Wednesday, July 04, 2007


No Free Speech At Work

According to a recent AFL-CIO study, 80 percent of American workers believe they retain the right of free speech in the workplace. The plain fact is that they are wrong. The first amendment was intended to shield the right of free speech from the actions of the government, not from the actions of private employers. The article at the link below is an interview with Bruce Barry, a management and sociology professor at Vanderbilt and the author of Speechless: The Erosion of Free Expression in the American Workplace. He criticizes the political consequences of the American tradition of "employment at will" which, he says, is "a legal and economic system under which employers don't just buy a person's labor, they also reserve the right to rent an employer's conscience, ideology and social identity." In contrast to the United States, "most western-style industrial democracies have built into their system of employment law some sort of just-cause protection and due process reights. There is a convention of the International Labor Organization on discrimination in employment that has, in addition to protection against employment discrimination for race, religion, sex, and national origin, [protection of] political opinion. 160 countries have ratified that convention. The United States is not one of them."

The bottom line is that the one nation that most fulsomely boasts of how it has brought "the untamed flame of freedom" to the world is also the one that most stubbornly resists extending political freedom to the workplace. This is a serious omission in a society in which work consumes more of its citizens' waking hours than ever before, and where many of what used to be government or community functions have been privatized. In fact, as civil community has progressively declined in the United States, the workplace has come to replace it. The workplace may be the only context in which Americans from different walks of life may communicate and cooperate with one another, and yet they are barred at the risk of dismissal from expressing themselves above the most dronelike level of superficiality.

There are two parallel trends at work in corporate society that will inevitably collide. American workers have less job security than ever. Instead of working for one company for a lifetime, they are forced to move from one job to another - if they can. They are denied benefits they once took for granted, and are treated less as partners in an enterprise than as human overhead to be trimmed away at a moment's notice. This not only destroys their sense of security, it utterly obliterates any loyalty they might feel for their employers. Yet at the same time corporations are investing more and more in their public image, and in influencing legislative bodies to support their interests. They have become exponentially more sensitive to dissent among the rank and file, at the same time that their lack of consideration for the welfare of their employees engenders ever more dissent.

In the interview, Barry provides recent examples of employees who have been dismised for their political beliefs. In Alabama, a Republican boss fired a worker who refused to remove a John Kerry bumper sticker from her car. In Tennessee, another boss fired a worker who wrote a letter to the editor of a local paper about welfare policy. In Texas, a community activist was "forced out of his job" for supporting affirmative action. Any employee who blogs (at least under his or her own name) is also fair game for dismissal. Even though internet technology has given workers a greater chance of getting their voices heard, it has also given employers a greater ability to find that voice and destroy its livelihood.

"Speechless At Work" from The American Prospect

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