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The Erosion of Our Rights

Big Brother is Alive and Well … and He’s Signing Your Paycheck!

by DAVID MACARAY

Given the number of appropriate targets out there, it seems unfair, somehow, to pick on someone as innocuous as Howie Long, the Fox commentator and former NFL defensive end.  But because Howie uttered two monumentally stupid statements—either of which, in a perfect world, would cause him to be showered with derision—it’s important that he (in today’s jargon) be held accountable.

The first occurred in 1987.  The NFL players union had just gone out on strike—only the second work stoppage in League history—and picket lines had been set up at team facilities across the country.  Being ideologically-challenged and a bit unclear about the larger picture, Howie decided he’d been on strike long enough, and that it was time to cross the union picket line.  How long had the players been out when Howie decided to turn scab?  One day.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Raiders owner Al Davis had personally urged him to honor the picket line, reminding him that labor-management disputes had their own protocol and that defying the union would only make matters worse.  But Howie crossed anyway.  Despite having not missed a single paycheck and despite a salary that put him in the top one-percentile, Howie’s excuse for turning scab was memorable.  “I have to feed my family,” he said.

His second remark, which occurred a couple years later, was more philosophical, but equally stupid.  After a game which the Raiders lost badly, a reporter asked him how it felt to have hometown fans boo the team.  While acknowledging that it was painful to hear your own fans booing you, Howie added, “At least they can do it without worrying about facing a firing squad.”

Howie’s cultural acuity and knowledge of international affairs must have made the faculty of Villanova University, his alma mater, swell with pride.  Surely, America’s vaunted First Amendment makes it one of the very few countries in the world where people are not routinely taken out and shot for expressing an opinion.

Still, simplistic as this freedom-of-speech notion was, it’s hard to deny that our fundamental rights are, in fact, being threatened.  And what makes these threats so insidious is that, while everyone automatically fears Government encroachment, it’s the private sector that’s leading the charge.  Increasingly, it’s America’s businesses and corporations that are nudging the country toward totalitarianism.

In his new book (“Can They Do That?:  Retaking Our Fundamental Rights in the Workplace”), Lewis Maltby—a civil rights attorney, ACLU activist, and president of the National Workrights Institute—addresses this phenomenon.  Some of his observations are disturbing.

For example, just as an employer can legally enforce a dress code, he can also order you not to display a political bumper sticker on company property.  We may think we have the right to free political expression, but, clearly we don’t….not when an employer can fire us for having the “wrong” bumper sticker on a car sitting in the company parking lot. 

Maltby cites the case of an Alabama woman who was fired for refusing to remove a “Kerry for President” sticker from her car.  He points out that because the U.S. Constitution was designed primarily to apply to citizens vis-à-vis the government (and not to corporations), people can be “legally” fired for self-expression and personal choice.  The courts give businesses an enormous amount of leeway.

According to Maltby, employers routinely monitor employee e-mail and telephone calls. While listening in on personal (as opposed to work-related) calls is illegal, employees generally have no way of knowing when it’s being done and when it isn’t.  Again, the courts give corporations enormous latitude in these areas.  And how many people are willing to risk their job by accusing an employer of something they can’t prove?

The same goes for personal and confidential medical information.  During pre-employment physicals employers can glean information that causes an applicant to be rejected.  A person could have an exemplary work record, with perfect attendance, but be disqualified because something suspicious on their medical record spooked the company.  The applicant never learns about it because employers aren’t required to explain why they didn’t hire you.

It’s been reported elsewhere that employers have used grocery store “club cards” in litigation cases.  Because certain club cards keep a cumulative computerized record of what we buy and when we buy it, an employer will, for example, try to prove that an employee’s regular purchases of alcohol is evidence of alcoholism. 

As a former labor union rep, I heard of employers attempting to link alcoholism to employee accidents in workers compensation claims—purely on the basis of innuendo.  Next, we can expect health insurance companies to deny claims on the grounds that the claimant’s clogged arteries were self-inflicted, the result of regular purchases of pork sausage—a “life-style choice” verified by computer records. 

Cigarette smokers are already treated as pariahs.  It used to be that a big, prominent tattoo would keep you from getting hired.  In today’s competitive job market, try getting hired when you identify yourself as a smoker.  And, as farfetched as it sounds, the day could come where a Green hybrid-driving boss “legally” fires an employee who insists on driving an oversized gas-guzzler.

A civics question:  Which is scarier:  government censorship or poverty?  Put another way, Which would matter more to the average citizen:  Losing his First Amendment right to burn an American flag in protest, or losing his job?

The extent to which America’s corporations dominate our lives is staggering.  As important as personal liberty is—as fundamental as the rights guaranteed in the Constitution—economic necessity tends to flatten everything in its path.  As Howie Long himself pointed out, we all need to feed our families.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor” (available at Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble, etc.) He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net