The idea of the United States of America was born during the Age of Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries). The great philosophers of that time challenged the divine right of kings by enunciating a new theory for the social order. Their theory was articulated by the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), who claimed that man originally was born in a state of nature where he had the absolute rights of life, liberty, and property. Thus, when Thomas Jefferson presented the Continental Congress with the document that would lay the foundation for our government and society, the Declaration of Independence, he included one of the most eloquent and oft quoted statements in the English language:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”
In essence, this one profound statement gives all Americans rights that cannot be taken away by any legal authority. The greatest of these rights is the right to property, which includes an individual’s body as well as possessions he/she has toiled to produce.
So, where is this treatise headed you might ask?
This Friday is Black Friday in the United States and to protest the labor practices of mega-retailer Wal-Mart, some of its employees are planning nationwide walkouts. On the busiest shopping day of the year in the U.S. supposedly 1000 picket lines are expected at Wal-Mart stores across the country. Specifically, the activism is meant to draw attention to what strike organizers call Wal-Mart’s “retaliation against employees who speak out for better pay, fair schedules and affordable health care”.
Now, there is no question that Wal-Mart employees are entitled to freedom of speech, guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, just like all other Americans. And they have enjoyed that right by virtue of the fact that none have been imprisoned or worse for speaking out against their employer. But, this action by disgruntled Wal-Mart employees has really nothing to do with freedom of speech; it has everything to do with property rights.
In the employer-employee relationship, the employer has property rights to the business which includes, the buildings, inventory, and all other aspects of the enterprise (i.e. good will) not seeded to another entity. This also includes the paid positions made available to the public by the company. In this same relationship, the worker has property rights to his/her labor.
This arrangement is consistent with the right to property proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. A right which includes an individual’s body as well as possessions he has toiled to produce (in this case the business enterprise) and is the reason why the hiring process includes the worker filling out an application, meeting to be interviewed, and negotiating an employment contract. Consequently, the right to one’s labor is an indispensable property of the individual. But the job that he sells his labor to perform is the property of the business. Thus, the right to a job doesn’t exist because that would be a violation of the property rights of business owners.
Now, I realize there are such things as anti-discrimination laws, collective bargaining laws, and other acts of government which grant workers the right to employment and job security. But, they violate the unalienable right to property guaranteed first in the Declaration of Independence and then in the U.S. Constitution. They are also egregious representations of how far we have strayed as a nation from our original ideals of liberty.
If Wal-Mart employees are unhappy with their working conditions, they have a right to petition their employer within the confines of their labor contract. If their grievances are not met, the choice before them is to either continue to honor their labor contract or resign. The founding principle which gave birth to American liberty requires this.