A few days ago, I sent off an article I had just written on assignment to the editor of a magazine which was preparing to run it. A few moments later, I got an email back: he had just been fired and the magazine was being shut down by the publisher. My story, for which I had expected to be paid $1500, was toast.
When I tried to write back a reply to the editor, I got a message saying that my email message was “undeliverable.”
I called the editor (who worked from home) on his cell phone and, still sounding shell-shocked, he informed me that immediately after notifying him, with no warning, that he was being axed, the publisher had eliminated his company email account and had blocked him from accessing the company’s server, thus effectively cutting him off from all the contacts he had developed over his years at the company.
I mentioned this shabby treatment to a couple of guys at lunch the next day, and was told by one that his wife had been laid off from her job only days before. She too had received no notice from her employer and had been given only a couple of hours to clear her desk out and leave the premises, despite her having worked there for over six years.
Welcome to the American business world.
` It is, for the most part, an ugly, heartless place where loyalty is rewarded with abuse and relationships are intensely hierarchical, one-sided and ultimately totally artificial. It is a place where managers do not have to follow the basic rules of human decency by which they for the most part live in their private lives.
Across the country, every day, some 20,000 or more American workers are getting sacked these days by managers who are focused on bottom lines and satisfying greedy investors. A shockingly high percentage of these victims of recession and corporate greed get little or no notice. One reason for this shabby and abusive treatment is that companies don’t want word leaking out about their difficulties and their cutbacks. Bad news about layoffs can hurt stock prices, can alarm customers and can worry creditors.
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Many employers even attempt to block fired employees from collecting unemployment compensation (an employer’s unemployment insurance rate is determined by experience—the greater the number of workers you fire who go on unemployment, the higher your premium). They do this by claiming the worker was fired “for cause.” This forces the sacked worker to appeal and go through a hearing process, all of which can take weeks, with the outcome uncertain.
Often workers who are treated badly by employers who dump them will not complain publicly about their treatment because they need to maintain good relations with their old company so they can get favorable recommendations when they search for new work. Some workers even fear to file for unemployment benefits due them, for fear that it will lead to a bad job recommendation down the road.
These kinds of implied threats are just an extension of another problem: the lack of free speech on the job.
We all grow up learning that here in America we have freedom of speech. What our teachers don’t tell us when we’re in school (where, of course, we also have no freedom of speech!) is that actually the First Amendment only applies to the relatively short period of time between when we wake up in the morning and the time we go through the entryway of our place of work, and to the time between when we exit the building and when we go home and go to sleep. That eight or nine-hour period of the day when we are on the job we do not have that First Amendment right to say what we are thinking. Try exercising it, and you can be fired—for cause and with no access to an unemployment check. Think about it a moment: we sleep, if we’re lucky, for eight hours, and work for another eight, so we really only get freedom of speech for a third of each day, and much of that time most of us are alone in a car, or have food in our mouths and can’t talk anyhow. Some freedom!
When you examine this situation, it really closely resembles the medieval institution of serfdom. True, in modern capitalism, the boss doesn’t own you as Lords of old owned their serfs, but the two relationships nonetheless have a lot in common.
A serf of old could flee her or his Lord’s estate, and many did. In an era of limited communications, it was at least possible to escape and to find one’s way to a new situation—usually another Lord’s estate. Today, of course, one is free to change jobs. But because employers generally demand references of the people they hire, modern workers need to be careful to maintain good relations with their bosses even if they are abused by those bosses, lest they end up unemployable.
There is one exception to this grim picture, and that is labor unions. On jobs where there are unions (only about 8 percent of private company workers these days, down from 30 percent back in the early 1950s), workers have a modicum of freedom from abuse — and a modicum of freedom of speech on the job. A union contract generally establishes the principle of seniority, so that employers are not free to simply let go anyone they choose during an economic slowdown. They have to let people go on the basis of seniority—the most recent hires first. This is only fair. With a contract, bosses also cannot fire anyone without cause and without due process and notice. Workers have the right to file a grievance if they are ill treated by management. Within certain bounds, expressing one’s opinion cannot be cause for being fired (though most contracts still allow termination for “insubordination”).
It is this assertion of the personhood of workers, and of their basic freedom to be fully human, as much as the simple fact that unionized workers generally earn more than their non-unionized counterparts, that makes American managers and capitalist owners so virulently anti-union. Indeed, for many employers it is this — the empowerment of workers — more than the fact that unions are able to win higher wages and better benefits for their members, that makes unions anathema.
If American workers needed a reason to back the Employee Free Choice Act (soon to be considered and voted on by Congress), which would make it easier for them to demand a union and to win a first contract with their employers, and which would finally put teeth in the penalties assessed against employers who violate worker rights, this recession should give it to them. To fully enjoy the freedoms we supposedly are granted by our Constitution, most notably the First Amendment freedom of speech, religion and assembly, to fully be human beings instead of just serfs, it is essential that every American worker be protected by a collective bargaining agreement.
It is the only way to force employers to behave decently, and to make workers truly free.
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