The Cowboy Code Meets the Smash Mouth Truth: Meditations on Worker Incivility

26 Pages Posted: 5 Apr 2015

See all articles by Michael C. Duff

Michael C. Duff

University of Wyoming College of Law

Date Written: April 5, 2015


This symposium essay argues that workers must face up and wake up to the emerging real world of perpetual employment vulnerability. Clinging to the faith that those who govern us will abide by simple moral codes simply will not do in this world. Workers must resist forces promoting vulnerability and internalize a steely and clear-eyed ethic of self-defense in response to the smash mouth truth of this challenging new environment. Workers and dissidents must not shrink when their frank opposition to the status quo is cabined and marginalized as “incivility.” The law — and I focus in the essay on American labor law — can be of some help at the margins to the cause of worker resistance; but one cannot lose sight of the implacability of the adversary or the ineluctability of the situation. As Chinua Achebe once said with his customary penetrating wisdom:

"To answer oppression with appropriate resistance requires knowledge of two kinds: in the first place, self-knowledge by the victim, which means awareness that oppression exists, an awareness that the victim has fallen from a great height of glory or promise into the present depths; secondly, the victim must know who the enemy is."

However, the dire predicament remains full of possibilities. And many such possibilities along the way are beautiful and ennobling. Workers need not lose their humanity, or their values, when confronting the moral insouciance of owners and employers. In the end, I am convinced and argue (from the context of my own life) that both my law students and their former-blue-collar, Teamster law professor (and perhaps others) can learn to appreciate, and even venerate, the sometimes beautiful incivility of human resistance. Whether in Ferguson, Missouri or in the workplace, the human spirit fights on.

Keywords: labor law, civil disobedience, civil resistance, rule of law, new economy, precariat

JEL Classification: J40, J50, J51, J53, J58, J60, J68, K31

Suggested Citation

Duff, Michael C., The Cowboy Code Meets the Smash Mouth Truth: Meditations on Worker Incivility (April 5, 2015). West Virginia Law Review, Vol. 117, No. 3, 2015, Available at SSRN:

Michael C. Duff (Contact Author)

University of Wyoming College of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 3035
Laramie, WY 82071
United States

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