THE BLOG

Are Working Amerians Serfs or Citizens?

12/01/2013 10:20 am ET | Updated Jan 31, 2014

In recent weeks there have been two high profile examples of the plight of American workers. The first is the food drives at at least one Walmart store aimed at ensuring that employees had enough to eat over the Thanksgiving holidays. The second is the Hobby Lobby challenge to the Affordable Care Act in which the owners of Hobby Lobby have sought to avoid having to offer health insurance to their workers that includes coverage for contraception and other women's health expenses. That case will likely be heard by the Supreme Court in 2014.

Across the globe workers have been underpaid, exploited and treated poorly for millennia. Today some workers in China and elsewhere toil in conditions that are only a few cuts above slavery, so in this context Walmart and Hobby Lobby are not the worst employers. However, there is still something uniquely humiliating about the way both these firms seek to treat their employees. Moreover, this treatment is corrosive to any system that democratic and based on the notion that all people are equal.

The Hobby Lobby case has generally been framed as being primarily about the freedom of employers to exercise religious views. The freedom of the worker to do whatever she wants to with the compensation she has earned by her work, however, seems to be overlooked in that paradigm. Health insurance is not some kind of largesse bestowed upon workers by generous employers. It is something that employers over a certain size are required by law to provide, like social security payments of a minimum wage. In this regard it is part of the basic compensation package for employees.

Perhaps the owners of Hobby Lobby genuinely believe that contraception is a sin. If that is the case, that is their view to which they are entitled, but it does not give them the right to dictate how their employees live their lives. There are many Jewish or Muslim employers who believe that eating pork is wrong, but while they are free to not offer pork chops in the company cafeteria, they do not have the right to tell their employees that they cannot use their salaries to buy bacon or ham. Freedom of religious is something that is should be respected, but not extended to giving employers the right to dictate very personal decisions to their employees.

It should be noted that nobody is forcing the owners of Hobby Lobby to start a business or grow to a size where they are required to provide health insurance. Compliance with the law, even when it contradicts one's religious beliefs is not always a case of stifling religious freedom. Nor is precluding involvement in certain economic activities for people who hold certain religious beliefs. A complex capitalist economy must pass laws that reflect the will and the needs of the majority of the people rather than the religious beliefs of a very few.

In democracies, employers do not have the right to tell free workers how they can or cannot use their compensation, whether that compensation be money, health care or vacation days. Workers whose freedoms are limited by their employers are serfs, not independent citizens. Allowing companies to limit their workers choices in this way undermines basic freedoms and indeed our democratic system.

The Walmart food drive is essentially a case of a company that has treated workers poorly for so long that they barely notice irony of holding a food drive in a store for the employees of that store. Irony is less important that the reality that many workers at Walmart do not earn enough money to enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner. This, libertarian and conservative rhetoric aside, is about as compelling an argument for dramatically increasing the minimum wage as one can find.

Taken together Walmart and Hobby Lobby point to an America where ordinary workers must fight even harder for their economic and political rights; and where employers continue to push wages down while cutting benefits and seeking to assert more control over what workers due outside of the workplace. Millions of Americans will suffer directly from this, but millions more will suffer from living in a country where the social fabric is under attack from new angles and from where the societal foundations of democracy are being undermined.

More than 30 years ago, Ronald Reagan popularized the myth of the"Welfare Queen" giving rise to new levels of contempt for the unemployed. As has too frequently been true in the 21st Century, the right wing has gone way beyond where Reagan was. Hobby Lobby and Walmart demonstrate that today that contempt extends not just to the unemployed, but for the hard-working poor as well. That contempt and the policies it can spawn are not sustainable for the country, but it is evident this is not going to stop at least some employers from trying.