Claire Mumme, ‘Property in Labour and the Limits of Contract’

As has long been recognized, the contract of employment depends on the commodification of labour power. Notwithstanding debates amongst political theorists and trade union activists about whether individuals should be viewed self-owners, and whether it is possible to sell one’s capabilities without selling one’s self, the law does treat labour power as a commodity. There has been little research on the ways in which the law does so, however, for the simple reason that self-ownership of one’s laboring capacities is often taken as fact, as the starting premise for analysis, and treated as a necessary pre-condition for individual self-realization through contract. Moreover, proprietary and contractual forms of regulating work are often presented as diametrically opposed: a proprietary method of labour regulation is said to create a relationship of slavery, while contract is presented as an institution of choice.

This paper argues that an analysis of labour power as property, and its relationship to contract, emphasizes that both contract and property are enmeshed in the legal regulation of waged employment. Examining the ways in which the courts have given shape to individual’s proprietary rights over their labour power, and have set the terms for its exchange, demonstrates that the limitations on employers rights of control are not inherent to the contractual form. Instead, they often depend on wider social processes, such as production and labour processes, collective bargaining, and statutory regulation. Examining proprietary rights over labour power provides another window onto the malleability of the contractual form, and the degree to which political choices are made by courts and legislators in determining the terms of the employment contract.

This paper therefore investigates the relationship between contract, and labour power as property. To do so the historical evolution of contractual limitations on employers’ rights of control will be canvassed, and the ways in which these limitations are now fraying. In particular, the development of the managerial prerogative from a property to a contract-based interest is described, and the ways in which concepts of working-time have operated, in theory, to separate in law the commodification of labour power from the commodification of self. Finally, the paper concludes by examining the ways in which these limiting mechanisms are beginning to disappear, as collective bargaining protections dissipate and the statutory protections are rolled back.

Mumme, Claire, Property in Labour and the Limits of Contract (July 14, 2014). Forthcoming in the Handbook on Political Economy and Law, U Mattei and J Haskell, eds. Edward Elgar Publishing.

First posted 2014-07-26 08:04:40

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