« China MiĆ©ville and Guy Gavriel Kay | Main | Snakes and Arrows »

"assault" on corporate speech?

"Free speech" is universally acknowledged in this country to be a good thing, and it seems obvious that it is. Which probably explains why, when George Will wants to attack a proposed rule change making it easier for workers to join a union, he chooses to characterize the rule change that he doesn't like as an "assault on corporate speech." Will suggests by the accusation that the new rules would be un-American or vaguely unconstitutional, but the question for us is: is Will correct?

The House is scheduled to vote on a bill this week that would change the procedure for establishing unionized workplaces. Under the new rules, union representation would be established whenever a majority of workers sign a card declaring that they want a union. Currently, unionizing requires a formal secret-ballot election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board.

I'm far from understanding all the subtleties of these proposed rule changes, but suffice it to say that union organizers think the new procedures will make it easier to organize workers (which is why they support them), and employers agree (which is why they oppose them). There are many arguments that can be made for and against the rule changes -- many involve the extent to which workers would be exposed to pressure from either employers or from union organizers; others involve the benefits and costs to our economy that a more unionized workforce would entail. George Will, however, knowing the power that the idea of "free speech" has in our country, chooses to attack the rule change as an "assault on corporate speech."

We should be suspicious of Will's argument, for many of the same reasons that this sentence of Will's just sounds odd: "[McCain-Feingold's] speech restrictions -- applauded as virtuous by the (exempt) media -- have legitimized talk about "drawing lines" to circumscribe the speech rights of entire categories of Americans, in this case employers."

Employers -- the "category of Americans" that Will has in mind -- apparently includes not just Bob Smith down the block who owns a plumbing supply company, but also PepsiCo and Wal-Mart. It's reasonable to ask whether the virtues of free speech enjoyed by individual citizens and human beings are equally as virtuous when applied to behemoth corporations that are "persons" in a legal sense only. Corporations are constructs formed for the sole purpose of concentrating more capital in one place than any single human being could ever possess, are non-existent apart from the hundreds of thousands of individual human beings that invest in and are employed by the corporation (all of whom presumably have opinions of their own that cannot be said to be Pepsi's "opinions"), and are, to the extent that we can speak of them as single entities, single-mindedly devoted to the pursuit of monetary profit to an extent far greater than any of the real human beings that collectively make it up. You shouldn't expect to reason with a corporation in the same way that you can reason with a human being. You can't "persuade" it like you can persuade the individual who may be its CEO.

It's a simple point, really. It's why we can call the same words uttered by our neighbor Fritz "persuasion," but when they're uttered by the Government we call it "propaganda." One of the reasons Americans love free speech so much is precisely because we think that allowing individuals to voice their opinions protects us from the overbearing influence of messages delivered from on high -- usually by the government. The question is, is "corporate speech" in the context of union organizing more like government propaganda or more like discussing the issues of the day with the lady who waits tables at Bennigan's? George Will may have a good point about the union organizing rules, but his equation of "corporate speech" with free speech generally is much more suspect.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)