Corporate Oppression

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Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Sometimes the stupidity of the American people is breathtaking.

Over the past few years, those on the right have issued dire warnings about America turning into a socialist paradise. They claim that Obama and his cohorts are on a mission (Muslim-influenced, no doubt) to take away our sacred rights of freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the freedom to shoot one another from the safety of one’s home. We hear again and again how Obamacare is a badly-disguised ruse to strip us of our freedom to choose whatever incompetent medical professional we want and to deny us our right to pray that the one we choose wasn’t one of the medical professionals responsible for one or more of the 300,000 deaths caused every year through medical errors.

Okay, so I’ve editorialized a teeny bit here, but what I really want to address is the fact that these pundits and politicians actually believe that the Obama government is hell-bent on taking away our freedoms.

What’s so stupid about that notion is that the corporations who pay their salaries or contribute to their political campaigns have already taken away more freedoms than the limited imaginations of those in government could ever conceive.

Corporate health plans now routinely penalize the overweight and the nicotine-addicted by either jacking up their  insurance premiums or by not hiring them at all.Many corporations have personnel policy manuals loaded with rules that deny all kinds of freedoms: the freedom to wear what you want, the freedom to bring your kids or pets to work, the freedom to eat at your desk, and above all, your allegedly inalienable right to freedom of speech.

Although I regularly read the annual polls that tell us that Americans don’t know dick about their history or their form of government, I’m still astonished by the attempts of some employees to assert rights that do not and never have had legal standing in the American workplace. A short while ago, I actually had an employee defend some comments he’d made that amounted to sexual and racial harassment by claiming his constitutional right to “freedom of speech.”

“Have you ever actually read The Bill of Rights?”

“Of course I have!” he replied, lying through his teeth.

“Hmm. Maybe you missed the introduction. The First Amendment says that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. It doesn’t say anything about corporations or other private institutions. Corporations can restrict freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association and freedom of the press within the corporation. They do it all the time. Plus, if you’ve read anything about The Founding Fathers, you’ll remember that most of them were Masons, an organization that has always had strict rules restricting freedom of speech in order to protect their secrecy. Those guys knew exactly what they were doing when they wrote that little phrase “Congress shall make no laws” into the First Amendment.”

I could have gone on to tell him that a corporation’s right to restrict various freedoms is somewhat limited by laws designed to facilitate unionization and by the need to consider an employee’s religious practices in relation to scheduling work, but for the most part a corporation is given a great deal of latitude to do what it takes to manage the business and the people in it. This is why you can’t do certain things in the workplace even if they are First Amendment rights. You can’t tell your boss he’s an idiot or that you’re not going to do the stupid thing he asked you to do: that’s insubordination. You can’t tell someone that their butt looks good in those jeans: that’s harassment. Many corporations forbid wearing religious icons or “offensive” t-shirts with religion-tinged slogans. You can’t publish an alternative newsletter on the company network sharing your belief that the executives are a bunch of no-talent losers. You can associate with others for the purpose of discussing working conditions and the possibility of unionization, but even that right can be limited to specific times and places.

Corporations also have more power to promote social conformity. Despite the press about all the really cool places to work, most companies still have dress codes, fixed work schedules and both rules and norms about how one should behave in the workplace or interact with co-workers. Modern work life imposes a routine; routines become fixed patterns; fixed patterns deaden the brain. At the end of the work day, once you get through a commute that inevitably worsens with the passage of time, the last thing you want to do is think. You want a few hours of escape before the cycle repeats itself the following morning . . . and the morning after that . . . and the one after that.

The worst part of it all is that unlike the government, corporations have real power over you. They control your paycheck. They control whether or not you make your mortgage payment or feed the kids. Of course you’re going to conform, limit your self-expression and behave appropriately—you need the money!

The reason why businesses are allowed to order people around and shut them up in a country that proclaims the inalienable nature of certain rights is because America is a capitalist country first, and a democracy second, third or fourth. Democracy has never really gained a foothold in the workplace, despite various movements and initiatives that fall under the headings of “employee empowerment” and “workplace democracy.” Even those initiatives are pretty limp; I’ve never heard of one that gives the employees the right to vote on who’s going to be their boss or on who’s going to be the next CEO.

I would love to have an intelligent conversation about freedom in America, but such a conversation would force people to look at some fundamental contradictions in American society that people really don’t want to deal with.

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