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Who Is a Worker? Partisanship, the National Labor Relations Board, and the Social Content of Employment


Julia Tomassetti is a Sociology PhD student at the University of California, Los Angeles, with a JD from Harvard Law. Please address all correspondence to The author thanks her advisor, Maurice Zeitlin, for his invaluable guidance on this article. She also thanks Ruth Milkman, Ching Kwan Lee, the UCLA Sociology Department's Comparative Social Analysis Seminar, and the anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments.


In opinions addressing whether graduate students, medical residents, and disabled workers in nonstandard work arrangements are employees under the National Labor Relations Act, I analyze partisan differences in how National Labor Relations Board members, under the previous two US presidents, confronted the contradictory permeation of wage-labor into relatively noncommodified relationships. I argue that Republicans mediated the contradictions by interpreting indicia of employer property rights as status authority. They constructed employment as a contractual relationship consummated through exchange relations and demarcated a nonmarket social sphere in which to locate the relationships before them. This construction suppressed the class dimension of employment and the connection between relations of production and relations in production (Burawoy 1979). Democrats mediated the contradictions by recognizing them in part and arguing that the workers were engaged in commodity production. They proposed the Act as a means for workers to negotiate “differentiated ties” (Zelizer 2005) in nonstandard employment.