mourn for the idea of freedom. It's a powerful, great philosophical notion.
Yet too often, I find myself cringing when I hear the words "free" or
"freedom" because the words are used to express truly dreadful selfish,
reactionary sentiments. To wit: A few weeks ago, Chris Matthews, the host of
MSNBC's Hardball, was badgering Howard Dean about unions (in fairness, I
only read the transcript and might have been projecting a brain imprint of
Matthews' foaming style).
Matthews asked Dean, "Do you accept the right of right-to-work states to say you don't have to join a union?" He was demanding Dean declare whether he would do what Richard Gephardt has pledged to do if elected president—eliminate laws that let a minority of people dodge paying their fair share in shouldering the task of getting better working conditions for everyone; in other words, paying dues to the union which has been democratically elected by the majority.
In states with so-called “right-to-work” laws, workers can refuse to pay union dues even after the majority of workers has chosen a union to represent the entire workforce and despite the fact that workplace rights improvements benefit all people at the workplace.
Honestly, Dean had a hard time with the question, suggesting that while he personally did not like "right-to-work" laws, he would leave it to states to do what they saw fit. But, in one clear moment, he also said, "The union is out there negotiating for your wages increases. Why should you get a free ride? Why should you be able to go to work for that company, get the same benefits as everybody else who paid their union dues and you paid nothing?" And a moment later: "...but why should they get the benefits of everybody who is paying dues and get a free ride?"
Matthews responded: "Because it's a free country."
Nonsense. We don't have, nor should we have, a "free country" when it comes to responsibility to assume our individual fair share of the burden of making our society a better place to live. The lesson we learn from Matthews' careless, charitably speaking, comment is that in his America, "free country" is getting something for nothing. Divorced from a discussion about unions, I'm sure that Matthews and others would rail against anyone getting a "free" anything (think of how they would view welfare).
What kind of message does a Matthews-like comment send to young people? On the one hand, we tell children that they have to play well with others, share their toys, do well in school because there's no "free ride" out in the adult world and that they will only reap the benefits of society by putting out some effort (in this case, studying). Yet, in Matthews' "free country," when it comes to union dues, it's "let someone else shoulder the yoke while you glide on the backs of the sweat of others."
If people who were in the minority when the union was chosen by the majority should not be forced to pay taxes, I'm wondering whether Matthews thinks that it's okay for those of us who did not vote for the current president to stop paying taxes? After all, the president is working for all Americans. But why not let the majority pay taxes and let the rest of us pass (okay, the current president wasn't chosen by a majority of people, but let's ignore that technicality)?
The invocation of "free country" as a reason not to pay union dues has two close rhetorical cousins. The first is "free market." There is no such thing as a truly free market. It is an illusion. But as a purely ideological rant, its message is "let each individual do as she or he pleases, with no regard to the effect it has on other people." Of course, in practice, the "free market" benefits those who control the levers of the economy and allows them to reap even more benefits at the expense of most of us.
The other member of this "family" is the very effective attack against taxes waged by conservatives for the past several decades. It is not a far road to travel from Matthews' view that people shouldn't have to pay their fair share toward a workplace safety net to the parallel world of undermining the financial support for our society-wide support system that we use, without always being aware, every day of our lives.
In both cases, inside the workplace and outside the workplace, the messages are: we don't owe each other anything. And in some ways that's the point. When we go to work, we join a community, in the same way we might join a health club—we choose to work at a particular place and there are, and should be, fees that make it possible for the community to thrive, grow and be able to provide benefits for future users. Right-to-work laws are un-American and unpatriotic because they undermine fundamental values of community that have been the bedrock of the nation.
Other Articles by Jonathan Tasini