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Rights vs. profits


Two of the core conflicts at the heart of American identity and character were played out publicly last week in Charlotte, in very different ways. The conflict between individual freedoms and the rights of money-makers, which has been written about for more than 200 years — most sharply in Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy In America -- found an unexpected battleground in an Uptown pizza restaurant. Meanwhile, the conflict between the common public good and the concerns of moneymakers popped up again in the latest struggle over our city's tree canopy.

Americans have both freedom of expression and reverence for moneymaking flowing through our veins. According to our national narrative, those two things work together, fostering freedom-loving citizens who start new, entrepreneurial ventures. Conflict between those two "rights," however, rears its head when workers speak out about their work or their employers. In our history, support for one right over the other has swung back and forth in different eras. But in the past 20 or so years, American employers have increasingly tried to control employees' behavior and speech, to the point that the practice has become old hat.

The view that supports businesses' control over employees assumes that a business owner's capacity for moneymaking is more important than a worker's right to gripe (or use recreational drugs, or take sides on controversial issues, on his/her own time). That view has become the predominant one in much of the country, as was made clear last week in the case of Ashley Johnson, a 22-year-old waitress at Brixx Uptown, who got mad about a couple who had left her a paltry tip after they'd monopolized a table for three hours. Johnson went home, and then told friends about the inconsiderate couple, whom she called "cheap piece of shit camper(s)," on her Facebook page. Hey, it's a free country, right? Well, apparently not. The folks at Brixx fired Johnson for violating its policy against speaking disparagingly about customers and "casting the restaurant in a negative light on social networks."

We criticized Brixx's management in a couple of news blogs, which brought a slew of reader comments along the lines of "Johnson knew Brixx's policies when she started working there ...," or, "In North Carolina, employers can fire employees for any reason they want, so Johnson is just S.O.L." My point, however, is that, while acknowledging that Johnson is, legally speaking, out of luck, that is not how it should be. In fact, I'd love to see the courts deal with the issue, and start swinging the pendulum back in favor of employees' rights.

To this writer, human rights are more important than any employer's touchiness or even his/her profit margin. Sure, Johnson's Facebook post could conceivably affect Brixx's bottom line. But here is another and, I feel, more critical bottom line: Employers are not feudal lords or plantation owners, and employees are not company possessions. That view runs contrary to the nation's currently popular belief in the primacy of moneymaking over individuals' rights; but so be it, because it's also a view that is as old as the Bill of Rights.

Also last week, many Charlotteans were shocked by a new report that the city has lost a third of its tree canopy since 1985 -- a stunning loss for a city that has always prided itself on its abundance of trees. Those losses are partly the result of new roads, parking lots and the like; but by far the biggest culprits are developers who routinely scrape away more trees than are needed for their exciting new shopping centers, office parks and cookie-cutter housing developments.

The City Council's environment committee is considering changes in Charlotte's tree protection. Nancy Carter, a member of the committee, told The Charlotte Observer that a goal of "no net loss" of trees is very possible, and that public support for preserving more trees "is becoming a groundswell." Let's hope Carter is correct, because local developers, the darlings of local government for as long as anyone can remember, are already bellyaching that the preservation of more trees will cost too much. How you see this issue depends on where you come down in the conflict between the public good and moneymakers' profits. To some folks, such as this writer, preserving Charlotte's tree canopy is almost infinitely more important than a developer's profit margin. Other people, namely most conservatives, come down on the side of business interests, or, as my dear grandfather would have put it, "the almighty dollar."

This "business over the common good" attitude doesn't just happen in Charlotte, of course, as we've seen lately from the investment banking racket ... I mean, industry and BP, not to mention from the mind and mouth of Rand Paul, the new GOP/Tea Party U.S. Senate candidate from Kentucky. Paul, a true libertarian ideologue, landed in a big pile of controversy when he said the 1964 Civil Rights Act shouldn't keep private businesses from discriminating on the basis of race, and later decried President Obama's criticism of BP as "un-American."

As Americans, we love our freedoms, and rightly so, but when those freedoms, or the common good, come up against the interests of business, we are too often willing to let individual rights, and the public welfare, slide in favor of the almighty dollar. And that is literally inhuman.

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