reality, and instead relegates coworkers to the status of legal strangers. This Article argues that the law’s failure to recognize coworker relationships undermines not only these relationships, but also the goals of work law, and makes the case for a law of coworker relationships that would promote the equal, fair, and safe workplace the law envisions.
This Article bypasses the longstanding divide between the collective focus of labor law and the individual focus of employment law by positing a relational theory of work law, with coworkers at the center. Relying on a rich social science literature, the Article shows how coworker bonds help to achieve the goals of work law by enhancing employee leverage, promoting collective action, facilitating worker voice, and even preventing legal violations from occurring in the first place. But across a wide swath of doctrines, from labor law to antidiscrimination law to wage-and-hour law and beyond, the law limits workers’ ability to harness the power of these bonds by erecting barriers to coworker bonding, discouraging the exchange of coworker support, and allowing employers to rupture coworker bonds.
To remedy these shortcomings, this Article proposes a law of limited-purpose support that would recognize coworker bonds. This model would adapt time-tested doctrines to the reality of coworker relationships, and would provide new protections to coworkers. This law of limited-purpose support would align work law with work life, and allow coworker relationships to fulfill their promise of achieving a better workplace.
GW Paper Series
GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 2016-54; GWU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2016-54
Schoenbaum, Naomi, Towards a Law of Coworkers (November 7, 2016). Alabama Law Review, 2017; GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 2016-54; GWU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2016-54. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2865663