Copyright 1998, 2015 by Jim Hull

(Please cite the author if you quote from this work)


Recently, NBC "Today" show travel editor Peter Greenberg wrote about a harrowing flight he took on a major airline. No, the weather wasn't turbulent, the engines worked smoothly, and the plane landed safely. The trouble erupted from one of the passengers, oddly enough an off-duty flight attendant. Greenberg put up with her for some time while she harassed him about whether he could keep the drink in his hand, whether he must stow his laptop during takeoff, and - when he protested her intrusions - how he was "arguing with a flight crew member and . . . in violation of the law." Greenberg knew the federal air regulations backwards and forwards; he (and the on-duty flight attendant and the captain) quickly determined he was well within his rights, despite the deadheading employee's angry claims. Overruled by the crew, she stormed aft to the coach section, where she uprooted one of the passengers and forced him to leave - whereupon he took the seat next to Greenberg. In all it was a charming in-flight experience.

She was fired. Then her union filed a grievance. Apparently it's pretty hard, under union rules, to unload an employee unless the behavior is flagrant. When investigators turned up several of the flight's passengers who were eager to testify at the hearing in support of Greenberg, the woman caved. She was, however, not ultimately fired but retired with benefits.

I discussed Greenberg's story with a friend. "That woman doesn't deserve her pension," I groused, and wondered why the union would go to such pains to protect her when she had clearly gone off the deep end. "If EVERY firing gets a hearing - as part of procedure - then it's bureaucracy run amok," I suggested brightly.

Oops! I forgot my friend is a union member, too, and I got dressed down for my attitude. Then Friend allowed, "I sometimes see situations like this where a union may represent someone who even they don't really support. But it's like any situation where the abnormal event is the newsworthy one. The union is legally obligated . . . to provide representation to their membership. If they don't provide it, they're vulnerable to legal action themselves. Over the years I've seen the [union] represent people who had been fired incorrectly. They were right to do it [protest], because the company had not followed appropriate procedures to terminate the union member. "

Fair enough: follow procedures and fewer people will get the shaft. This is one of the areas where unions come in handy.

Friend went on, "I don't think it's reasonable to count on management's generosity."

Good point.

Then Friend said, "But it's like abuse of police power or criticism of the ACLU. It's not the person that's important. It's the rights and principles that are more important."

I started to agree, and then I got to thinking. Is a boss the same as a policeman? Do workers have the same rights with bosses that free citizens enjoy with police?

Unions have fought hard to win the right of review when their workers get fired. It's a matter of contract, carefully worked out over the years between the company and the union. But what about Joe Blow, who toils as an assistant in an office and gets fired one day because he blows up at his boss? He belongs to no union and has no recourse. Is that fair? Shouldn't he have the same rights as union members? Shouldn't ALL workers, in fact, enjoy the same sort of rights?

Stay with me; I'm headed in an odd direction...

In 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted unanimously a
Universal Declaration of Human Rights. "Among the rights cited by the declaration," avers Funk & Wagnall's New Encyclopedia of1994, "are the rights to life, liberty, and security of person; to freedom from arbitrary arrest; to a fair trial; to be presumed innocent until proved guilty; to freedom from interference with the privacy of one's home and correspondence; to freedom of movement and residence; to asylum, nationality, and ownership of property; to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, opinion, and expression; to association, peaceful assembly, and participation in government . . . ." So far so good. This is a sort of Bill of Rights for everyone on Earth.

But wait! There's more: " . . . to social security, work, rest, and a standard of living adequate for health and well-being; to education; and to participation in the social life of one's community." Some of these are rather different rights, for a rather particular reason. I'll explain.

Let's look first at an older example, the Bill of Rights itself. Among its provisions are the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom against "unreasonable search and seizure," freedom from testifying against oneself, and freedom from "excessive bail." These rights are political rights, and they are almost entirely about freedom from undue interference by the government in one's affairs. What's more, exercising them doesn't cost anyone else anything. Oh sure, you may be offended by my silly opinions, but every time I open my trap YOU don't have to fork over. If I go to my favorite church, YOU don't have to pay for it. If I gather a group of friends to discuss whether the president is a schnook, YOU aren't out one dime.

Then there are those other rights enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, such as the rights "to social security, work . . . and a standard of living adequate for health and well-being. . . . " These are economic rights, and they are almost entirely about living standards. At first blush they sound reasonable; after all, who would begrudge a fellow human the right to work or a minimal standard of living? Here's the catch: exercising these rights costs money. Lots of it. It costs a pile of dough to buy or rent a place to live. It costs a stack of lucre for decent health care. It costs a ton of bucks for the mediocre education we hand out to our kids. And it costs a gazillion dollars to uphold "social security," as we in the United States have lately learned.

So: who's gonna pay for it? Will you? Are you prepared to cough up the money it takes to support another person's health care and education and housing and the whole enchilada? Of course not! What an absurd idea! And yet there those economic "rights" sit - melting slightly in the bright sun of economic reality, but still erect - those same rights the United Nations so eagerly adopted a half-century ago. To this day they issue their siren call; will we hie to them?

Beware the rocks and bones that lie that way.

Political rights need nothing from others in their exercise; economic rights demand an outpouring of resources from others. Political rights take from no one; economic rights take from everyone. Political rights are "freedom from encroachment;" economic rights are "freedom to encroach."

When the Universal Declaration was drafted, world leaders wanted to protect peoples and cultures who might come under the gun, as had so many during World War II. That groups be freed from abuse or even slaughter was a high priority, fresh as we were from the horrors of Nazi Germany. Never again, we hoped, would people - such as the Jews - be forced from their homes and businesses and herded into conditions of lethal cruelty and privation.

And so the "right to work" was inscribed in one of the seminal documents of the twentieth century. This "right to work" was a step toward guaranteeing that people had the opportunity to strive productively and would not be forbidden to trade their efforts for other resources. Lately, though, we've gone beyond that notion; there seems now to be the attitude that people are entitled to jobs, and that firing workers is, well, anti-social.

It's one thing for a union to win, through hard bargaining, a grievance procedure that protects against arbitrary firings; it's quite another to suggest that ALL workers have that right. If so, then businesses exist not to profit the owners but as a public trust for the benefit of the workers. In recent years the papers are filled with stories of employees who sue their bosses for unfair termination, and many of those workers have won in court. By now there is a lot of case law that supports the notion that business owners many not fire people without reasonable cause.

Here's a reasonable cause: the owner ought to have a perfect right to choose who works for him because it's his company! He ought to have the right to select whichever resources he can afford in order best to run the business for his own private purposes. Otherwise it's not really a private business, is it? And it's not really the boss's anymore, either: suddenly it's controlled by the employees.

Suppose you happen to hate redheads, and you meet several during a social event. Must you speak to them, on the grounds that redheads have just as much right to your time as anybody else ? Suppose you absolutely love salsa music, and you decide to cancel your subscription to those chamber concerts and start dancing the mambo. The quartets no longer have your patronage; aren't they entitled to a hearing before you dump them?

Who in their right minds would want to go to all the trouble of starting and building a business, merely to tend it as a trustee? Who would want to put their own blood, sweat, toil and tears into a company, only to lose the right to direct that company as they see fit? This isn't about whether a boss can sexually harass an employee; no one has that right in any situation. But if Mr. Jones hates redheads - if they happen to drive him crazy, and he just can't get any work done when they're around - in our society he has no right to remove them from his backroom. His motives may seem petty but, if he can't fire them, does Jones really own his own business? And if Ms. Jenkins should fire someone for making a rude remark, she may find herself on the losing end of a lawsuit. Jenkins must pay taxes on her company's profits, but is it really her firm? If these bosses can't run their businesses their own way - they're not whipping the workers or abusing them, but they would hire and fire at will - why should they bother? Owners need the right to screw up and ruin their own businesses in order to have a chance really to succeed.

I've heard people say, "I don't believe in the 'right to work.'" They then contend that bosses should not be allowed to fire people arbitrarily. What's the difference between that and the "right to work?" If owners must prove positively that terminations are not capricious, then to that degree workers enjoy job security enforced by the courts. If you can't fire someone, that's like being forced to re-hire them against your will. How that differs from the "right to work" escapes me.

Me? I like redheads. So how did all this get started? Oh yes... my friend stated that an arbitrary firing is "like abuse of police power. . . . " This implies that bosses stand in the same relation to workers as police to citizens. Is there a difference? Yes. Citizens own the government; employees don't own companies. Citizens suffer and strive to build their public institutions and thereby earn the privileges of stewardship; entrepreneurs struggle and strain to build their companies and thereby earn the privileges of ownership. Or do they? The prerogatives enjoyed by citizens have expanded from the public into the private sector, so that - despite the fall of communism, despite the Reagan revolution, despite the worldwide triumph of the open-market system - private enterprises have lately lost much of their hegemony over themselves.

The laws of economics will not sit still for this. Owners who cannot choose whom they would as workers have a disadvantage in the marketplace. And even if (God forbid) the government suddenly becomes perfectly efficient and manages to enforce everywhere workers' "rights" to their jobs - thereby making all businesses shoulder this burdon equally - the loss of production would be incalculable. If I must petition for the right to fire a worker, productivity jams up around that employee while the issue is resolved. Further, If I may not fire Worker A, then I cannot hire Worker B - even if I think Worker B is better - because I cannot afford to have two workers for every position. Slowly my company's productivity bogs down.

Union contracts aside, we enforce the "right to work" at our peril. It's easy to presume that business owners are all tycoons who can easily afford the costs of coddling bad workers. In fact, most firms in America are small, and most owners work their little fannies off to make a buck. There are many fewer Bill Gates than there are corner copy shops. But our society persists in thinking we can force stores and offices to absorb workers they don't want.

Centuries ago there was an expression for this way of doing things: "Killing the golden goose."

Employees can remember that success depends, not on the whims of our bosses, but on ourselves. If she doesn't want us to work for her anymore, we ought to go out and find someone who appreciates our efforts. Rights are less important if you know you can always find opportunities. Why waste time harping on rights when - with the same effort - you can obtain better employment? Only when we believe there are no options for us do we try to force others to give us what we doubt we can find for ourselves. But there are always choices; on this planet, in this age of limitless invention and opportunity, the number of choices just might be infinite.

Meanwhile, if you find yourself sitting next to an out-of-control passenger, be sure you know all the legal niceties, because that passenger's lawyer most certainly will. Or better: find another seat... or another airline.


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